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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Racism doesn’t get much more obvious than Sweden’s refugee bias

When you look at Sweden's reception of Ukrainian refugees, it's clear that what was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria, is not considered good enough for white Christians from Ukraine, notes Stockholm University Professor Christian Christensen.

OPINION: Racism doesn't get much more obvious than Sweden's refugee bias
Olga Fariga and Natalia Cheenihova, two Ukrainian refugees, fill in formsw ith the help of Maria och Jonas Broström at a drop-in centre in Hässleholm. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

As thousands of Ukrainian refugees began to arrive in Sweden following the invasion by Russia, the headline of a recent opinion piece by the leader of Sweden’s far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrat party spoke volumes: ‘There is a Difference Between Refugees and “Refugees”’

For Åkesson and his nationalist supporters, Ukrainian refugees are “real” refugees. They are from ”a Christian country with a culture that is more closely related” to that of Sweden, while refugees who escaped Syria and Afghanistan were framed as being made up of millions of backward, poorly-educated “professional migrants” (his term) devoid of European values and sensibilities.

With this backdrop, recent comments posted on Twitter by a municipal council member in Sweden’s second-largest city, Gothenburg, provided a disturbing insight into how politicians, not only the far-right but on all sides of the political spectrum, use different sets of standards when considering Ukrainian and Syrian refugees. And how the vision of refugees held by the Swedish far-right has bled into the Swedish political mainstream.

On May 5, Daniel Bernmar, the group leader for the opposition Left Party in the Gothenburg municipal council, sent a series of tweets in which he detailed how fellow council members expressed dismay over the poor services and paltry benefits available to refugees arriving from Ukraine. While on the surface an egalitarian position, the irony, Bernmar pointed out, was that the levels of financial support and services about which they were complaining were set by the very same group of politicians…when the arriving refugees were predominantly Syrian.

In other words, what the local politicians considered to be acceptable support for Syrians was now considered unacceptable support for Ukrainians.

Bernmar detailed a number of the specific concerns expressed by his colleagues.

Members of anti-immigration Sweden Democrats complained that the small amount of spending money given to Ukrainian refugees meant that they could not even afford to take local buses. Why, they asked, had the policy of allowing refugees to ride for free been scrapped? Others asked how without access to public transport Ukrainian refugees could be expected to take their children to school or look for work? And, in perhaps the most Swedish of issues, municipal councilors expressed concern that Ukrainian parents could not send children under the age of three to state-subsidized daycare.

Bernmar noted that he had “never before heard these parties or people address the unacceptable social or economic situation for refugees.” He then addressed the elephant in the room. The dismay expressed by colleagues over conditions facing refugees – conditions the same politicians approved when refugees were Syrian – was unsurprising, he wrote, given that they, “did not previously apply to white, Christian Europeans.”

These revelations should come as no surprise. While seemingly at odds with Sweden’s reputation for openness and egalitarianism, the fact is that political parties at both ends of the Swedish political spectrum have adopted increasingly aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Yet, when structural discrimination is presented in such a transparent fashion, it is still jarring.

At the most fundamental level, the case demonstrates how perceptions of the value of human life and human dignity are shaped by ethnicity, religion, and nationality. What was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria just isn’t good enough for white, European Christians. Racism and ethnocentrism don’t come much clearer than that.

But this revelation cuts even deeper and wider. And it applies to nations beyond Sweden’s borders, where immigrants and refugees struggle to construct new futures. What is evident from the comments made by the local politicians in Gothenburg is that they are fully aware of the impact of their policies on the everyday lives of refugees, how the ability to participate in the workforce, for example, is dependent upon basics such as transportation and childcare. That “integration” isn’t just a question of some mythological will, but of available material resources.

To remember that with Ukrainians, but forget it with Syrians, is cynicism of the highest order. It is to amplify the smear that there is a difference between refugees and “refugees.”

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

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

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IMMIGRATION

One year on: How Sweden’s new permit rule for PhDs has upended lives

In July last year, Sweden's new migration law tightened residency rules for PhD students, sending the future plans of thousands into disarray. The SACO union spoke to three of them about how their lives had been changed.

One year on: How Sweden's new permit rule for PhDs has upended lives

Chen, 31, from China.

PhD on non-pesticide methods to reduce insect damage in newly-planted forests.

Chen, who came to Sweden from China in 2017 to study a the Swedish Agricultural University, says that she has felt trapped in Sweden since defending her thesis in November, as the Migration Agency does not normally allow those applying for a residency permit to travel 

“I feel like I’m under house arrest,” she complains. “I haven’t been able to take a vacation outside Sweden since my permanent residency application is pending, and I can’t go back to China to visit my family for the same reason — two years since the first Covid outbreak at the beginning of 2020.” 

Now the exemption from residency permit requirements for PhD students has been removed, PhD students generally need to get a job as soon as they graduate to show that they can support themselves, but Chen says she was so deeply engaged in her studies that it was near-impossible to send off job or research applications. 

“There are many days I woke up at 8am and left my office at midnight,” she remembers. “I ate for only one meal during the day in order to finish my thesis in time. I could barely spare any time to look for jobs or send job applications even though I knew I had to get a job offer for at least two years to get a positive decision on my permanent residency application. “

“After my defence, there was no time to celebrate my achievement but I instead started to search for jobs immediately.”

Before the change in the rules, Chen had planned to look for post doctoral studies in another European country, but the new rules makes that difficult. 

“My plan was to do a one or two year postdoc in another country to strengthen my competence and then come back to Sweden,” she said. It is rather common to do a postdoc in a new country and then come back to the PhD country for a more stable academic position,” she said. “By doing so we could broaden our vision, establish collaboration and bring back new insights.

“When we got permanent residency, returning to Sweden was easier, without having to go through all the energy-consuming stuff, like getting a job offer and applying for a work permit, getting a personal number, Swedish ID, bank account, Bank-ID and insurance.” 

She believes that the Swedish government should acknowledge that the impact of the new alien act on PhD students is a mistake and take steps to reverse the changes.

“Do not be afraid to admit that you made wrong decision, be open-minded and listen to different voices,” she tells the Swedish authorities. “There are ways to fix the mess and regain people’s trust.”

Now she’s considering whether to carry on seeking work and waiting for the Migration Agency to take its decision, or whether to take her expertise to another country, probably The Netherlands or Germany. 

“The way to regain my freedom is either to get a job that fulfils the new requirement or to leave Sweden to build my life and career somewhere else.” 

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Melissa, from Australia. Photo: private

Melissa, 36, Australia

PhD on riparian ecosystem science

“It’s brought a big, dark shadow of insecurity into mine and my partners’ long term plans,” says Melissa, who decided to do her PhD in Sweden partly because her partner is Swedish, and partly because she knew she would be “a better researcher and scientist” if she spent time researching in another country. 

When she arrived, she wasn’t necessarily planning to continue her research in Sweden, but as she began to realise she perhaps wanted to, the change in the law came in, making it more difficult. 

“Turns out, I really like it here and I like the research environment! I do want to stay in Sweden to pursue a career here. I knew that an academic career was already very unpredictable but I had hoped that after finishing my PhD I could continue branching out from the research I’ve been doing in boreal forests in the form of postdoctoral positions with some of the Swedish researchers I really admire.”

That is now all looking more and more unlikely. 

“It’s almost like there’s this atmosphere of uncertainty that’s with me when I think about life after my PhD,” she says. “It’s already stressful to think about what I will do when I finish my doctoral studies, but adding in the stress of possibly not being able to stay in Sweden is massively draining, especially when the Aliens Act seems to ignore, or not care to consider, the realities of an academic career.”

She believes that the Swedish government should at least adapt the Aliens Act to reflect what she calls “the realities of academic careers”. 

“It is virtually unheard of for a young researcher to gain a position that fulfils the support requirements for 18 months and by not adjusting the Aliens Act to account for this you are discouraging really talented and passionate young researchers from coming.”

Although she wasn’t set on staying in Sweden for the long term when she started her PhD, she’s finding the new barrier to residency is putting her off, pushing her to consider positions in Australia or the US. 

“I’m more hesitant about pursuing an academic career in Sweden because the added feeling of ‘temporary-ness’ in everything I do,” she says. “It even just manifests itself in little things like abandoning our plans to get a dog, buy a house, or have a more long term career goal in Sweden because permanency isn’t so much of an option anymore.” 

Tuser Biswas, from Bangladesh, is researching textiles at Borås Högskola. Photo: private

Tuser Biswas, 34, Bangladesh 

PhD on sustainably printing biological materials onto textiles which can fight bacteria and viruses

Tuser Biswas has also  had his plans to work as a postdoc outside Sweden thrown into chaos by the new law, which came out four months after he’d applied for permanent residency. 

After I finish my PhD in Sweden, I would like to go work somewhere else as a postdoc. When I started my PhD, I knew that if I want to go somewhere else, I could always come back to Sweden (and I probably would) but know I am not sure what I would do,” he says. 

Also, like Chen, he has been stuck in Sweden as a result of the law. 

“I’ve had to cancel attending conferences and still can’t plan work related trips outside Sweden. My family is very stressed for not being able to travel to home country for a long time now.”

He says that the change in labour laws has changed his views on Sweden. 

“The total political environment is getting unfriendly for international mobility. I came to live in an open-minded society, but it seems like a mirage now.” 

He believes that the government should better tailor its migration laws to fit researchers. 

“Don’t make a ‘one size fits all’ type law. The working conditions for PhD researchers and other employees are not the same. How can you judge them all under the same law?”. 

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