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‘Loved by people, hated by the system’: An immigrant’s tale of Sweden

Does Sweden really think its migration bureaucracy won't harm its reputation, asks Lisa Bjurwald, after interviewing an Iraqi man who lost six years of his life to the residence permit carousel.

'Loved by people, hated by the system': An immigrant's tale of Sweden
File photo of another person registering at the Migration Agency. Photo: Marcus Ericsson/TT

Wasfi, a compliance officer at Sweden's state-owned electricity company Vattenfall, has finally had a break-through. Originally from Iraq, he has been granted a temporary residence permit for three years. But it's hard for him to celebrate or cast aside any doubts over his future here. For Wasfi has been involved in a slow, deeply complicated, at times inexplicable process with the Swedish Migration Agency for over six years of his life.

The road to a temporary residence has been filled with bumps the size of rocks. At the time of being offered his job at Vattenfall in 2017, Wasfi was living with his Swedish girlfriend in Linköping and had racked up an astonishing batch of over 800 turned-down job applications. He could not secure a single interview, despite finishing a Master's degree – thanks to an academic scholarship – because of his limbo residency status.

Still ambitious, he asked his case officer if moving to Stockholm for work purposes would affect his residency application? The answer was reassuring: No, as long as he and his girlfriend could still produce evidence of being in a serious relationship, providing authorities with personal pictures, train tickets and the like.

Wasfi, elated, accepted the job at Vattenfall. But soon enough the bad advice caught up with him. After one and a half year's wait, forbidden to travel outside the country (something that he would ideally need to do for his position) or a national identity number, Wasfi and his partner were interviewed for the romantically titled “relationship validation”. They were able to present 89 train tickets covering a period of 16 months, where they had commuted to each other almost every weekend, as well as countless pictures taken at different events and family occasions.


File photo of a person holding a train ticket, not linked to the article. Photo: Bertil Ericson/TT

After the interview, Wasfi's new case officer exclaimed that he had no doubt the couple was in a real, serious relationship: “However, your previous case officer should not have given you the advice that it's okay to change your address to Stockholm and commute back and forth to your girlfriend.” He concluded, on an absurd note: “Therefore, I will most likely reject you, but meanwhile, you should also apply for a work permit.”

In January 2018, this work permit application was rejected. The Migration Agency informed him that the application time from outside the EU would be at least one year – and unsurprisingly, Wasfi would have lost his job if he was suddenly to go abroad and stay outside the EU for a full year.

In a recent letter to the Migration Agency, Wasfi appealed to the humanity of the Swedish state:

“I pay my income taxes but in return, I have no coverage from the state; I have been fully supporting myself with no benefits from the government.

“Having any membership (BankID, driver's licence, Swish, housing queues, library card, even gym, and union) is a hurdle, a bank account, a loan, a job have all been close to impossible, integrating into society by taking SFI (Swedish for Immigrants) is out of the question, stopped by the police when driving means a 20-40 minute discussion and investigation. Having this ‘legal state' for this long is shaping me to always have my guard up to be defensive and for many long nights feeling loved by people but hated, unwanted, and rejected by the system.”

Wasfi also discloses that his relationship finally crumbled under the strain of the lengthy process: “I've lost the person I had planned to spend the rest of my life with.” Reading the letter to the end is torturous. However, the bureaucrat at the migration unit responsible for his case wasn't moved: “There was no room for interpreting the spirit of the laws, nor will anyone take any responsibility for the agency's contradictory advice,” Wasfi says. 

He did get his temporary residence permit in the end, after launching an appeal to the Migration Agency. It took over six years to achieve. Let's hope that the Swedish friends Wasfi has made over these years and describes as “true and genuine”, as well as his supportive colleagues at Vattenfall, can eventually balance out the negative impression of our clearly faulty system.

Why did he choose Sweden in the first place? “For its good reputation as to respecting human rights, and equal treatment of people of all backgrounds and beliefs.” The question is obvious: Does Sweden really believe that such a reputation can survive cases like Wasfi's forever, without being tarnished along the way?

*Wasfi is not his real name, but his identity is known to the author.

Lisa Bjurwald is a Swedish journalist and author covering current affairs, culture and politics since the mid-1990s. Her latest work BB-krisen, on the Swedish maternity care crisis, was dubbed Best reportage book of 2019 by Aftonbladet daily newspaper. She is also an external columnist for The Local – read her columns here.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
 
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
 
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
 
 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
 
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
 
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
 
Glad Påsk!
 
Midsommar drowning  
 
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
 
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
 
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
 
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.
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