“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.”