OPINION: Sweden’s one million foreign residents should not be an afterthought in policy

Sweden has almost one million residents who do not hold Swedish citizenship. This group is not a monolith and should not be an afterthought in policy-making, least of all during a crisis, writes The Local's Catherine Edwards.

OPINION: Sweden's one million foreign residents should not be an afterthought in policy
Sweden's foreign citizens are a diverse group, and they shouldn't be an afterthought. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

“Foreign citizens who want to travel into Sweden will have to show a negative Covid-19 test, without which they will not enter the country,” said Prime Minister Stefan Löfven at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon. 

He went on to mention there would be some exceptions, for example for under-18s and to avoid causing problems in the healthcare sector, but it was only a few minutes later that Interior Minister Mikael Damberg said that foreigners living in Sweden would also be excluded from the requirement.

This might sound like a picky question of semantics, but it is not the first time regulations have been unclear for non-citizens living in Sweden. And Sweden's foreign residents are not a small niche. 

According to Statistics Sweden, at the end of 2019 almost one million foreign citizens were registered as being resident in Sweden – about a tenth of the total population. This figure only includes people who do not also have Swedish citizenship; dual citizens are not included. It also includes around 100,000 people who were born in Sweden but are not Swedish citizens, likely born to foreign citizens.

Sweden's one million foreign residents are a diverse group. Some came here by choice, whether for work, love or adventure; others were forced due to war or other crises. Some speak Swedish fluently and follow national media and government announcements with ease; others are learning, and rely on information being made available in their own language, whether through sources like The Local or the national KrisInformation website. 

Many of this group have been disproportionately affected by the virus; separated from loved ones overseas for more than a year, more likely than native Swedes to be affected by unemployment – and, for those here on work permits, at risk of deportation if they cannot find a new job within three months; and potentially feeling isolated in a country where the language and culture may not be wholly familiar. 

There is also an over-representation of foreigners in socio-economically vulnerable areas, who are more likely to live in crowded housing and less likely to be able to work from home or self-isolate when needed.

All of them deserve to know what their rights are, and how national guidelines apply to them. 

It is also worth mentioning that among Sweden's foreign citizens, more than 100,000 have submitted citizenship applications and are currently waiting for a response. 

Based on previous approval rates for citizenship applications (over 85 percent in the past two years), we can assume that the vast majority of these 100,000 people have fulfilled the requirements for citizenship. Many of them would be Swedish citizens and enjoy the rights that affords, if it weren't for the Migration Agency's slow processing times: 37 months at the moment, per the agency's own estimate.

People walking through Malmö in southern Sweden in January. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Certain rights are, and probably will always be, reserved for citizens. In the case of restrictions on entry to Sweden, Swedish citizens cannot legally be prevented from entering the country, so will always be exempt, but the same doesn't apply to foreign residents.

This led to a situation, when Sweden first banned travel from the UK, where Swedes resident in the UK were allowed to travel to Sweden to visit friends, relatives or for non-essential purposes, but British citizens living and working here – including those with permanent residence or in-progress citizenship applications – were not allowed to return home. This was overturned after two days of confusion, during which authorities initially stood firm on the ban.

Even when residents of Sweden were exempted, they were subject to a requirement of a negative Covid-19 test, and some were detained or sent back at the border despite having a valid test due to confusion over which test providers were considered as 'valid'. One woman whose negative PCR test was not accepted told The Local at the time: “I feel like a criminal and we're not. We live and pay tax in Sweden.”

Representatives of national authorities have on numerous occasions claimed Sweden's high proportion of immigrants are a contributing explanation for the high number of infections, yet this same group appears to be an afterthought in policy.

Sweden was slow to react to early reports that people living in vulnerable areas were over-represented in the coronavirus statistics, despite the fact that many of them may be at increased risk of infection and illness from Covid-19 due to more crowded living conditions and a higher propensity of jobs that cannot be done from home.

It was promising to see specific measures outlined to ensure the vaccine is accessible to socio-economically vulnerable groups, in which people with foreign backgrounds are over-represented, when Sweden's updated vaccination strategy was discussed at a government press conference on Thursday morning.

These measures included booking systems that don't rely on BankID, a Swedish online identification system that requires access to a smartphone and a Swedish personnummer. This is a step in the right direction, but it comes late in the pandemic.

Sweden's foreign residents, particularly those in especially vulnerable groups, should be considered at an early stage in any national health or crisis policy. Their needs might be slightly different than those of the Swedish-born population and they are no less important.

Member comments

  1. I feel like this is a general problem on Sweden. You never get a straight answer. Is an Erasmus student a resident? Is a person with a coordination number working for a hourly wage a resident? Or a how about a student who did an Erasmus year here, transferred all their credits and is finishing their master degree in Sweden? Skatteverket has no clue and denied me a personal number. Am I even considered a person here? I pay taxes, that’s all I know…

  2. I don’t know about this.
    Perhaps more people should think about going home, to their native countries, rather than staying in Sweden when times aren’t good. It seems to me that permanent residency and citizenship are not rights, but are granted as gifts. It’s worth thinking about.

  3. How did one million people enter Sweden , when the Population is only Ten Million . The Germans made a mistake back in 2015 letting them all in and are kicking them out faster than you can say Bob is My Uncle , but Sweden now has a Serious problem . Crime like never before and a Religion that tolerates no other Religion other than its own . The smiles I saw thirty years ago have left the faces of Swedes , they can not assimilate such a large number as they want to live like they are still in the Mideast or Afghanistan ,so get your act together like Mrs Merkle did and kick them out or it will me Mission Impossible very soon . Do not give them passports you owe them nothing you were not a Colonial Power like the UK or France . I was away for five years and I came back to a Mess show them the door before you become their stooges .

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Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

In this new series, The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée seeks to challenge some of the clichés about Sweden.

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

There are some undeniable truths about Sweden (lots of Volvos, lots of trees) but when asked, most people don’t get far past the usual clichés. And nor did I. 

A well-organized country full of high tax paying, IKEA flatpack-loving, slightly distant Fika fanatics, all happily queuing to buy some much-needed state-controlled booze to get through the never-ending cold and dark winters.

In this series, I give my take on some of the more commonly heard assumptions about life in Sweden and how I experience them.

When you are visiting family back home after your move to Sweden, you will note that nothing seems to get a tipsy uncle quite as riled up as your story about the state-controlled alcohol market. It’s also something that comes up surprisingly often when you tell people you live in Sweden. The mere mention of having to go to a special shop to purchase alcohol seems to set people off in a certain way.

That the shops are called Systembolaget, like some Soviet-era holdover obviously does little to calm your uncle down.

To start with the concept itself. Having grown up in The Netherlands, I was not bowled over with indignation at the idea of having to go to a separate shop to purchase my poison. Although supermarkets in the Netherlands do sell alcohol, it is pretty common to buy your wine, as well as any stronger stuff, at what Australians call a ‘bottle shop’  (which rather misses the point of what’s actually for sale).

READ ALSO: Like having sex in a church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Apart from having a larger assortment than supermarkets, these shops also have specialized staff that can recommend wines with your food. 

But with plenty of well-stocked and reasonably priced Systembolagets around and one right outside my local supermarket, I don’t think the airtime this topic gets when people talk about life in Sweden is actually justified.

For the now properly drunk uncle at your family dinner, the Systembolaget is of course a sign of a bigger problem with Sweden: the all-controlling state. The outrageous combination of high taxes, free healthcare and schooling and state-controlled alcohol must mean that the government has a finger in every aspect of life.

It turns out your uncle is engaging in a long-standing tradition that has been dubbed ‘Sweden bashing’. It started with Eisenhower, but in more recent years lesser statesmen dabbled in it as well. Although there is no clear definition, it seems to involve cherry-picking facts about Sweden – or alternatively just making them up – in order to ridicule the Swedish model. It’s a model that, according to the ideology of the bashers, should fail miserably but somehow stubbornly refuses to do so.

Despite the long-standing tradition of Sweden bashing, I think anyone who lives here will agree that in everyday life there is nothing particularly invasive about enjoying free education and healthcare in exchange for higher taxes. Come to think of it, that is pretty much the model applied in the Netherlands and they never got stuck with a reputation for an overbearing government. On the other hand, Holland does get bashed for easy access to drugs and euthanasia, so I guess you have to be careful what you wish for.

Considering it now really only functions as a lightning rod for politicians, it may not be a bad idea to let go of the state monopoly on alcohol sales.

As for the bashing itself, I think the current Swedish response to it works just fine: a light shrug of the shoulders and let the system speak for itself.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Not having been to Sweden before the move, Alexander had some broad assumptions about what life in Sweden would be like. In this series, he revisits these assumptions and gives his take.  Alexander wrote for series for The Local before about his “firsts” in Sweden.