Immigration For Members

In depth: Why is Sweden deporting its foreign professionals?

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
In depth: Why is Sweden deporting its foreign professionals?
L-R: Danyar Mohammed, Fredrik Bergman, and Tayyab Shabab. Photos: Centre for Justice and Claudio Bresciani/TT

UPDATED: International workers have been hard hit by bureaucratic residence permit rules. The Local takes a closer look at why Sweden needs to act before it's too late.


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Indian developer Rameez Hussain had been living in Sweden for seven years when the Migration Agency said it could not renew his work permit due to a small error committed by a past employer.

Hussain tells The Local the decision to deport him was "disappointing, unsettling and unpleasant", but not a surprise. His colleague at engineering consultancy Dynamo, Tayyab Shabab, had received a similar decision almost a year earlier, and they are just two of many. 

Over the past two years, the Migration Agency has been so strict in its decisions over work permit renewals that a legal framework put in place to facilitate recruitment from outside the EU has instead made life for these foreign professionals extremely unstable. The tech sector has been particularly hard hit by the deportations, as it's an industry where an acute skills shortage, in Sweden and the European Union as a whole, has meant significant recruitment from further afield, but workers in industries ranging from construction to care have also been affected.

In Hussain's case, there were two main reasons for the rejection: a previous employer had failed to pay all of the necessary insurance policies for the duration of his employment, and when he changed jobs in 2014, his application for a visa extension was sent in late. The 2014 visa extension had been granted, but because of new rules introduced since then, the latest extension was rejected.

"It did not feel good to realize that my life in Sweden was potentially being uprooted," says Hussain. However, he adds that he had been expecting this outcome ever since Shabab's visa extension was rejected over a similar technicality – a previous employer had failed to take out occupational pension insurance on his behalf.

Tayyab Shabab pictured in his former workplace. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

Shabab fought the decision, launching an appeal. His past employer explained that he couldn't buy the insurance at the time, because Shabab didn't have a personal number (Swedish social security number) when he first arrived, and he paid for the insurance in retrospect. The fight to prevent the developer's deportation was backed by huge names in the tech world including Spotify founder Daniel Ek, and provoked an online petition signed by more than 10,000 people. But the Migration Court affirmed the original decision, and earlier this year Shabab left Sweden for Berlin, having exhausted all the options for appeal.

After seeing what happened to Shabab, Hussain chose not to appeal his own case, and instead returned to his native India. He hopes to submit a new application and rejoin Dynamo, where he would be "very very welcome", the company's CEO has said. Due to the Migration Agency's regulations, however, he is unable to do this until after a six-month 'cool-down' period, leaving him in limbo.

'You can't trust the system'

As well as creating practical problems for the individuals directly affected, deportations of skilled workers have a huge impact on the companies they work for and, by extension, on the Swedish economy.

Jörgen Eng, Dynamo's CEO and Shabab and Hussain's former boss, says the deportations and worry of preparing for the visa renewal process are "a major factor on morale". His company's employees represent over 20 nationalities, many of them from outside the EU and therefore dependent on work permits.

"There's always at least one person in the midst of some sort of renewal process, living in this uncertainty every day, and it's a terrible thing to worry about. As an employer we spend a lot of time and energy trying to help out," he says. But this time and effort comes to nothing when, as in Shabab and Hussain's cases, the reasons for rejection relate to a previous employer.

Eng says it is "frustrating and surprising" that the widespread media coverage of Shabab's case and repeated calls for action from companies, unions, and other groups have not yet led to change.

"It's so obviously unfair that it's not the party who committed the error who is punished, and it's hard to reconcile that with the image many people have of Sweden as a beacon of justice and individual rights," he says.

Rameez Hussain. Photo: Private

It's not only the loss of individual talents like Shabab and Hussain that is hurting Sweden, but the message that is being sent to workers abroad, who may choose not to apply for a job in the Nordic nation. "We know that this is happening; there are discussions on forums, people are talking to their friends; people are discouraging others from seeking employment in Sweden, because you can't trust the system," says Eng.

Johan Wiklund, CEO of marketing platform Clipsource, echoes Eng's words. He says his non-EU employees know of people who have left Sweden for places such as Canada and Germany, with more lenient rules for skilled foreign workers.

One Clipsource employee, Rashid Khan, had his work permit extension denied because of a temporary job he had taken on while studying in Sweden. Because the job was part-time on top of his degree, he did not reach the 13,000 kronor monthly threshold, and it was for this reason that his permit was not accepted – even though it likely would have been if he had not worked at all while studying.

Like Shabab and Hussain, Khan left Sweden. He is now working for Clipsource from Pakistan, which Wiklund says is "not an optimum solution" due to time differences and occasional problems with communication. If Khan is not able to come back, the CEO says recruiting a replacement will be difficult. "Sweden is a tech country and we already have issues finding people, whether you're one of the big companies like Spotify or a small company like us," he explains.

So far in 2017, a total of 1515 people have had their work permit extenstions rejected, according to Migration Agency figures seen by The Local. That’s more than double the figures for the previous four years, which ranged from 653 to 683, and the sectors hardest hit are service, care and sales (accounting for 460 of the rejections), technicians (439), specialists (184) and workers in the construction and manufacturing industry (129). Only around 4-5 percent of appeals are successful.

According to the agency, the most common reasons for rejection are "substandard working conditions, a failure to meet the maintenance requirement, or a lack of employer". While it's impossible to say how many of these cases are due to minor errors, separate analysis from the Work Permit Holders Association suggests that the vast majority of foreign professionals have fulfilled around 90 percent of the requirements.

This seems counter-productive, because Sweden wants to attract foreign talent – and it does. The country is internationally-minded: Swedes are among the best non-native English speakers worldwide and legislation introduced in the 1990s to increase competition saw foreign ownership of Swedish companies soar.

With plenty of globally-known brands, tech giants, and innovative startups, the bright work prospects make up for the long, dreary winters and draw more than 3,000 foreign workers to Sweden each year. Labour migration has been a key factor behind Sweden's growth, and the workers affected by strict rules over work permit extensions are typically well-integrated into Swedish society.

Exploited berry-pickers

So why has Sweden started deporting so many of them? Paradoxically, legislation introduced with the aim of making it easier to recruit non-EU professionals is the source of today's problem. Before 2008, a restrictive framework for labour migration meant that quotas were set for migrant workers, based on assessments of labour shortages carried out by Sweden's Public Employment Agency.

But under new laws introduced in 2008, any professional from outside the EU was welcome to come to Sweden, provided they could find an employer. The new, more streamlined process was intended to make it easier for employers to recruit workers with the necessary skills, rather than be restricted by quotas.

Some employers, however, used the increased lenience to exploit employees. Such scandals were unearthed each year, with seasonal berry-pickers the most high-profile victims.

Berry-pickers in Sweden. Photo: Jurek Holzer/SCANPIX

"The system was too permissive and there were no proper controls on employers. People were brought to Sweden under false pretences by employers who didn't give them the salary or working conditions they were promised," Åsa Odin Ekman from The Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO) tells The Local.

As a result of this, the work permit system was made more restrictive, with the Migration Agency given the power to carry out checks on employers to ensure that the agreed conditions were being fulfilled. In 2014, the agency was given the power to revoke work permits if this was not the case.

"If the original problem [of exploitative employers] had been solved differently, we'd be in a different situation today," says Odin Ekman. "The government legislation didn't give migrant workers more rights but focused on introducing more controls and is very strict, which is why it's interpreted in a restrictive way."

But Fredrik Bergman, Chief Legal Counsel at Sweden's Centre for Justice, a non-profit public interest law firm, argues that it is not the legislation that is the problem, but how the Migration Agency interprets it.

Under current legislation, deviations from the original terms agreed in the work permit can result in deportation. This can happen if workers are paid below the maintenance requirement of 13,000 kronor (about $1550) per month, for example, or if they work in a role which wasn't advertised by the Swedish Public Employment Service. These rules are in place to ensure foreign workers receive the same rights as Swedes, and in the latter case, to ensure that EU citizens have equal opportunity to apply for jobs in Sweden.

The interpretation of these rules became stricter following two decisions from the Migration Court of Appeal in 2015. In one case, the employee had been paid below the 13,000 kronor maintenance threshold for half of his two years in Sweden; in the other, he had been paid below 13,000 kronor for the entire four years he had been there. The court of appeal barred both workers from receiving a work permit extension and permanent residency, respectively.

"These were pretty reasonable cases," says Bergman. "The whole point is that these permits are based on getting a salary you can support yourself on, so if that's not fulfilled, it undermines the whole purpose of the system."

Fredrk Bergman. Photo: Centrum för rättvisa
Fredrik Bergman. Photo: Centre for Justice

But after these decisions, the Migration Agency began to interpret cases on an increasingly strict basis, deporting people over deviations from the agreed terms even when the employer and employee had done their utmost to follow the rules.

For example, the agency assesses salary on a monthly rather than annual basis, meaning that even if the worker's average monthly salary was well above 13,000 kronor, a one-month dip could be enough for a rejection. This can occur in companies offering flexible hours, or where holiday pay (semesterlön) is paid out as a lump sum once a year, meaning a lower salary for the months employees are away. Non-EU workers may save up vacation to take a longer trip back to home countries a long way from Sweden, leading them to fall below the salary threshold in these months, even though it's made up later.

And as well as revoking work permits in cases where workers have been paid the maintenance threshold, it has also done so in cases where more minor aspects of the collective agreements have not been met each and every month, such as vacation rules, insurance, and salary. This applies even when the difference is small and corrected retroactively, as in Danyar Mohammed's case.

What's more, since 2015 applications have been assessed retroactively, a change which has pushed up waiting time for permit renewal decisions and resulted in many more deportations. It's not possible for employers to retroactively solve any errors, and issues are often detected late, since the paperwork doesn't have to be submitted for initial permit applications.

'No legal basis'

The Migration Agency itself has said that it bases its decisions on a strict application of the law and these decisions, which leave it with "no possibility of doing things in a different way". But Bergman argues that the Migration Agency has given the Migration Court of Appeal judgements a broader interpretation.

"There is nothing in the law saying the Migration Agency is obliged to deport people based on small mistakes," says Bergman. "They've taken the two cases from 2015 as the sole legal basis for this strict approach, and my opinion is that those decisions don't give them a sufficient basis for this. So it is not correct for them to say they're only following the law. They are following their own interpretation of the law, which is now being challenged in court."

The Centre for Justice has taken on several cases relating to work permits, and a judgment from the Migration Court of Appeal relating to a chef in northern Sweden is expected before the end of the month.

Danyar Mohammed is a pizza chef in the town of Jokkmokk, where he has lived for eight years. He speaks Swedish, volunteers at a local accommodation centre for asylum seekers, and is a well-known figure in the town where he hopes one day to open his own restaurant. But last spring, Sweden's Migration Agency ordered Mohammed to leave the country.

Mohammed was paid 460 kronor (about $55) below the monthly salary agreed in a collective agreement – a set of working conditions including salary and hours which are agreed between employers and trade unions. These agreements are regularly updated, and Mohammed's employer didn't notice the latest adjustment for a few months. Once he did, he immediately raised Mohammed's salary and compensated him for the back pay, but in the eyes of the Migration Agency this made no difference. The chef was told to leave Sweden.

With help from the Centre for Justice, Mohammed appealed the decision at Malmö's Migration Court. That court upheld the decision, but the four judges were split, and the case is now under review by the Migration Court of Appeal. Its decision is expected before the end of the month, and if the court rules in Mohammed's favour, it will trigger an immediate change in how work permits are handled – and prompt a sigh of relief from the thousands of foreign workers affected.

"I don't want to jinx anything, but the fact that the court chose to hear Danyar's case gives us hope," says Bergman from Sweden's Centre for Justice. There is no right to appeal decisions from the migration courts, and the Migration Court of Appeal only chooses to hear cases where there is a likelihood of setting a new precedent.

Since the problem stems from the law's interpretation rather than the policy itself, Bergman says, "the body which should fix that is the court", rather than the government. 

But other groups have called for the government to change its labour migration policy.

Stopping the deportation of foreign workers should be "the highest priority for politicians", according to Charlotte Olsson from the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce. The Stockholm Chamber of Commerce was one of the first groups to raise awareness of the problem and over the past year has had continuous contact with politicians, the Migration Agency, and affected companies in an effort to help resolve the situation.

Charlotte Olsson. Photo: Stockholm Chamber of Commerce

"It's an extremely urgent situation; a tragedy. The labour shortage in Stockholm has now reached its highest level in ten years, so we know that companies are dependent on attracting and retaining employees with the right qualifications and there's no doubt that Swedish competitiveness has deteriorated due to this," Olsson says.

"Sweden needs these individuals more than they need us, and if companies can't retain these crucial people, they will have to plan other alternatives, for example moving their offices to other parts of the world."

Olsson has called for an amnesty on the deportations until a long-term solution is agreed, and says individuals who come to Sweden, pay taxes, and boost the economy, need "a thank you, not a deportation order over a minor mistake".

'Legislation takes time'

So why hasn't a solution been found?

It's unclear why the Migration Court of Appeal did not choose to hear any work permit cases until earlier this year, but the government has also been working for change. Justice and Migration Minister Morgan Johansson announced in March that he would appoint a commission to review the rules around labour migration.

"It has taken a really long time for the government to act on this," says Odin Ekman from TCO. "But legislation does take a long time and it's really hard. We also have to bear in mind the other risks, such as returning to a system where employers have too much leeway not to live up to the terms they promised. The debate has moved very quickly between two extremes, and the system has to be based on the fact that employers are going to be held accountable."

The government will on December 1st propose legislation allowing employers to correct errors – but only if this was done before they were flagged by Migrationsverket. In practice, this would leave many cases unaffected, and the government has also ordered an inquiry to suggest alternative legislation to deal with the limits of this proposal. That report is due to be presented by the end of the year, but any legislative change from that report is unlikely to come into effect before summer 2018.

Swedish government announces inquiry to tackle deportations of foreign workers
Justice Minister Morgan Johansson. Photo: TT

Frustrated with this slow pace, in September Sweden's opposition parties launched their own proposal, calling for the Migration Agency to be more flexible and make a decision based on cases as a whole, as well as amending the text to say that deviations from the agreement 'may' rather than 'must' result in deportation.

But that proposal has now been withdrawn over concerns that it could have negative consequences for labour migration.

The Swedish Confederation of Professional Associations (Saco), one of Sweden's three major trade confederations, and its member union The Swedish Association of Graduate Engineers (Sveriges Ingenjörer), were against the proposal put forward by the Alliance.

"Changing just these two words would give it a very broad application, which could interfere with our demands for foreign workers to have the same level of rights as Swedish workers, and could have conflicted with other parts of the law," Agneta Bern from Sveriges Ingenjörer tells The Local. "We hope the new investigation will give a better protection and better guarantee of rights – it is very valuable to have these workers and we have been lobbying the government and collaborating with the government investigation and with the Migration Agency to discuss the problem."

'Communication gap'

Meanwhile, campaigners have warned that the amendment set to be voted on on December 1st will not solve the problems people are currently facing.

Rafiqul Islam, secretary of the Work Permit Holders Association (WPHA) tells The Local that a "communication gap" between the affected foreign workers and policy makers was to blame for the shortcomings.

"We are the target group, but we have never been given the chance to have dialogue with the policy makers, to explain what we really need in the policy to protect us," says Islam. "A protection policy has become a tool of mass deportation.There is a misconceptions and information gap about the real image, value and the personal realities of immigrant workers in new labor market, in a new country among the stakeholders."

Islam adds that "only proper communication and dialogue can bring adequate solutions". The group has recently handed over its findings to legal experts at the Migration Agency and also wants to meet Migration Minister Heléne Fritzon to help work on a practical solution.

Until then, however, Sweden's thousands of foreign professionals will be hoping for good news in the case of Jokkmokk chef Danyar Mohammed.

UPDATE: On December 13th Sweden's migration appeals court ruled that Danyar Mohammed should be allowed to stay in Sweden. The verdict was hailed as a landmark ruling that could put an end to deportations of foreign professionals over minor mistakes.


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