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'You can't have a thin skin': Swedish Migration Agency chief gives farewell interview

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
'You can't have a thin skin': Swedish Migration Agency chief gives farewell interview
Migration Agency Director General Mikael Ribbenvik poses outside the main offices of the Migration Agency in Stockholm in March 2022. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/SvD/TT

Mikael Ribbenvik, chief of the Swedish Migration Agency, steps down in May after a 24-year career that saw him lead the response to the 2015 refugee crisis and, as Director General, adapt the agency to a stricter migration policy. The Local spoke to him for our Sweden in Focus podcast.


The biggest challenge of Ribbenvik's career did not come in his six years as Director General, but before that, when he was Director of Operations in 2015, the year when 163,000 asylum seekers crossed the border into Sweden.

"It was well over 130,000 in just a few months – 2,000 per day and I was in charge of all that," he told The Local's team. "It was the biggest challenge for the agency, ever."

What made the situation even more challenging was that Sweden had the year before already had to deal with a near-record number of asylum seekers. 

"What everybody forgets is the refugee crisis of 2014. Do you remember that one? Nobody remembers that. So we were at well over 80,000 in 2014, which was equal to the highest year of the Balkan crisis. The system was full and there's no blueprint for a thing like that, and in the first months we were quite alone. It was 'that's your task, go deal with it'." 

Ribbenvik gave the order to rent Malmömässan, the giant conference centre in Hyllie, the first train station in Sweden for arrivals from Denmark. 

Refugees arriving in Hyllie, southern Sweden, in 2015. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

"I remember I said, 'we need a big thing in Malmö. What's the biggest building in southern Sweden?' And that was the Malmö convention centre. And I said, 'get that'. 'But they have a garden show'. 'Well, we're going to pay better'." 

As soon as the centre was in the agency's hands, it was immediately filled with row after row of asylum seekers. 

"Suddenly, we had this huge hall filled with people, and that was essentially a waiting area to get people up north. One night, we had 26 buses rolling at the same time up north, and everything [up there] was full. So for two of the buses, the directive to the bus driver was 'drive north and drive slowly'."

"Sweden is a very long country, which meant that we had many hours to fix the next bus, so we were down to hour-by-hour at the end." 

Refugees board a bus outside Malmömässan in Hyllie in December 2015. Photo: Drago Prvulovic/TT



Given the upheaval caused by the 2015 crisis and the challenges Sweden has faced as a result, Ribbenvik is "not surprised at all" by the migration backlash of the last few years, which has seen the new government and its far-right support party, the Sweden Democrats, promising to drive through a "paradigm shift" on migration. 

"This is not a political statement. This is just from experience. But if something gets out of hand, if you can't control it, the response is often that the pendulum swings the other way, and that's exactly what's happened in Sweden," he said.

"That's why it's so important from my perspective to have well-managed migration. Because if is perceived to have gotten out of control, there will be a massive backlash, and we've seen that many times in different European countries."


For most of his tenure as Director General, Ribbenvik has primarily been attacked from the left for his agency's rejection of vulnerable people fleeing war, persecution and economic hardship, which is why he claims to have been tickled by being described as an "asylum activist" by the Sweden Democrat politician Björn Söder. 

"Everybody that knows me or knows of me thinks that is quite an absurd accusation," he said. "The criticism against the Migration Agency throughout the years has always been that we are too harsh, that we are too square and that we just we just think about the law, not about people – which is true, because the purpose of an agency is to follow the law. So to have that at the last minute was quite amusing actually." 


Sweden's government has not yet announced who it wants to succeed Ribbenvik, and he made sure to emphasise that he did not want to be seen as giving advice to his successor, as that would be to break with the tradition for Swedish agencies. 

There was one quality, though, he said he believed was essential to anyone in the position. 

"You can't have a thin skin," he said. "I'm quite a thin-skinned person privately, but in work, you can't be, because it will eat you up. No matter who you are, you will always be criticised and you will be criticised from all different angles.

"Some jobs are easy, because you get massive criticism, but only from one direction," he continued. "Here it comes from all directions. It's up, down, left, right – all angles." 

Foreigners in Sweden, for instance, frequently have a negative view of the Migration Agency, with readers of The Local often criticising the agency for long delays for residency and citizenship decisions, or decisions that are overly legalistic or incomprehensible. 


Ribbenvik, however, is proud of the agency in which he has risen from a case officer to becoming Director of Legal Affairs in 2008, Director of Operations and then, in 2017, Director General. 

"We are really good at what we do, contrary to popular perception," he said. "Without a doubt, we're, if not the best, then one of the best migration agencies in Europe, and everybody thinks that as soon as you step outside of Sweden." 

"We have well-functioning systems, we abide by the law, and we uphold all the criteria we're supposed to, and there are some of our colleagues that don't," he explained.  

The stories in the media about asylum seekers finally being deported after waiting nine years for a decision are always gross simplifications, he claimed. 

"That is always, without exception, false," he said. "That means, OK, the person has been here for nine years, but they got their decision nine years ago, then there was an appeal, and then there was another appeal, then there's the statute of limitation, then there was a new application, then they absconded for a while, then they came back. And, you know, there's 14 decisions in a case like that. So that is not handling time. That is something else." 

It was a similar story, he claimed, when it came to complaints of long waits for work permits and work permit renewals. 

"The problem with narrative is that you find a case and then you describe the system from that one case," he said.

"So by regulation, we should have four months [to process a work permit] and our average time is four and a half. So we're late, we should be under four months," he continued. "And in the certification process, we try to keep to 10 days, but we can't do that. I think we're at over 30 days. But still, it's days...not months or years." 

As for the criticism the agency received this year from Sweden's parliamentary watchdog, Ribbenvik noted that the ombudsman's letter of criticism had also been directed to the Justice Ministry.

"Clearly, he feels we're underfunded and, I mean, I've been here 24 years, and I have not seen one year where any government has said 'well, we'll give you what you want, because it's really important that you keep to the [case handling] times, so we're prioritising." 

Refugees from Ukraine queue outside Migrationsverket in Jägersro in Malmö in March 2022. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Last year, the agency received 104,000 applications for first time work permits, extensions, and accompanying family members, a rate he described as "astounding", and he said that even though the Ukraine crisis had not turned out to be as big a challenge as initially feared, it had also absorbed a lot of resources. 


He said that he hoped that the new minimum salary threshold for work permits, which will come into force in October, would reduce the number of work permit applications, meaning those for high skilled labour can be processed more quickly.

"A rejection will be easier, because if you don't reach the threshold, then we don't have to do anything as it's too low. I don't imagine you will have that kind of applications. They won't apply," he said. 

He said that if the salary threshold went as high as the median salary it would remove about a third of applications. 

As reported earlier, he also said he hoped to announce a new, more efficient system for high-skilled labour, before he departs at the end of May. 

Looking back to the 2015 crisis, Ribbenvik rejected the language used to describe Sweden 'taking in' 163,000 refugees, or 'opening its borders'.

"The only people Sweden actively brings here are the quota [refugees]. The rest, they just show up," he said. "If you go back to 2015, Europe was still open. We were all Schengen citizens. That's why it's also wrong when people say that in 2015, 'we opened our borders'. We did that a long time ago. Actually, the border between Sweden and Denmark was opened in 1954." 

When refugees started arriving in Sweden after Russia's invasion at the end of February last year, initially the numbers were bigger than in the heaviest weeks of 2015. 

"It just went, boom, and everybody was coming at the same time. So we had higher numbers than we ever had in 2015," he remembers. 

Then the European Union triggered the Temporary Protection Directive, which meant that the agency did not have to carry out a full asylum process with Ukrainians coming to the country, meaning they could get what he called "a robot" to take the decisions. "He gets employee of the month every month because he's so very zealous," he joked. 


But the agency had also learned from 2015. 

"Experience is sometimes perceived as the ability to do the same thing that you have done before. I think experience is the opposite. It's the ability to do something completely different than before," he said. 

A big problem in 2015 had been that municipalities which had a lot of empty hotels and other accommodation received vastly disproportionate numbers of refugees, while people who Ribbenvik calls "asylum oligarchs" cashed in. 

In 2022, the Migration Agency asked the government to change the law so that the municipalities, who themselves own a lot of buildings, were responsible for housing refugees, rather than the Migration Agency.

The biggest thing he learned from 2015, however, was when to admit that the agency was overwhelmed. 

"I remember that the Director General at the time, Anders Danielsson, and I were saying all the time, 'There's no crisis. There is no problem. We got this. We got this covered', and I've no idea why, because there was a real crisis, and we couldn't handle it by ourselves."

"But this time around, on the first day, the first chance I got, the first press conference, I just rolled over and said 'we can't handle this. No, no, no, no, this is too big'." 

Ribbenvik with Anders Ygeman, the then-minister for integration and migration, at a press conference in early April 2022. Photo: Paul Wennerholm/TT


So what's next for Mikael Ribbenvik? 

Right now, he's unwilling to give any details, saying only that he hopes that when he officially retires at the end of this month, he will not stay so for long. 

"On that day, I will actually be retired, but I hope not to stay in retirement too long, and as soon as I have something to tell, I will speak about that, but I can't today." 

Listen to our full interview with Mikael Ribbenvik in The Local's Sweden in Focus podcast.


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