New arrivals need more than a ‘pat on the head’

With Sweden just days away from enacting the most sweeping reform of its integration policy in 25 years, newly installed Integration Minister Erik Ullenhag of the Liberal Party explains how the new policies will help confront Sweden's integration challenge.

New arrivals need more than a 'pat on the head'

Every morning around 600,000 people who were born in another country go to work. They pay tax and to a great extent sustain the welfare state. Sweden has throughout history been open for people and for cooperation with other countries.

It has made our country richer and I am proud that we have taken our responsibility and shown solidarity, providing a safe haven for people who have fled persecution. But at the same time as many who have come to our country have been successful, we should be clear in the fact that we have significant challenges for integration.

Successful and efficient integration is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Therefore, on December 1st, the government is implementing one of the largest overhauls of Swedish integration policy in 25 years.

People who flee war or serious societal shortcomings do so to seek a better and safer future for themselves and their families. They expect to contribute to society – not to live on welfare.

Today, it takes seven years for the average refugee to find work after they’ve received a residence permit. After three years in the country, only 30 percent of refugees have work. Foreign-born have a 20 percent lower employment rate than the general population, results in school are worse, and there are entire neighborhoods that are in a downward spiral.

It’s a waste of resources and indicative of serious problems in how their initial time in Sweden is organised. The model for receiving newcomers that we’ve had for a long time has not worked; that’s why we are now reworking the reception of new arrivals.

It’s the system that has had the clear shortcomings, not the individuals who have come to Sweden.

Swedish integration policy has struggled with two main problems.

First, the policy has been characterized by too much handholding. Refugees and immigrants have been treated as weak individuals, although it is often the most driven people who leave their homelands. This is most clearly demonstrated by the fact that, until a few years ago, there was a work ban for those who were asylum seekers in our country.

Second, the policy failed to take into account that those who have come here are different and have different qualifications, backgrounds, dreams and motivations. The policy has not been sufficiently individualised but instead was created on the basis that all immigrants have been in need of the same support. We have had Swedish language classes for immigrants with standards that are too low and that in many cases haven’t taken into account people’s different circumstances and backgrounds.

The establishment reform, which comes into force on December 1st this year, breaks the handholding mentality and is clearly focused on ensuring that the newly arrived find jobs and learn Swedish quickly. It is therefore very surprising that the Social Democrats have shown themselves willing to try to stop the funding of key elements of the reform.

Freedom of choice, individually tailored initiatives, and more stakeholders are important elements of the new reform. But we also need to change the perception people have of those who leave their country to seek protection and refuge in Sweden. They do not need a pat on the head; rather, they need professional support so that they can, as quickly as possible, learn Swedish, establish themselves in the labour market, and take advantage of the opportunities, rights and obligations that apply in Sweden. Thus, the reform is based on the individual’s needs, but also underlines clearly the individual’s own responsibility for their future.

The reform’s main parts are:

*From day one, new arrivals will be met by efforts to find them work, instead of being taken in by social services. As a result, Sweden’s Public Employment Service (Arbetsförmedlingen) will take over responsibility from municipalities for coordinating these efforts that will lead to jobs and self sufficiency.

*Individualised efforts from day one. Shortly after a new arrival is granted a residence permit, he or she will meet a representative from the Public Employment Service for a conversation about their establishment in Sweden. Questions about where in the country the new arrival’s skills are needed and what the pathway to work looks like will be discussed early on in order to find a match in both the housing and job markets. The conversation will serve as the basis for a customised establishment plan consisting of individualized efforts.

*Establishment compensation is general and equal for everyone regardless of where in the country the new arrivals live. The compensation is individual and is paid when newcomers actively participate in establishment initiatives – to get the full compensation, the new arrivals must participate in Swedish language classes and other programmes described in their establishment plans. The individualised compensation can lead to greater gender equality through the compensation not being affected by other household income. Pro-work policies are also evident in the system – it is possible to work alongside the establishment reform inititiatives without compensation being reduced.

*New arrivals will be assigned an establishment guide to support them during their early time in Sweden. Compensation for the guide is performance-based, which means that the guide also has an interest in seeing the new arrivals find work and support themselves as quickly as possible. New arrivals will be able to choose a guide themselves.

*Societal orientation classes will be introduced as a compulsory part of new arrivals’ establishment. The purpose of the course is to provide a basic understanding of Swedish society, how it works and what it means to live and reside in Sweden.

Erik Ullenhag

Sweden’s Minister for Integration

This article was first published in Swedish in the opinion section of the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper on November 17th, 2010. Translation by The Local.

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Swedish Iranians complain of ‘drastic drop’ in visas for relatives

Iranians living in Sweden are complaining that relatives are no longer being granted visas to visit, causing pain and heartbreak for one of Sweden's most established immigrant communities.

Swedish Iranians complain of 'drastic drop' in visas for relatives

“This has affected our community very greatly,” Kamran Chabokdavan, spokesperson for the Swedish-Iranian interest group, or Intresseföreningen för Svensk-Iranska frågor, told The Local. “There’s so many people who are feeling depressed or mistreated.”

He had planned to marry his Swedish partner in 2019, but has still not been able to as his parents have not been able to get a visa to come to Sweden, despite visiting, and returning back to Iran several times before. 

“If it was the first time that my parents came here, then it would be more reasonable to say that we cannot be sure that you will go back,” Chabokdavan, who works as a vet in Gothenburg, said. “But if the person has been here ten times before, and suddenly you decide to reject the application, that is a little bit odd.” 

The group now has 2,000 members on Facebook and has contacted the embassy in Tehran, Sweden’s foreign ministry, and MPs in two of Sweden’s political parties, who Chabokdavan said had promised to raise the issue in their parties and to the government.

Chabokdavan told The Local that many Iranians were suffering from the shift to a stricter visa policy. 

“Another member in our group had a sister who was a late-stage cancer patient at the hospital, and her parents couldn’t come here to say goodbye to her.” 

Rozita Akrami, a data scientist at Ericsson, also a group member, has collected data showing that Sweden is now the worst country in the Schengen area for giving visiting visas to Iranians, with only 35 percent of visa applications by friends and relatives of citizens accepted. 

She claims there was a “drastic drop” in the acceptance rate, from 55 per cent in 2018 to 35 percent in 2019, with France accepting 75 percent of visa applications from residents’ relatives that year and Switzerland 79 percent. 

“It seems that the Swedish embassy in Iran has decided to apply stricter criteria, which are really, really unclear,” Chabokdavan said. “It’s really not clear what’s the criteria is here, or why they are rejecting so many documents.” 

In a judgement from last week, the Migration Court ruled that the tougher approach taken by the Swedish embassy in Tehran was justified by a recent rise in the number of Iranians granted visas to Sweden who had then decided to stay and apply for asylum.  

“The embassy further notes that in recent years hundreds of Iranian citizens have applied for residency in Sweden after travelling in on a visa that had been granted,” the court said, justifying its decision to reject an appeal. 

“The embassy can point to the Migration Agency’s reports that a several of these people had had been granted visas previously, even several visas. As a result, visas previously awarded are not a strong indicator of an intention to return.” 

In its judgement, it also noted that sanctions against Iran had resulted in a “severely worsened economy”, with “high unemployment and a weakened currency”, while also pointing to growing “repression of religious minorities” and “imprisonment of political dissidents”. 

In a letter to the embassy in Tehran the group complained that there was no mechanism to replace documents rejected by the Swedish authorities, or to send in missing documents. The group also called for clarity on how applicants’ economic situation was assessed and how relevant it was, and called for the embassy to publish its official statistics from 2015 to 2022. 

“This is about parents who have lived for 60 to 70 years in their homeland and visited Sweden several times while always leaving the Schengen region before their visa has expired,” they wrote. 

Chabokdavan said that in some of the rejection letters, applicants had been told that the worsening economic situation in Iran made Sweden’s authorities worried that visiting relatives would not now return. 

Other rejection letters, he said, had stressed that just because the applicant had visited Sweden and then returned home to Iran many times before, did not mean that they could be relied upon to do so again. 

He said that it was unclear what documents would be enough to prove how well established and tied to Iran the visa applicants are. 

Iranians, who came to Sweden both after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, are one of Sweden’s most successful migrant groups, with 60 percent getting a university education, and many working within universities, or in high skilled professions.   

“These are people who are really established in Sweden by their job or their studies,” Chabokdavan said. “And their parents usually have a strong, economical base in Iran, otherwise, they couldn’t get this kind of visa from the beginning.”

The Local has contacted the Swedish foreign ministry and the embassy in Tehran for comment.