‘We’re incomplete’: Foreign residents separated from parents by Sweden’s non-EU entry ban

Grown-ups depend on their parents more than we’d like to admit. When that lifeline is stuck on the other side of the world and barred from visiting it can feel alienating and isolating, three international residents in Sweden tell The Local.

'We're incomplete': Foreign residents separated from parents by Sweden's non-EU entry ban
The last time Zeeshan Afzal (far left) saw his parents was at his PhD defence in February 2020. Photo: Private

“My parents have visited me every single year for the past seven years except the last one,” says Zeeshan Afzal, 30. His parents live in Pakistan. 

Since the pandemic, not a single day has gone by without Zeeshan video-calling them on WhatsApp. 

They usually come to visit his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Dua, their only grandchild, in summertime, to avoid the heat back home and enjoy the Swedish summer.  

“Now we can’t have that normal summer because half my family is not here,” he says. “We’re incomplete without our parents.” 

From early summer, travellers from within the EU and certain low-infection countries outside the EU have been able to come to Sweden for any reason, as long as they can provide a negative Covid-19 test (or proof of vaccination if travelling from an EU/EEA country).

“If even tourists can be in Sweden, why can’t my parents be here?” Zeeshan says.

“They pose no risk, they’re vaccinated, they will come with a negative test and quarantine in my home.”

His parents, like those of the other readers in this article, are all fully vaccinated. But that isn’t enough to enter Sweden.

Sweden has banned travel from countries outside the EU/EEA since March 2020 due to the pandemic. There are several exemptions, including for EU residents and citizens, travel from countries with low levels of infection, as well as people with “family ties” in Sweden or “urgent family reasons”.

But according to the Swedish rules, visiting your adult child doesn’t count as an urgent family reason. And being a parent of an adult child who lives in Sweden isn’t a “family tie”. The exemption only applies to parents or grandparents of adult children if they rely on them for financial support. They can also visit for the birth of a child, but not post-birth visits.

Zeeshan thinks the rule is strange and discriminatory. “Once you stop being 18 your parents don’t stop being your parents.” 

The EU has advised countries to start allowing entry for fully vaccinated travellers, but it’s up to each member state to decide on border restrictions, so the rules vary. Some countries like Finland exempt parents of adult children, but others don’t, while some allow fully vaccinated travellers from most countries to enter.

A spokesperson for the Justice Department told The Local: “The Swedish regulation reflects that it is especially important that certain parents of young children, despite the pandemic, can enter the country to visit their children here. It is the responsibility of the enforcing authorities (primarily the Swedish Police Authority) to determine in each individual case how the exemptions are to be interpreted and which decisions are to be made.”

Chris Voyal (far left) used to visit his family three times a year, but he hasn’t seen them since Christmas 2019. Photo: Private

“As an adult, the tables turn. You’re looking after your parents as much as they’re looking after you,” says Chris Voyal, 40, from the UK, who hasn’t been able to see his parents or grandparents since Christmas 2019. 

He’s been missing home so much recently that he finds himself looking at where he used to work in Uxbridge on Google Maps. 

He moved to Stockholm nine years ago for love. This is the first time he’s started to feel really isolated. “Your family’s family-life is going on and you’re looking in from the outside, peering over the fence.” 

When asked what they miss most about being with their parents, people didn’t name anything in particular. It’s more the comforting feeling of having them around. 

“That feeling of being in the same room as someone, it’s not the same as talking over a screen,” Chris says.  

Laura Morley, 41, agrees. “It’s their physical presence, just being part of your life.”

Her parents have never been to see her in Sweden. She moved to Gothenburg from Manchester, UK, with her three children after her husband got a new position with AstraZeneca last year. 

“Over the last year we’ve always been looking forward to our family visiting, and it’s not happened. It’s just been pushed back and pushed back.”  

Laura’s 68-year-old father has had to change his flights four times. 

“My dad is on the police website every day seeing if anything changes with the rules,” she says. 

Laura Morley and her family moved to Gothenburg last year. They love Sweden, but miss the rest of their family. Photo: Private

Sweden isn’t the only country with restrictions in place, and for many people, travelling back home to see their families just isn’t possible. 

“There’s nowhere we could could quarantine for 10 days with three kids,” Laura says, “for us to go back, we just can’t”. 

One of the most frustrating things for people is that the pandemic doesn’t have an end date. 

“We just want to show them around where we live, so they can understand why we love it here so much,” says Laura.

For Zeeshan, he wants his daughter to get the chance to be with her grandparents again. 

“For us who have half our family outside the EU, it’s extra tough,” he says. But for all his frustration, he thinks it’s been much harder for his parents and his daughter.  

“She’s already missed a lot but there’s still time to reunite.”  

Remarkably, despite all the setbacks, no one has given up on their parents coming to visit them soon. 

“My dad will be in floods of tears,” says Laura. “But then it’ll be like normal; within a few hours we’ll be making tea.”

Member comments

  1. I want to go to the UK to see my sister who’s husband died from cancer 2 months ago,I was not able to go to the funeral because of the UK lockdown but thought I could go for a memorial service at the begining of August but the UK does not accept the EU covid certificate and my planned 3 day trip would become a 10 day trip in quarantine plus the cost of tests, pre departure in Sweden and during quarantine in the UK.
    It seems mad that the UK is demanding that the EU holiday destinations popular with Brits accept their NHS vaccination certificate yet refuse to accept the EU certificate with Grant Shapps the transport minister saying they will consider it in the autumn.

  2. We’ve seen strange entry bans set by many other EU states during the last two years, and Sweden is no exception. I think it would be a little bit conforting if the reasons for these bans that have no logical explanation would be explained by the Swedish Police.

    I have seen another strange entry regulation the other day on Polisen website:
    – For travellers coming from the EEA area and the other whitelisted countries, that have had COVID and recocered, they will have to present a recovery certificate upon entry to Swede.
    – However ironically, if you had COVID and recovered within Sweden, there is no medical institution that will issue a recovery certificate to use for travel (speaking here of the cases that did not need hospitalization).😭

    So how can the Swedish Police ask for a document that Sweden itself will not issue???

  3. The entire nation was just about shut down.
    Major economies at risk world-wide.
    Trillions spent trying to float imploding and fragile economies.
    More debt generated than during both world wars combined.
    New virus variants arising, some that aren’t well blocked by vaccines.

    And, as always, asking for (demanding?) exceptions and special treatment with emotional pleas for compassion regarding family reunification.

    Goal – get parents into nation as well.

    Stop it.

    1. Hi Jack,

      Thanks for commenting. We kindly ask members who comment under articles to please be respectful of your fellow readers – these include those we interview in our articles. They and many, many more of The Local’s readers have not seen their parents at all in one or two years, due to them respecting pandemic travel rules, and they are simply asking that now that Sweden is starting to open up, their fully vaccinated parents also be considered a close family tie according to the many non-EU entry ban exemptions that already exist.

      Surely it’s possible to disagree with that without accusing others of demanding special treatment? As you say, it’s been (and is) hard times for the nation and the world – it sounds to me like compassion is needed now more than ever, and perhaps emotional pleas are not such a strange thing after all in times like these.

      Take care and I hope you have a good weekend.

      1. Hi Emma,

        Thanks for responding. I appreciate the feedback.

        However and unfortunately, I disagree with your comment, especially with regards to my flagging their requests for “special treatment” or whatever you want to call it. I believe it’s important that we maintain restrictions universally. And I am, like many, tired of certain groups constantly lobbying for special treatment with regards to family reunification etc. This covid virus caused a serious interruption to our society. Millions lost jobs or were furloughed. Businesses went broke. People died, old and young. Others got extremely sick. Some will never recover properly. Governments blew trillions trying to keep the economy from collapsing. And all that debt will need to be repaid, over decades.

        Yet, at the very first glimpse of improvement, the first thing certain groups of people request (or demand?), using the most emotional and heart wrenching language as always, is that their families get to “visit” and stay with them.

        Moving abroad is hard. I did it. I started over. I too was away from family. I too had all the same problems and issue. But, make every effort to show incredible respect for Sweden and all that was built by the Swedish society. And would never plead with society and government for special exemptions so my parents could visit.

        Now is the time to wait calmly and see what transpires. Show respect. It might be another year. Let’s wait and see.

        But stop with the emotional attempts to pull heart strings.

        1. Hi Jack, many thanks for an honest and nuanced reply, I appreciate it!

  4. Having read the article and the responses, I understand both sides of the debate. However, people move away from their home country and their family knowing there are going to be times when they want to be with them but can’t.

    Although no-one could have foreseen the pandemic, and I have a great deal of sympathy for everyone separated from loved ones, we just have to get on with it. There can be no exceptions to any rules and there is no need for explanations because the reasons are all to do with keeping people safe and trying to prevent the spread of old and new variants of the virus. If people can’t figure that out, then I despair – and, yes, I have lost a family member to the virus and couldn’t be at the funeral.

  5. It is so strange if you have been double vaccinated there should be no problem. Especially now as it is not known how long these vaccines last. For the time being, well for next 5/7 years this is the best it’s going to be. This virus is not going away for awhile yet and we have to learn and adjust to live with this problem.

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Covid deaths in Sweden ‘set to rise in coming weeks’

The Public Health Agency of Sweden has warned that the number of weekly Covid deaths is set to rise, after the number of people testing positive for the virus rose for the sixth week running.

Covid deaths in Sweden 'set to rise in coming weeks'

According to the agency, an average of 27 people have died with or from the virus a week over the past three weeks. 

“According to our analyses, the number who died in week 27 (July 4th-July 11th), is more than died in week 26 and we expect this to continue to grow,” the agency wrote in a report issued on Thursday. 

In the week ending July 17th (week 28), 4,700 new cases of Covid-19 were registered, a 22 percent rise on the previous week. 

“We are seeing rising infection levels of Covid-19 which means that there will be more people admitted to hospital, and even more who die with Covid-19,”  said Anneli Carlander, a unit chief at the agency. “The levels we are seeing now are higher than they were last summer, but we haven’t reached the same level we saw last winter when omicron was spreading for the first time.” 

While 27 deaths a week with for from Covid-19 is a rise on the low levels seen this spring, it is well below the peak death rate Sweden saw in April 2020, when more than 100 people were dying a day. 

The number of Covid deaths recorded each week this summer. Source. Public Health Agency of Sweden
A graph of Covid deaths per day since the start of the pandemic shows that the current death rate, while alarming, remains low. Photo: Public Health Agency of Sweden

Carlander said that cases were rising among those in sheltered accommodation for the elderly, and also elderly people given support in their own homes, groups which are recommended to get tested for the virus if they display symptoms. The infection rate among those given support in their homes has risen 40 percent on last week. 

This week there were also 12 new patients admitted to intensive care units with Covid-19 in Sweden’s hospitals.  

The increase has come due to the new BA.5 variant of omicron, which is better able to infect people who have been vaccinated or already fallen ill with Covid-19. Vaccination or a past infection does, however, give protection against serious illness and death.