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Why is Sweden deporting skilled foreign workers?

Professionals from countries outside the EU rely on work permits to stay in Sweden, but restrictive rules mean that many are ordered to leave the country through no fault of their own. The Local explains why this has been happening.

Why is Sweden deporting skilled foreign workers?
File photo of a Swedish tech company office. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

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Article published in 2018.

What's the issue?

Hundreds of skilled foreign workers have been deported or are facing deportation from Sweden after the Swedish Migration Agency refused to extend their work permits. In many cases, the reason for the rejection is a small or minor error, often relating to a previous job or something which has since been fixed. This has become known as 'kompetensutvisning' (roughly 'deportation of talent') in Swedish.

It's not only a major problem for the affected professionals, who are likely to have put down roots in Sweden during the time spent working here, but also for the Swedish economy which relies on foreign talent to plug skills shortages.

READ ALSO: 'I'm being deported because I didn't take vacation, but Sweden is my home'

Why has this happened?

The short answer: bureaucracy.

The long answer: Back in the early 2000s, Sweden had a lot of restrictions around labour migration, with strict quotas for different professions based on government assessments of where the labour shortages were. These were relaxed significantly in 2008, so that anyone from outside the EU could move to Sweden for work if they could find an employer there.

But some employers used the looser rules to exploit foreign workers – who might be more willing to put up with poor working conditions, or might simply find themselves without any other options in a new country. There were very few checks on employers and seasonal berry-pickers faced particular problems, with scandals reported each year.

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

To rectify this, the Migration Agency was given power to carry out checks on employers, who had to offer workers pay and conditions in line both with Swedish industry norms and the initial contract offered to the employee, and from 2014 onwards it has been able to revoke work permits if employers haven't complied.

After a 2015 decision from the Migration Court of Appeal, the Migration Agency interpreted cases on an increasingly strict basis, leading to many deportations even when both the employee and employer had done as much as possible to adhere to the rules. The assessments also started applying retroactively, pushing up waiting times for decisions and meaning it was possible to be deported over a past mistake, even if the employer had since rectified it or if the employee had since moved jobs.

How many people are affected?

It's hard to say exactly, but the number of deported foreign professionals is in the hundreds.

In 2017, more than 1,500 people had their work permit extensions rejected. It's not possible to say how many rejections were due to minor errors, but the number is well over double the figures for the previous four years.

READ ALSO: Sweden needs to do more for its international workers, report argues

These workers face having their lives in Sweden uprooted, and the issue is also having a clear effect on physical and mental health, according to initial results of a study this year. Almost all of the 237 respondents said the work permit renewal process had affected the health of them and their family, with close to one in three reporting stress and one in five reporting feeling depressed.

Between January and mid-April in 2018, 990 decisions in work permit renewal cases were made, with 83 percent of these (820) approved and only 88 rejected. This appeared to be a positive trend compared to 2017's average of 125 rejections per month.

Has anyone done anything about this?

Yes, but it's been slow progress.

In December 2017, the Swedish Migration Court of Appeal ruled that Migrationsverket's decision should be based on an overall assessment of each case, rather than allowing single, small errors to derail an application. This went into effect immediately and was hailed a landmark ruling for work permit holders.

There have been several successes since: an Iraqi man facing deportation for failing to take sufficient holiday was allowed to stay in Sweden, and a Syrian computer programmer was able to return to her Stockholm job following her deportation to Greece.

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

The government had been working on a new work permits law to address the problem too, but said this was no longer necessary after the December ruling. An earlier law change means workers should not be deported over mistakes in their paperwork if these mistakes are corrected before they are picked up by the Migration Agency. This is only likely to be relevant in a small percentage of cases though, since many of the minor errors aren't picked up before the agency's assessment.

In the meantime, multiple groups are campaigning for more support and clearer rules for work permit holders. The non-profit public interest law firm Centre for Justice has taken on several work permit cases; the Work Permit Holders Association represents the affected individuals; and the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce and CEOs of multiple companies in the tech industry have highlighted the damaging economic implications. 

And publications including The Local have worked to bring the issue to public attention. A Swedish MP submitted a formal parliamentary question about a sales engineer facing deportation due to a former employer's error, which he learned about by reading The Local. The MP said the case proves that a legislation change is still needed, even after the December ruling.

I'm worried about my work permit status. What can I do?

Speak to your employer as soon as possible if you are a non-EU worker in Sweden on a work permit and have concerns.

Your company should be able to help you with the paperwork for your permit extension and to make sure things like the correct insurance plans are in place. You can also read up on the rules for work permits on the Migration Agency's website, and get in touch with them if you have a specific question.

If you do spot a mistake – a missing insurance policy, an inconsistency in vacation or salary, or so on – don't panic. The December 2017 ruling means that a small error shouldn't automatically lead to a work permit being revoked. Try to speak to your employer to fix the error if possible, and ask the Migration Agency for advice.

Revealed: How many work permits Sweden has granted so far in 2018, and to whom

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For members


EXPLAINED: What do we know so far about Sweden’s new ‘talent visa’?

In the new work permit law which comes into force on June 1st, Sweden is launching a new nine-month 'talent visa', which will allow “some highly qualified individuals” to get temporary residency while they look for jobs or plan to launch a business. What do we know so far?

EXPLAINED: What do we know so far about Sweden's new 'talent visa'?

When was the law passed and when does it come into force? 

The parliament passed the new law on April 21st, and the final text of the change in the law was published on May 5th. It will come into force on June 1st. 

What does the new law say about the ‘talent visa’? 

It says that “in certain cases”, a temporary residency permit can be granted to a foreigner who wants to “spend time in the country to look for work or to look into the possibility of starting a business”. 

To qualify the applicant must: 

  • have completed studies equivalent to an advanced level degree 
  • have sufficient means to support themselves during their stay and to cover the cost of their return trip 
  • have fully comprehensive health insurance which is valid in Sweden 

How long can people initially stay in Sweden under the talent visa? 

The residency permit will be valid for a maximum of nine months.

Which agency will assess applications for the talent visa? 

The government has decided that applications should be assessed by the Migration Agency. The Migration Agency will publish more details on the requirements, such as what qualifies as an advanced degree, what documents need to be submitted, and how much capital applicants will need to show they can support themselves, in the coming weeks. 

The Migration Agency is also likely to develop a form for those wishing to apply for the talent visa. 

What level of education is necessary? 

What is meant by an “advanced degree” has not been set ou in the law, but according to Karl Rahm, who has helped draw up the law within the Ministry of Justice, a master’s degree (MA or MSc), should be sufficient. 

How much capital will applicants need to show that they have? 

According to Rahm, the amount of money applicants will need to show that they have is likely to be set at the same level as the minimum salary for those applying for a work permit, which is currently 13,000 kronor a month. If he is right, this means that someone applying for a nine-month visa would have to show that they have 117,000 kronor (€11,259) in saved capital, plus extra for their trip back to their home country.

READ ALSO: How will the new work permit law just passed in Sweden affect foreigners?

Can applicants bring children and spouses? 

“You will not be able to bring your family with this kind of visa, since the idea is that it’s for a relatively limited amount of time,  just to see if there is employment for you, or if there is a chance of starting a business,” says Elin Jansson, deputy director at the Ministry of Justice, who helped work on the new visa. “And if you do decide to stay in Sweden, then you apply for a regular work permit for starting up a business, and then you can bring your family.” 

Where will detailed information on the requirements for a talent visa be published? 

The Migration Agency will publish detailed requirements on the talent visa on its Working in Sweden page when the law starts to apply on June 1st. 

What is the reason for the talent visa? 

Those searching for a job or researching starting a new business in Sweden can already stay for up to 90 days with a normal Schengen visa. The idea behind the talent visa is to give highly educated foreigners a little longer to decide if they want to find a job or set up a business in the country before they need to go the whole way and launch a company. 

How many people are expected to apply? 

In the government inquiry on the new work permit law, experts estimated that about 500 people would apply for the new talent visa each year, but it could end up being either much more, or less. 

“It’s really hard to tell. There could be a really big demand. I don’t think it’s anyone can really say before this comes into effect,” Jansson said.