When Sweden in 2016 voted through temporary amendments to the country's asylum laws, another group of migrants was also unexpectedly affected: utlandssvenskar, or native Swedes based abroad in non-EU countries, wishing to return home with their foreign partners. Lena Wickman is one of them:
“I've spoken to politicians from pretty much every Swedish political party. Not one of them can explain why we've been forced into this situation,” she says.
Her own story is a typical example of the obstacles facing those who attempt to move back after spending years abroad. Wickman wanted to look after her elderly mother and arrived in Stockholm last autumn from Canada.
“I was surprised to learn that I'm not allowed to live with my son, who's based in the city. Many Swedes move back eventually to take care of their elderly parents, just like I did, and find out they're not allowed to live with them, either. It's absurd, and quite a tragedy.”
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The Migration Agency stipulates that a returning Swede who wants to bring a foreign partner home with them must prove that he or she is resident on his or her own, in an apartment or house with an own entrance, kitchen and bathroom. This excludes all kinds of house and apartment shares.
Short leases are also out of the question. The applicants have to prove they hold a rental agreement valid for at least one year from the date the application is granted. Not only that: the housing must be big enough to accommodate their partner, too, even though it can take up to two years for that person to be granted a residence permit.
Those two years are at the heart of the group's troubles. A long period apart in separate homes can mean extremely hefty rental fees. Many find it impossible to even consider having two houses or apartments in expensive cities like Stockholm, Gothenburg, New York or Toronto for up to two years' time.
Another major hurdle is the maintenance requirement (försörjningskrav). Even if the Swedish partner is a professional with sought-after experience, who would have no problem finding work, they need to produce proof of a permanent full-time job even before their foreign partner can start applying for a residence permit.
Part-time workers, the self-employed, freelancers and so on are excluded completely.
“A new rule put in place this year states that a couple's mutual financial capital will be taken into consideration, and that the amassed capital should be large enough to support two people for two years,” a Swedish woman, one of several I was in touch with for this article.
Then, there's the emotional price. Speaking with affected families, those with young children are all aware of the possible psychological damage inflicted on children by forceful separation from one parent. How come Swedish authorities aren't, one father asks me.
Another parent, a young Swedish mother based in California, was denied a residence permit because she couldn't fulfil the housing clause. Her mother owns a large house in Sweden with four bedrooms and lives on her own, but that wasn't enough for Swedish authorities. The young mother had also been told to leave her partner in the US and travel alone to Sweden with their child. The couple refused, instead sending in a copy of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to the Migration Agency, stating that it's a crime to separate parent and offspring.
So what's next? The Swedish Migration Committee released an official report on the country's migration policy in September. One of the suggestions is that the maintenance requirement should not be necessary if the main applicant is Swedish, or an EU/EEA citizen. The interviewees are tentatively positive but emphasise that it's merely a suggestion that can be overruled, and that a decision won't be made until next summer, anyway.
The report is currently being circulated for comments, and the interest group Svenskar i Världen (Swedes in the World) is collecting a list of signatures to their appeal called “Put an end to breaking up families and unreasonable demands on income and housing for Swedes returning home“. It will be handed over to the Migration Committee on December 7th, together with a compilation of real-life cases.
Karin Rosenquist-Schager writes frequently about the issue on social media and has become something of a spokesperson for the group.
“Two to three people contact me every week,” she says. “Mostly Swedish women in the US, with no clue how to navigate this.”
Some families choose to enter with their partner on a tourist visa, she says. They then stay on, applying for residency from inside Sweden and hoping for the best. It's not illegal, yet not ideal, she admits, but many are growing desperate.
Wickman's ideal homecoming would be quick and efficient. Like other interviewees, she'd also like to be able to apply from abroad. She points out that in the run-up to the latest general election in Sweden in 2018, several parties claimed to strive for an easier process with less bureaucracy for returning Swedes. Yet nothing changed.
“You know, it took two weeks for Canada to give me the seal of approval 25 years ago. It would be nice if one's own home country was as welcoming…”
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.