Foreign PhDs ‘won’t give up’ residency rights fight

A group of foreign PhD students have said they will continue their fight for new rules to ease their path to permanent residency in Sweden, despite the defeat this week of a parliamentary motion in favour of the move.

Foreign PhDs 'won't give up' residency rights fight

“We won’t give up,” Shiva Habibi, a doctoral candidate at the Royal Institute of Technology (Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan – KTH) in Stockholm, told The Local.

Habibi, along with two other PhD candidates at KTH, launched an online petition earlier this year to gather support for a parliamentary motion calling for new residency permit rules for non-European countries.

In just a matter of weeks, the petition garnered more than 3,000 signatures from people supporting permanent residency for foreign doctoral candidates.

A parallel campaign on Facebook urged people to write to members of the Riksdag in an effort to build support for a change that would give foreign PhD students the same opportunity for permanent residency offered to other labour migrants who come to Sweden.

“This is something that PhD candidates spend a lot of time discussing and we thought it was time to take action,” Habibi said of the decision to start an online petition.

The grassroots campaign came on the heels of a parliamentary motion, put forward last autumn by Karin Granbom Ellison of the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet), which called on the government to adopt new rules that would make it easier for PhD candidates from outside the EU/EES-area to stay in Sweden upon completing their doctorates.

Currently, foreign PhD candidates complete their programmes on student residency permits meaning that, despite having jobs and paying taxes, none of the time they spend in Sweden obtaining their doctorates counts toward the four-year residency requirement which is a prerequisite for seeking permanent residency in Sweden.

By contrast, other labour migrants can apply for permanent residency directly after having spent four years living and working in Sweden.

“As soon as we start our PhD programmes, we are employed by the universities. We pay taxes, we work, but after four or five years, we still aren’t any closer to gaining permanent residency,” Habibi explained.

“If we end up getting hired by a company in Sweden, we end up having to start the whole process over again.”

The motion by Granbom referenced findings from a 2011 government inquiry on circular migration which proposed creating a new class of residence permit specifically geared toward PhD candidates that would give them the same rights granted under labour migrant work permits.

“Today, it’s unnecessarily difficult for doctoral candidates who come from outside the EU/EES-area to stay in Sweden after completing their doctorates,” the motion read.

“This is a huge waste of both competence and millions of kronor in Swedish tax money which is invested in their doctoral education.”

According to Habibi, the current rules put Sweden’s position as a popular destination for bright, foreign-born researchers at risk.

“Sweden is investing all this money in our education, but risks losing that investment because people may not end up staying,” she said.

“We’re the kind of immigrants Sweden should want. We’re highly educated, we want to stay, but we feel like we’re valued less than other immigrant workers and no one knows why.”

On Wednesday, Granbom’s motion was debated in the Riksdag along with several other bills related to labour migration.

But despite what Liberal Party MP Ulf Nilsson called “widespread” support in parliament for making it easier for foreign PhD students to gain permanent residency in Sweden, the motion was defeated.

Nilsson sits on the social insurance committee which initially took up the motion and explained that PhD candidates shouldn’t lose faith simply because the motion didn’t pass.

“It’s important to note that the committee said it was positively inclined toward the changes,” Nilsson told The Local.

“But as the government is currently preparing a broader piece of legislation which includes this along with many other labour migration-related issues, it was voted down.”

Nilsson explained that motions submitted by individual MPs rarely pass in the full chamber, but are meant more as a way to put pressure on the government by drawing attention to a particular issue.

“I’m convinced this will happen, but it will take some time,” he said.

“It’s regrettable that it’s taken the government so long to act, but this is a complex issue.”

According to Nilsson, foreign PhD candidates hoping for changes to rule regarding their path to permanent residency in Sweden will likely have to wait “at least until next year”.

Despite the setback, Habibi said she and her fellow PhD students have been encouraged by the support they’ve received thus far.

“The fact that we got 3,000 signatures really says something,” she said.

“We’re not exactly sure what our next move will be, but we certainly aren’t going give up on our efforts.”

David Landes

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INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.”