Opinion: ‘So I’m not THAT type of immigrant? I’ve heard that before’

What if you have lived in a country for ages, but still aren't seen as an 'integrated' immigrant? American political science PhD candidate Ian Higham writes about his worries for the election.

Opinion: 'So I'm not THAT type of immigrant? I've heard that before'
Who knows what arbitrary cultural traditions I must memorize, asks Ian Higham. Photo: Izabelle Nordfjell/TT

For the third time in my life, I am an immigrant. I moved to Sweden in 2015 to work as a PhD candidate in political science at Stockholm University. As an immigrant closely following the Swedish election to be held on Sunday, I can't help but remember 2012.

I was living in London at the time and working on a master's degree at the London School of Economics. The Conservative Party won the general election in 2010, at which time I had been studying in Denmark. The Tories pledged during their campaign to cut immigration to the UK “from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands”.

Theresa May became Home Secretary and was therefore responsible for turning this campaign promise into policy. Voters heard “immigrant” and thought of Muslim refugees bleeding the welfare state dry, of hearing Polish in the queue at Waitrose, of Sharia courts proliferating in Birmingham. But refugees are difficult to expel from a country for practical, legal and moral reasons, and EU migrants (pre-Brexit) could not be legally deported.

Everyone said, “But you're American. You will be allowed to stay. There's always a fast track for Americans. You're not a 'real immigrant.'” Fast forward to July 2012 and me sobbing at Heathrow Airport, holding a one way ticket to New York.

In order to deliver on their promise, the Tories in 2012 cut the post-study work visa – a Blair-era policy that encouraged graduates from British universities to stay and look for work in the UK. Without this visa, there were few realistic options for skilled migrants to remain in the UK absent unlimited personal wealth. I applied for more than 300 British jobs, and having a master's degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the country qualified me for an interview for precisely zero. Not one. Many companies sent me auto-reject e-mails when I ticked the “needs sponsorship for a residence permit” box on applications. The same was true for every non-EU student I knew at LSE.

Now we have a fresh election coming in Sweden. The Social Democrats want to restrict labor migration to fields with a government-determined “shortage”. The (so-called) Liberals and Moderates want to impose language and culture exams on people like me who want to stay and work in Sweden. The current immigration rules allow me to apply for permanent residence next year. If the right wins, I may not get it. If the left wins, am I guaranteed to be able to stay with my employer?

In addition to working as an instructor and researcher at the university, I work with a consulting firm where I help global companies to enter the Swedish market and Swedish companies to grow and hire domestically. I am young and healthy, paying into a pension system from which I am not guaranteed to benefit. I do all of my work in English, not Swedish. I have dozens of close friends, who are the main reason I want to stay in Sweden. But for three of the mainstream political parties – and one on the far right – I may not, apparently, have “integrated” into Swedish society. I speak some Swedish, but my ability to pass a stringent language exam is not assured. And who knows what arbitrary cultural traditions I must have memorized in order to pass a culture exam.

For less skilled migrants, there are still a ridiculous amount of obstacles to integration and to work that have nothing to do with language. The byzantine and ascetic housing system that imposes segregation is the biggest, but many other factors most Swedes never have to consider play a part. Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) courses are over-subscribed (in my SFI class, there were around 80 students), allowing little chance for many people to learn fluent Swedish. Private language courses, especially in the major cities, are very expensive.

There is also the issue of restrictions on qualifications that making working – and getting to work – unnecessarily difficult for immigrants.

It can cost more than 15,000 kronor to get a Swedish driving licence if one needs courses to pass the notoriously difficult Swedish driving exams; non-EU licences are invalid after the first year of residence. Canadians who have been driving for 30 years in their home country would be considered less qualified than a Swedish teenager with a learner's permit. How are refugees expected to pony up thousands of dollars to learn a skill they already have for a job they barely want?

A Harvard doctorate in clinical psychology is worth less than a Swedish university's bachelor's degree for mental health professionals. And if you do work in a field with transferable qualifications, it can take months –  even years – to process the transfer. Yet the Liberals and Moderates rail on about language exams and cultural assimilation as the only path to work, while the Social Democrats insist that the government knows better than employers who to hire.

Immigrants contribute enormously to Swedish society – and those who don't often want to, but can't. Swedes keep telling me, “You'll be fine. You're educated and American. You're not THAT type of immigrant.”

Well, I've heard that before, and it's bullshit.

Ian Higham lives in Stockholm and is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Stockholm University and a public affairs consultant with Crimson Clarke.

Member comments

  1. The point of this article? Seems like a lot of whining about political parties all over the scale, no recognition of programs that this and previous governments have put in place to address some of the very specific issues raised, and offers no ideas on how to solve any of the gripes.

  2. Yes the previous governments may have done a lot programs to improve the situation but you can’t deny that a new anti immigration party is gaining grounds by making anti-immigration and anti-Islamic promises. The article
    Seems to suggest that auch promises can’t be easily realized and any anti immigration government will execute policies that will affect all immigrants irrespective of their “integrated” status or where they come from. In other words there is no such as an integrated immigrant as far as the government is concerned.

    The debate about immigration is being handled very badly by all parties in my opinion. I think they everyone here in Sweden seems to have accepted a distorted understanding of the terms “immigration” and “integration” and I think the author is trying to point out just that.

  3. And yet, countries are entitled to impose whatever hurdles and restrictions they choose, no matter how many dozen friends a would-be immigrant may have there. The US and many countries in Europe are waking up to the fact that they have, so far, imposed too few restrictions, not too many. It’s sad for you but, hey, it’s their country.

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Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.