Work permit success! Syrian tech star back in Sweden after deportation threat

A Syrian refugee who was deported to Greece under the Dublin Convention has been granted a work permit and is back at work as a computer programmer in Sweden.

Work permit success! Syrian tech star back in Sweden after deportation threat
Safinaz Awad, in the purple shirt, celebrating with her colleagues. Photo: Sweet Systems

The Local wrote about Safinaz Awad, 32, in January, after the Migration Agency rejected her request for asylum and told her to leave the country. The reason? She had previously received asylum in Greece when she first arrived in Europe after fleeing war-torn Syria, which meant she could not re-apply in Sweden.

“It's sad because if she had applied for a work permit from the beginning, I don't see why it would have been a problem for her to come to Sweden,” a Migration Agency spokesperson told The Local at the time.

Awad's employer – Stockholm-based IT company Sweet Systems – helped her temporarily return to Greece with her husband and three-year-old son from where she applied for a work permit.

In the meantime, the company also made headlines after it published a strongly worded open letter to Sweden's migration minister and business minister attacking the decision

Their stubbornness paid off and the story has a happy ending. Last week Awad was told her work permit application had been granted, and she was back in the office on Monday with no time to waste.

“It's great that I could come back. I didn't expect to get a positive decision because there have been so many negative decisions,” a delighted Awad told The Local. “I want to make a good life for my son in Sweden.”

“There have been a lot of tears and champagne,” added Sweet Systems' chief executive Bodil Ekström.

“I am so happy both for Safinaz' family, but also that we could help someone in this situation and that we got her back because she's so valuable to us.”

Awad was the latest in a succession of skilled tech workers threatened with deportation from Sweden, with some decisions being overturned by appeals courts and others choosing to pursue a career elsewhere.

Their stories have sparked heated debate in Sweden in the past year – partly because it is an industry where the Nordic country is fighting to plug a skills gap in the labour market and partly because of the seemingly unfair nature of many of the deportations.

Ekström said her company was not afraid to continue hiring foreign workers. “We're hiring more people from abroad as we speak. Even if it takes six months to get it right, we'll do it. We're also recommending other people to make their way here, simply because we need them and their skills,” she told The Local.

Awad's case is somewhat different to that of many of the other tech workers; the debate has so far largely centred on work permit renewals being rejected over bureaucratic mistakes, often made by the employer.

A government-commissioned inquiry earlier this month suggested that labour migrants should be able to ask for compensation from their employer if they are denied a residence permit due to the employer's error.

Reactions to the proposal from Swedish business organizations have been negative. Employers' association Almega called it “misguided” and said it would not stop deportations, while the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise said the real problem is that the rules over work permits are not clear enough.


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EXPLAINED: Why is it taking so long to get work permits in Sweden?

The Migration Agency is currently taking much longer than its target to process work applications for foreigners employed by so-called "certified operators". What's going on and when will the situation return to normal?

EXPLAINED: Why is it taking so long to get work permits in Sweden?

How long are work permits taking at the moment? 

The Migration Agency told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper in a recent article that in the first half of September the average work permit decision for those who have been hired by so-called certified operators — basically a fast-track for big and trustworthy companies — had taken an average of 105 days, while under its agreement with these companies, it is supposed to take only ten. 

The agency told The Local that this number, though correct, was misleading as the number and timing of applications varies so much from month to month, which is why it prefers to take an average over a longer period. 

According to tables provided to The Local by the agency, it has so far this year taken an average of 46 days to handle a first-time application for a work permit by an employee who has been hired by a company that is part of the certified operator scheme. This is nearly three times as along as the average of 19 days it took in 2021. 

Work permit extensions for employees at certified companies have taken 108 days so far this year, up from 43 days in 2021. 

First time work permit applications outside the certified employer scheme have taken 121 days so far this year, which is actually less than the 139 days it took in 2021. Extensions outside the scheme have so far this year taken an average of 327 days, up from 277 in 2021. 

According to the calculator on the Migration Agency’s website, 75 percent of first work permit applications for people in industries that are not considered high risk are currently completed within three months, and 75 percent of work permit extensions are completed within 14 months. 

For first-time work permit applicants who have been given jobs by or through a certified company, the agency also estimates that 75 percent of applications are processed “within three months”. 

What’s the problem? 

According to Fredrik Bengtsson, the agency’s director for Southern Sweden, who is also responsible for processing work permits, the agency has received far more applications in 2022 than it had predicted at the start of the year. 

“So far this year we have already received 10,000 more applications than our prognosis,” he told The Local. 

New rules which came into force on June 1st have also significantly increased the workload, particularly a new requirement that those applying for work permits already have a signed contract with their future employer. 

“That meant that tens of thousands of ongoing cases needed to be completed,” Bengtsson said.  

The new law also meant that instead of simply having to simply meet a minimum income requirement to bring over spouses and children, work permit applicants also needed to prove that they could support them and supply adequate housing. 

“With the new law, we need to do a much more fundamental analysis of the employee [‘s financial situation], if they want to bring their family,” he added. 

Although the agency has reduced the number of its employees from around 9,000 immediately after the 2015 refugee crisis to about 5,000 today, Bengtsson said this was something decided on by Sweden’s government in the annual budget, and was not directly linked to the current staff shortages, or to the pandemic as some have reported. 

Wrong-footed by war in Ukraine 

While the agency had been aware of these changes in advance, warned about them in its responses to a government white paper, and recruited more staff in anticipation, Bengtsson said that that the war in Ukraine had diverted resources, meaning that at the time the new law came into effect in June, the work permit division lacked sufficient staff to handle the additional workload. 

What is the agency planning to do? 

The agency is still recruiting and moving more staff to the division processing work permits.

It is also increasing the use of digitalisation, or automated systems, to process work permit applications, although there are limits under the law meaning that parts of a work permit decision still need to be made by case officers. 

The new requirement to assess applicants’ ability to support their families has made digitalisation more complicated, Bengtsson said: “As soon as we need to make judgements, we can’t digitalise”. 

He stressed that the agency was still managing to process work permits within the four-month time limit given to it under law. The ten-day goal was just “a service we offer companies”, he added, and was not something the agency was mandated to achieve. 

“We are working full out to bring down the processing time again, but it is possible that we won’t be able to return to the processing times that we had before,” he said. “We may have to say, we can only do it in a month, but we will have to see how it is with the new laws for a few more months, and then we’ll take a decision.” 

In the longer term, Bengtsson predicted that if the labour market test or a much higher minimum salary for work permit applicants is brought in, as seems likely in the coming years, this would speed up processing times. 

“There will be fewer applicants, and it will be easier for those big companies hiring people with a higher education level to get work permit,” he said.