Opinion: Swedish bureaucracy is slowing down integration

Opinion: Swedish bureaucracy is slowing down integration
Fingerprints being registered at a Swedish Migration Agency office in Solna. Photo: Marcus Ericsson/TT
If Sweden is serious about integrating refugees then the country needs to have the courage to question its systems and structures, writes Bengt-Olof Petersen.

My wife and I live in a detached house which has a small additional space for guests to live in. Shocked by the images from the war in Syria, we decided to rent it to a refugee. For just half a year “T” has lived at our house, he is 27 and has a master's degree as an agronomist. T is a very positive person who quickly learned Swedish and is now progressing with a course in Swedish as a second language in order to transfer his qualifications.

But this story will be about T's brother “M”, who is also positive and energetic. He is bit older, is a pharmacist and ran several pharmacies in Syria before he and his wife decided to flee. They saw no future for their children in Syria. Their research showed that Sweden was the European country where children are given the best opportunities.

To cut a long story short:

In May 2014, M came to Gothenburg after fleeing through Europe, was registered by the Swedish Migration Agency (Migrationsverket), and sought asylum. After two weeks M had already been granted a residency permit for five years. He had all of his documents in good order. After receiving a Swedish personal identity number (personnummer) he was able to request family reunification. After just over a year his wife and two children were granted a residence permit.

His roommate from Syria at the residence for asylum seekers had more luck, and was given a residence permit for all of his family straight away. M of course wondered how the outcome could be so different.

At first M lived in Migrationsverket's properties and was promised help finding his own home, a promise which was later reneged on. Having your own residence is required in order to start an introduction plan (an etableringsplan as it is known in Swedish is a Swedish Public Employment Service plan designed to help get newcomers in the country into work).

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M bought a postal address for 500 kronor per month and was able to start studying Swedish at Swedish for Immigrants (SFI). The goal was to have his qualifications as a pharmacist validated and then be able to support himself. After two months, M’s Swedish was so good that he could start a six month language training course (språkpraktik – a Swedish training program which provides language training along with work experience) at a pharmacy.

During his time in Sweden M has experienced his studies being delayed when he changed municipality in order to get a permanent address, how Swedish authorities messed up the processing of residence permits and completely unnecessarily forced him and his family to travel to the consulate in Istanbul with expensive borrowed money in order to re-initiate the process. He has been handed the blame by the public employment agency (Arbetsörmedlingen) and had his training position withdrawn because he interrupted it in order to do the said needless journey.

He has applied for an advertised position as a language assistant at Migrationsverket – M can speak five languages – but never received any kind of answer despite two interviews. M has been forced to apply for a CSN loan (student loan) for his Swedish studies and was made instantly liable for paying it back when he finished the course in half of the time, while his friends in the same situation have continued to receive activity grants (aktivitetsstöd) or had their introduction plan extended.

M is keen to keep up his skills – he found a training position at a pharmacy himself – but Arbetsförmedlingen wasted his chance. The next sticking point is validating M’s qualifications. Here it is a requirement that you have to certify all of your qualifications in Swedish in one sitting, but with English language course materials. How many Swedish students would pass that?

During his time in Sweden M has had four different caseworkers at Arbetsförmedlingen, which hasn’t made his establishment in Sweden easy. Rather, Arbestsförmedlingen has quashed his efforts. Caseworkers are difficult to get a hold of, and every visit is like starting from the beginning. In the end Arbetsförmedlingen has ultimately become a bureaucratic hindrance which has to be navigated in the smoothest way possible.

We are given the strong impression that there are case workers who have an attitude problem when it comes to refugees. Communication is top-down, where threats and reprimands are forthcoming. Letters from Arbetsförmedlingen that we have seen often have factual errors and are so poorly constructed that even I and my wife who are both academics cannot work out what is being said.

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M’s story raises a number of questions:

How can we treat refugees with the same background and conditions in such a different way?

Should it be coincidences or luck which decides the way a person can establish themselves in Sweden?

For refugees the question of justice is central, that’s natural given their threatened situation. Our welfare state is built on citizens’ confidence in being treated justly, the so-called “social contract”. Immigrants are often accustomed to erratic decisions by authorities in their homelands. It is therefore crucial that immigrants are met with a consistent and foreseeable treatment from authorities here so that their confidence in the welfare state is established as quickly as possible. Simple and clear rules that are enforced strictly are much better than a patchwork of rules that are difficult to process.

M's story is that of a well-educated person who has no other desire than to as quickly as possible pay his dues and become a part of Swedish society. How can it be that we don't actively support this kind of person, but rather, build up different administrative hindrances? Arbetsförmedlingen is beginning to look more and more like a fossil from a planned economy whose role must be strongly questioned.

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If we're serious about welcoming refugees to our country and helping them to integrate in our society we must have the courage to question our structures, system and attitudes in the cases where they hinder integration.

This is a translation of an opinion piece written in Swedish by Bengt-Olof Petersen that was originally published by Göteborgs Posten.