The Swedish economy relies on attracting skilled workers from overseas, but many foreign professionals have been told to leave the country over small administrative mistakes in their permit paperwork — despite a court ruling last December which it was hoped would lead to fewer such cases.
Preliminary results from a small-scale study give insight into the profiles of the people who have been affected by the issue, and exactly how they have been affected. The survey was carried out by Sweden's Diversify Foundation, a non-profit organization promoting diversity in Swedish workplaces, together with the Work Permit Holders Association and The Local.
“Our objective with this study originally was to inform the general public about this issue to how and why this policy has been implemented during record growth and 'kompetensbrist' [skills shortage]. However, the preliminary results show that the effects on people's health presents a potential human rights issue in addition to a debate on legal migration,” said Matt Kriteman, Chief Operations Officer of Diversify Foundation.
Respondents to the survey had spent an average of 5.5 years in Sweden and almost half spoke Swedish well, implying a high level of integration into the country. The most common countries of origin were Bangladesh, India, Iran, and Pakistan.
Almost all (94 percent) had a Bachelor's Degree or higher, while over half had completed at least one university degree in Sweden. More respondents came from the computer/IT sector than any other, followed by restaurant-related, cleaning and engineering jobs, all areas where Sweden has a large skills shortage.
One software developer with a Swedish university degree and a job in Sweden said that both he and his wife had suffered from depression during ten months waiting for a decision on his permit extension. “I couldn't focus on my work and even my children are suffering from this because we couldn't give them proper attention,” he said.
Almost all the respondents (92 percent) said the work permit renewal process had affected the health of them and their family, with close to one in three reporting stress and one in five reporting feeling depressed. Some individuals reported extreme reactions such as hospitalization, panic attacks, burnout, and high blood pressure which they linked to the stress of the process, and one had suffered a miscarriage.
“I am mentally broken and depressed,” wrote one man working as a restaurant assistant in Sweden, where he has lived for eight years. He said he had not been able to visit his wife in his home country during her pregnancy, and had not been able to meet his own two-year-old daughter.
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As well as the severe impact on the individuals, the survey's results suggested that issues with work permit applications could have a long-term negative impact on Sweden's attractiveness to international professionals. In November last year, two CEOs of Swedish tech companies told The Local they were aware of non-EU workers leaving Sweden to find work in countries with more lenient rules for foreign workers, and discouraging other internationals from moving to Sweden for work.
Three quarters of respondents to the Diversify Foundation survey said they would not recommend moving to Sweden for work to other internationals. While only 5 percent said Sweden lacked rewarding work, the “unclear system” was a decisive factor for 44 percent of those surveyed, while 21 percent said it took too long to get a decision on work permits.
A further eight percent said the Swedish system was “not humane”.
“I would warn them that is a dead trap. You can invest seven or ten years of your life, and they then can kick you out, for something you had no influence on it, or any technicality,” one worker said.
In a December judgment hailed as a success for foreign workers, Sweden's Migration Court of Appeal ruled that work permit decisions should be made on an overall assessment of each case. This meant that small mistakes that employers had tried to rectify should not derail an application for permit renewal.
As a result, the government to cancel plans for a new law on work permits, with ministers saying the Court of Appeal case had resolved the key issues. There have been some individual victories since the December ruling: an Iraqi man facing deportation for failing to take sufficient holiday was allowed to stay in Sweden, and a Syrian computer programmer was able to return to her Stockholm job following her deportation to Greece.
But others have still had their permit extensions rejected over apparently minor errors, and the results from the Diversify Foundation survey suggest that the continuing uncertainty is having negative consequences both on individual workers' health and quality of life, and on the attractiveness of Sweden as a place to work.
The survey's preliminary results were based on 237 vetted responses gathered by Diversify Foundation, which is still looking for any further respondents who have been affected by work permit-related issues to take the survey.
Of those included in the initial survey, not all had been denied a work permit extension: 16.4 percent had had their extensions granted while one in three (32.4 percent) had not yet received a decision but were worried about an in-progress application. A further 15.1 percent had been denied an extension due to an employer's error and 13.9 percent were denied due an administrative error.