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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

This article is available to Members of The Local. Read more Membership Exclusives here.

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


What are my rights while I wait for my Swedish residence permit to be extended?

Many foreigners living in Sweden need to have a residence permit to live in the country legally. Permits are issued for two years at a time and can be renewed 30 days before expiry, at the earliest. But with waiting times exceeding 8 months for many applicants, just what are your rights while you wait to hear back?

What are my rights while I wait for my Swedish residence permit to be extended?

Can I keep working in Sweden?

It depends. If you have a residence permit which allows you to work in Sweden, have held that residence permit for at least six months and apply for an extension before your old permit expires, you still have the right to work in Sweden while you wait for the Migration Agency to make a decision on your permit application.

You can apply for a new residence permit 30 days before your old permit expires, at the earliest, and you can’t get a new residence permit before your old one has run out.

Can I leave Sweden?

Technically you can, but it might not be a good idea. This is due to the fact that if you leave Sweden after your residence permit has expired, it can be difficult to enter Sweden again before your new permit is granted, even if you can prove that you’ve applied for a new one.

In the worst-case scenario, you could be denied entry to Sweden at the border and forced to wait in another country until your new residence permit is granted. 

If you find yourself in this situation, you can, in some cases, apply for a national visa allowing you to re-enter Sweden. These are only granted under exceptional circumstances, and must be applied for at a Swedish embassy or general consulate in the country you are staying in. If you are not granted a national visa to re-enter Sweden, you can’t appeal the decision, meaning you’ll have to wait until your residence permit is approved before you can re-enter Sweden.

The Migration Agency writes on its website that you should only leave Sweden while your application is being processed “in exceptional cases, and if you really have to”.

It lists some examples of exceptional cases as “sudden illness, death in the family or important work-related assignments”, adding that you may need to provide proof of your reason for travelling to the embassy when you apply for a national visa to re-enter Sweden.

What if I come from a visa-free country?

If you come from a visa-free country, you are able to re-enter Sweden without needing a visa, but you may run into issues anyway, as visa-free non-EU citizens entering Schengen are only allowed to stay in the bloc for 90 days in every 180 before a visa is required.

If you are a member of this group and you stay in Schengen for longer than 90 days without a visa, you could be labelled an “overstayer”, which can cause issues entering other countries, as well as applying for a visa or residence permit in the future.

The Migration Agency told The Local that “a visa-free person waiting for a decision in their extension application can leave Sweden and return, as long as they have visa-free days left to use”.

“However, an extension application usually requires the individual to be located in Sweden,” the Agency wrote. “Travelling abroad can, in some cases, have an effect on the decision whether to extend a residence permit or not, in a way which is negative for the applicant, but this decision is made on an individual case basis (it’s not possible to say a general rule).”

“The right to travel into the Schengen area for short visits is not affected, as long as the person still has visa-free days left.”

The Local has contacted the Migration Agency to clarify whether days spent in Sweden count towards the 90-day limit, and will update this article accordingly once we receive a response.

Does this apply to me if I have a permanent residence permit?

No. This only applies to people in Sweden holding temporary residence permits. If you have a permanent residence permit and your residence permit card (uppehållstillståndskort or UT-kort) expires, you just need to book an appointment at the Migration Agency to have your picture and fingerprints taken for a new card.

How long is the processing time for residence permit renewals?

It varies. For people renewing a residence permit to live with someone in Sweden, for example, the Migration Agency states that 75 percent of recent cases received an answer within eight months.

For work permit extensions, it varies. In some branches, 75 percent of applicants received a response after 17 months, others only had to wait five.

This means that some people waiting to extend their residence permits could be discouraged from leaving Sweden for almost a year and a half, unless they are facing “exceptional circumstances”.

You can see how long it is likely to take in your case here.