Swedish Migration Agency boss admits confusing ‘patchwork’ of rules

Mikael Ribbenvik, the outgoing Director General of the Swedish Migration Agency, has acknowledged that Sweden's migration rules are a messy "patchwork", saying that he understands why applicants are confused.

Swedish Migration Agency boss admits confusing 'patchwork' of rules
Mikael Ribbenvik, the outgoing Director-General of the Swedish Migration Agency at a press conference in May 2022 about Ukrainian refugees. Photo: Paul Wennerholm/TT

In an interview with the Sydsvenskan newspaper, Ribbenvik, who will end his 24-year career at the Migration Agency in May, complained that migration legislation had become ever more complicated and confusing over the past decade as a result of a series of coalition governments where different parties have “sought to cram in all their pet issues”. 

Since the refugee crisis in 2015, there has been the temporary migration law from 2016, which made temporary residency the default for asylum seekers, and then the two ‘gymnasium laws’, which he described as “half-amnesties”. 

The two laws opened the way for people who had come to Sweden as unaccompanied child asylum seekers and whose asylum application had been rejected to stay if they finished upper secondary school and got a job. 

Now, Ribbenvik worried, a new barrage of new laws from the three-party right wing government and their far-right backers, the Sweden Democrats, risked making the system even more complicated. 

“The legislation is starting to become too complicated for anyone to understand. It’s absolutely impossible to explain in the media, because you don’t have the time,” he told the newspaper. “We need to have our absolutely smartest migration people in our legal unit to work everything out.” 

When the new government announced its intention to phase out permanent residency, the agency’s phones were deluged with worried calls from permanent residency holders. 

Ribbenvik summarised the message to Sydsvenskan as: “OK, you can stay… no, you can’t stay.”

“I have a great amount of understanding for the confusion this has caused,” he said. “Debate articles attack the Migration Agency, and we’re an easy target. But this is a consequence of the legislation there has been in recent years.” 

After Sweden’s government announced that Ribbenvik’s contract was not going to be extended, Björn Söder, a Sweden Democrat MP and member of the parliament’s defence committee, celebrated the decision. 

“Time to tidy up Agency Sweden,” Söder wrote on Twitter. “Kick the asylum activists out of the agency.”

In the Sydsvenskan interview, Ribbenvik characterised himself as a “proud bureaucrat”, who was apolitical and saw his role as enacting the orders of politicians in the best way possible. He didn’t join the agency because of a passion for immigration issues, but because he needed a part-time job while he finished his law degree, he said. 

“I read now that I’m a Director-General appointed by the Social Democrats. So am I going to be politicised now, right at the end? Because I never have been before.” 

Very often, he said, attacks like Söder’s “say nothing about the accused, but a lot about the accuser”. 

He did say, however, tell the newspaper that he had been surprised by how quickly the debate had shifted in Sweden from the days when most of the criticism the agency received came from those wanting more liberal treatment for asylum seekers to today, when they are accused of being too lenient. 

“As someone who’s worked here for 24 years, I’m stunned over how the debate has shifted in recent months, when the whole time I’ve been here, it’s been the opposite: ‘why do you analyse people’s language, why do you do age assessments?’. We’ve always been criticised from the other direction.”   

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EXPLAINED: Is Sweden really going to carry out a ‘large-scale national census’?

Sweden's government on Thursday announced plans for an "improved population register through a census". But it falls a long way short of the "large scale national census" agreed with the far-right Sweden Democrats.

EXPLAINED: Is Sweden really going to carry out a 'large-scale national census'?

In the Tidö Agreement, the three government parties agreed with the Sweden Democrats to “prepare a large-scale national census”. Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson then said as he announced his government’s plans that “a census shall be carried out and coordination numbers which are not confirmed will be recalled”.  

After the announcement on Thursday, the Sweden Democrat party’s twitter account tweeted out an interview with the party leader Jimmie Åkesson carried out by its own Riks TV propaganda channel, titled, “This is why Sweden needs a population census.” 

“No one knows how big the shadow society is,” he said ominously. “People talk about between 20,000 to 50,000 people but it’s probably much larger than that. No one knows and that’s why it’s important to get a proper picture.” 

But nothing in the announcement made on Thursday suggests that there will even be a questionnaire-based census like the last one carried out in 1990, let alone a physical census involving officials going door-to-door. 

So what does the announcement actually mean? 

The Swedish Tax Agency has been instructed to propose new methods which would enable it to develop a “national situation report” and to propose methods that would enable it to improve the population register genom folkräkning, meaning “through a census”, or perhaps just “through counting people”. 

According to the press release, the tax agency’s tasks will include an attempt to estimate the number of people who have coordination numbers but are not included in the population register and the number of people who are living in Sweden “both with and without permission”. 

The agency is instructed to work together with the Migration Agency, the police, and Statistics Sweden to develop “methods which will enable a national situation report to be presented”. This national situation report will describe the “practices, risks, and groups of people who operate in Sweden, with or without permission, and their impact on society”. 

In a separate measure, the government has changed the “notification obligations” for the police, the Migration Agency and, in some cases, the Säpo security police, so that they need to inform the Tax Agency when asylum or residency applications have been rejected, when people have been ordered to leave Sweden, or when people’s residency permits have been revoked. 

So is it a census? 

A census is commonly understood as being a big national project, a little like an election, a snapshot where everyone in a country is counted over a few months or the course of a year. 

When Åkesson was asked when the census would begin, he said that it already had, as extra funding had already started to go to the Tax Agency so it could devote more efforts to estimating how many people there are in Sweden who are not in the population register. 

This indicates that it is not a census in the way most people would understand it, but more a tightening up of the way Sweden’s existing population register is maintained. 

“This is not a census, whatever you try and call it,” Gunnar Andersson, professor of demography at Stockholm University, told SVT. “You could possible say that it is an extension of the system of population registration and an attempt to find people who are not part of the registered population through random checks here and there.”

According to the opposition Social Democrats, the measures aren’t even the government’s own. 

Niklas Karlsson, the Social Democrat chair of the parliament’s Committee on Taxation, told The Local in a written statement that the policies announced were in fact proposals made by the Social Democrats and left over from when they were in government. 

“There is nothing to do but welcome the Sweden Democrats and the government back to reality, and it is good that they have abandoned their fantasies about an enormously costly and ineffective census,” he said. 

Almost all of the measures mentioned, such as carrying out identity checks using biometric data and tightening up of the system of coordination numbers, were proposed by the Social Democrats. 

The former Social Democrat-led government also ordered an in-depth inquiry on how to improve the population register, in which the Tax Agency was asked for suggestions on additional powers or reforms it would like to have. This makes it hard to see what the Tax Agency will propose in September that it has not already suggested. 

Statistics Sweden, which is responsible for Sweden’s population register, has long argued that the existing registration-based approach is the most efficient way of monitoring how many people live in the country. 

In the Q&A section on the population registry, the agency is dismissive of the idea of a door-to-door checks. 

“It is extremely unclear how this would be done, what results it would generate and how these would be used,” it says of the door-knocking approach. “It’s hard to judge as no literal census has been carried out in Sweden in modern times.”

So will Swedish officials be raiding properties across Sweden to check who lives there? 

The Tax Agency already has the power to visit addresses to check who lives there, and a new law proposed by the Social Democrats which will come into force this autumn, will allow the agency to do that as the starting point of an investigation, rather than as a last resort. 

Nothing in the measures announced on Thursday appear to require the Tax Agency to use this power more than it already does. 

At the press conference, both Svantesson and Åkesson suggested the tax agency might knock on a few more doors

“Quite a lot of doors are going to end up getting knocked on, but we can’t do that everywhere. It’s not an effective use of taxpayer’s money,” Svantesson said at the press conference.

She told SVT that the tax agency would focus on risk areas, such as Sweden’s so-called ‘vulnerable areas’, with a high immigrant population. 

“In Örebro where I live, there are, for example, a lot of people that live in Vivalla, but not so many who are registered as living there. That’s a clear example of a risk area, but there are more,” she said. 

Åkesson, meanwhile, said that it would be “up to the Tax agency” whether it felt it was necessary to physically visit apartments in these areas to check who was living there.