Coronavirus travel chaos: Thousands of foreigners apply for temporary permits to stay in Sweden

Applications to extend a stay in Sweden have increased sharply in the past couple of months, as foreign residents report getting stuck in the country for various reasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sweden's Migration Agency received 1,403 applications for a visitor's residence permit in March and April, according to figures reported by Swedish radio broadcaster SR's news show Ekot on Wednesday.

That compares to 292 such applications in the same period last year.

Applications for visa extensions also rose to 2,021 in March and April this year from 518 last year.

The most common home countries among those applying to temporarily extend their time in Sweden are India, China, Ukraine and Thailand, according to Ekot's report.

It is not known how many of these have got stuck in Sweden due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions in their home countries, Sweden or elsewhere, but they are likely to make up a large part of the increase. The figures also do not show how many of these are applications from people who had always intended to leave Sweden during this time, and how many are people whose work permit renewal has been rejected.

The Migration Agency has previously warned that layoffs during the coronavirus economic crisis may adversely hit foreign work permit holders, who would then have three months to find a new job or risk losing their permit. When The Local approached the Swedish government to ask whether any temporary laws were being put in place to mitigate the situation, we were told that there were no such plans in the pipeline.

So what should you do if you are trying to leave Sweden but cannot?

A visitor's visa can be extended for a maximum of 90 days, but due to the uncertain travel situation, the Migration Agency writes on its website that it advises people who are unable to travel home due to the corona situation to first apply for a visitor's residence permit instead of extending your entry visa.

“This means you do not have to first extend your entry visa and then possibly also have to apply later for a visitor's residence permit,” it writes. “If you apply for a visitor's residence permit before your entry visa, your entry visa-free time or your current visitor's residence permit has expired, you have the right to remain in Sweden until the Swedish Migration Agency has made a decision.”

“If you have another permit that is about to expire, do not intend to extend this and have planned to leave Sweden, but cannot leave due to travel restrictions, you can apply for a visitor's residence permit.”

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OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend showed how Sweden’s third party, the far-right Sweden Democrats, has shaped Swedish politics since the last elections four years ago, argues David Crouch

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

In the build-up to the 2018 elections, the world’s media descended on Stockholm, expecting a breakthrough by the Sweden Democrats (SD) who had been polling as high as 25 percent. In the end, SD took third place with around 18 percent of the vote.

Four years later, SD are hovering at around the same level in the polls. However, Swedish politics has been utterly transformed, as the other main parties have moved onto political terrain previously occupied by SD.

This would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. When they first entered parliament, SD were treated as political pariahs, a racist party, held at arm’s length by the other parties who refused to cooperate with them in any way.

Attempts to bring the SD into the mainstream of Swedish politics fell flat. The leader of the centre-right Moderates lost her job after suggesting it was “time to stop demonising” the SD. Her replacement, Ulf Kristersson, said he would neither negotiate nor govern with them. After the elections, two smaller centre-right parties – the Centre and the Liberals – agreed to prop up the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to prevent the SD gaining any influence in parliament.

It was clear, however, that the only chance for the centre-right to govern would be with SD support. After all, in Finland and Norway right-wing populist parties had entered government with the centre right. And in Denmark, the centre-right had governed with populist support. If it worked there, why not in Sweden?

In early 2019, the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson famously had meatballs for lunch with Ebba Busch, the leader of the tiny Christian Democrats, who acted as a bridge-builder. A few months later, Kristersson met the SD leader for the first time in his Stockholm office. By early 2021 the cordon sanitaire dividing the parties had been truly dismantled, and in the autumn the three parties presented a joint budget.

Meanwhile, the Moderates stepped up their rhetoric against immigration and crime. But perhaps the influence has worked both ways? Maybe the far-right have toned down their policies, compromising with the centre so the parties can work together?

On the contrary, Åkesson and other leading SD figures have stoked up the fire and brimstone in their anti-immigrant message. For the SD, the problem is dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries whose values conflict with Sweden’s and who should therefore be deported.

The response among the Moderates – and also the governing Social Democrats – has been a deafening silence.

After the Easter riots in six Swedish cities, the Social Democrat government proposed a package of coercive measures to help the police and social services crackdown on criminals.

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend brought this out very clearly. More than that, it showed how the Sweden Democrats have shaped Swedish politics since the country last voted four years ago.

In the debate on Sunday, prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about being tough on crime and boasted that Sweden now has one of the strictest immigration regimes in Europe.

It was left to the Green Party (polling 4 percent) and the Centre Party (6 percent) to challenge the SD on immigration. They pointed out that the violent minority is tiny, and that tens of thousands of recent immigrants hold down jobs, obey the law and contribute to Swedish society.

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf listed some of the SD’s more extreme proposals, including demolition of high-immigration neighbourhoods, dawn raids on refugees, and collective punishment for crimes committed by a single family member. This was “pure racism”, Lööf said – where were the “red lines”, beyond which the centre-right would turn against the SD?

All the parties agree that segregation along ethnic lines has gone too far in Sweden, that integration efforts have failed and that something must be done. But there is a paucity of bold ideas that could really make a difference.

Immigration will once more be a battleground at the elections in September, with key politicians competing to be the toughest in dealing with unruly “foreigners”. Meanwhile, the underlying problems that have fuelled disaffection among people with immigrant backgrounds are unlikely to be addressed.

A few weeks ago, Swedish journalist Janne Josefsson spoke to Ahmed, one of the stone-throwing youngsters who shocked the country at Easter.

“We are second class citizens. You let us in, but then Sweden doesn’t care about us,” Ahmed told him. “We are trapped here. I have studied, but will never get a good job. At least once a week we are stopped by the police. In the end, you feel hunted, like a quarry. Do you understand?”

It seems that Swedish politicians don’t really want to.

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


Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

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