Foreigners trapped by Swedish work permit delays call for visa relief

Work permit holders in Sweden have launched a petition asking the Migration Agency to issue special visas allowing those affected by long renewal times to leave Sweden and return.

A sign at an office of the Swedish Migration Agency.
A sign at an office of the Swedish Migration Agency. Photo: Marcus Ericsson/TT

After just a day, the petition has already been signed by 2,700 people at the time this article was last updated, indicating just how many are being affected by the long processing delays at the agency. Some foreigners in Sweden are currently having to wait for as long as 15 months to have their work permits renewed, leaving them unable to visit relatives and loved ones back home. 

Fredrik Bengtsson, the director at the agency responsible for work permits this week told The Local that the delays were the result of new rules that came into force in June, the need to redeploy staff to handle refugees from Ukraine, and a post-pandemic surge in applications. 

The petition was launched on Thursday by Dina Ahmad, a Lebanese IT professional, who has herself been waiting five months for a renewal.

“I decided to launch this petition because I have seen this affect many people,” she told The Local. “I have heard tragic stories about people who could not go back home to see their relatives before they passed away.” 

She heard of one person who had to wait 23 months for a renewal, which as the permit was only valid for two years, meant they had only one month of validity left when they finally received it, meaning they had to immediately go through the entire process again.

In the petition, she complains about the “incomprehensible” rule that people from countries that require a visa to enter the EU who leave Sweden while waiting for a work permit decision may not be allowed to return to Sweden. 

“It is a huge injustice that residents who are here working and paying taxes are unable to return to the country and resume their jobs should they decide to leave,” the petition states. “Many need to visit their families, deal with paperwork back home, or just take a break.” 

The petition notes that other EU countries do not have this rule, with Denmark, for instance, having a “re-entry permit”, or “tilbagerejsetilladelse”, allowing those waiting for decisions to return home. 

It also notes that the Migration Agency has already started issuing so-called D-visas so that people waiting for work permit decisions can attend business meetings abroad.  

“We ask that a solution can be found wherein residents can travel and be able to come back and resume their work in Sweden while waiting for a decision,” they state. “Perhaps the D-visa can be extended to allow non-business related travel as well.” 

The Migration Agency’s press office told The Local that the introduction of the D-visa had been part of the package of work permits reforms which came into force in June, and was not a decision taken by the agency. 

“That’s regulated in the law and nothing we have decided,” Lisa Danling said. As the D-visa only applies to work trips, the agency has no power to issue a visa for other journeys outside Sweden. 

READ ALSO: Why is it taking so long to get work permits in Sweden?

Moataz Mohamed, one of the signatories, wrote under the petition that the delay in processing his new work permit had prevented him from “going home to get married to the love of my life”. 

“With the increasing time for a decision, we can’t even plan anything or book a venue. At the same time, my father is sick and if something happens to him, I can’t even think of what to do,” he wrote on the petition. “This rule is prejudiced and borderline racist.” 

Hyder Ali Mohamed, another signatory, wrote that despite working for a certified company, he had been waiting for permanent residency for more than 25 months. 

“Last time we visited our families and friends back home was more than four years ago, and we will never see some of our closest family members ever again who passed away last year,” he wrote. “The sad part is that even after informing this multiple times to the case officer, he is not making a decision.”

“Imagine being locked in a place and not allowed to move out of the country for the reason of delayed process for months or even a year,” wrote Suneel Seelam, another signatory. “I know the pain of it myself and have seen friends of mine suffering from it. I like to travel at least once a year, and for some family reasons people have to travel.” 

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‘Work permit holders will not lose permanent residency’: Swedish Migration Minister 

Sweden's Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard has told Swedish state broadcaster SR that the government's proposed abolition of permanent residency will only affect asylum-related migration cases and not people in Sweden on work permits, or those who have come to study for PhDs. 

'Work permit holders will not lose permanent residency': Swedish Migration Minister 

“The government’s idea is that permanent residency will be phased out for those who are related to asylum immigration. That means asylum seekers and their relatives, for instance, but not for workforce migration,” she told SR’s English language wing Radio Sweden. 

She said the coming inquiry into how to convert existing permanent residencies into citizenships would also only focus on asylum-related migration cases, and not on those here on work permits. 

READ ALSO: What do we know about Sweden’s plans to withdraw permanent residency?

“But I think if you come here and you intend to stay, then there should be an ambition to learn the Swedish language, have knowledge about the society, be able to support yourself, and, after maybe eight to 10 years, become a citizen and become a full part of the Swedish society. And that is an important signal to send.” 

Malmer Stenergard said that she wanted to make handling times shorter for those with work permits. 

“We want to focus on the highly skilled workforce coming to Sweden, and improve the rules to make handling times shorter,” she said. “We know that is a great problem for those who apply for work permits and also for those who apply for a prolongation of work permits. We are set on improving the rules so that it will be more attractive to come to Sweden.”

She said that the new government recognised that the long delays faced by those seeking to secure work permits were a major issue. 

“This is a huge problem and I’m really afraid that talented people will hesitate to come to Sweden because of this,” she said. “I’ve read [in the] news today about a girl leaving Sweden because the prolongations didn’t work. So we will look into how can we make the authorities work in a more effective way. That is one thing we can do. And the other thing we can do is take a closer look at the legislation and see if there are things that we can change in order to improve [things] for those who want to come here as skilled workers.” 

PhD students graduating in Sweden have been severely affected by the requirement that came in in 2021 they need to secure a work contract of more than 18 months in duration to be eligible for permanent residency. 

Malmer Stenergard told SR that the government was “well aware of how the changes have affected these students and of course the universities”, and had agreed in the Tidö Agreement to look into what changes might be needed to make it easier for them to get permanent residency. 

When it comes to the bill passed in the parliament last week to raise the minimum salary threshold for work permits, Stenergard said that it was not yet certain that the threshold would be set at the median wage — about 33,000 kronor — which was mentioned in the Tidö Agreement, and that anyway, the government would exclude some groups from the change.

“I don’t think that they should be worried,” she said.  “We will look into the exact amount, but we will also be able to make exceptions for some individual professional groups.”

However, she said that the government was convinced that raising the threshold would help get unemployed people already living in Sweden into work.

“I think it is important that we focus more on highly qualified workforce migration, and that people who are already in the country actually apply for the jobs that are available in the lower income groups, and therefore we have to create higher incentives in the economical systems for those people to actually apply for the jobs and educate themselves.” 

She pushed back at the idea that Sweden’s new government was anti-immigration, saying that the aim was to slow down immigration so that the country was better able to integrate migrants who have already come. 

“I think that we have a huge job ahead of us to make integration work,” she said. “That is why we say that for now, we have to have asylum immigration at a minimum. But Sweden is relying on immigrants, and the skilled people who come here are extremely important for Swedish society and also for Swedish companies in order to be able to compete in a global market.”

“So I want to be very clear that people who come here and contribute to Swedish society and to Swedish companies and Swedish development are more than welcome.”