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What's the issue?
Hundreds of skilled foreign workers have been deported or are facing deportation from Sweden after the Swedish Migration Agency refused to extend their work permits. In many cases, the reason for the rejection is a small or minor error, often relating to a previous job or something which has since been fixed. This has become known as 'kompetensutvisning' (roughly 'deportation of talent') in Swedish.
It's not only a major problem for the affected professionals, who are likely to have put down roots in Sweden during the time spent working here, but also for the Swedish economy which relies on foreign talent to plug skills shortages.
READ ALSO: 'I'm being deported because I didn't take vacation, but Sweden is my home'
Why has this happened?
The short answer: bureaucracy.
The long answer: Back in the early 2000s, Sweden had a lot of restrictions around labour migration, with strict quotas for different professions based on government assessments of where the labour shortages were. These were relaxed significantly in 2008, so that anyone from outside the EU could move to Sweden for work if they could find an employer there.
But some employers used the looser rules to exploit foreign workers – who might be more willing to put up with poor working conditions, or might simply find themselves without any other options in a new country. There were very few checks on employers and seasonal berry-pickers faced particular problems, with scandals reported each year.
Berry-pickers in Sweden. Photo: Jurek Holzer/SCANPIX
To rectify this, the Migration Agency was given power to carry out checks on employers, who had to offer workers pay and conditions in line both with Swedish industry norms and the initial contract offered to the employee, and from 2014 onwards it has been able to revoke work permits if employers haven't complied.
After a 2015 decision from the Migration Court of Appeal, the Migration Agency interpreted cases on an increasingly strict basis, leading to many deportations even when both the employee and employer had done as much as possible to adhere to the rules. The assessments also started applying retroactively, pushing up waiting times for decisions and meaning it was possible to be deported over a past mistake, even if the employer had since rectified it or if the employee had since moved jobs.
How many people are affected?
It's hard to say exactly, but the number of deported foreign professionals is in the hundreds.
In 2017, more than 1,500 people had their work permit extensions rejected. It's not possible to say how many rejections were due to minor errors, but the number is well over double the figures for the previous four years.
READ ALSO: Sweden needs to do more for its international workers, report argues
These workers face having their lives in Sweden uprooted, and the issue is also having a clear effect on physical and mental health, according to initial results of a study this year. Almost all of the 237 respondents 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.
Between January and mid-April this year, 990 decisions in work permit renewal cases were made, with 83 percent of these (820) approved and only 88 rejected. This appeared to be a positive trend compared to 2017's average of 125 rejections per month.
Has anyone done anything about this?
Yes, but it's been slow progress.
In December 2017, the Swedish Migration Court of Appeal ruled that Migrationsverket's decision should be based on an overall assessment of each case, rather than allowing single, small errors to derail an application. This went into effect immediately and was hailed a landmark ruling for work permit holders.
There have been several successes since: 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.
Programmer Safinaz Awad, in the purple shirt, celebrating with her colleagues. Photo: Sweet Systems
The government had been working on a new work permits law to address the problem too, but said this was no longer necessary after the December ruling. An earlier law change means workers should not be deported over mistakes in their paperwork if these mistakes are corrected before they are picked up by the Migration Agency. This is only likely to be relevant in a small percentage of cases though, since many of the minor errors aren't picked up before the agency's assessment.
In the meantime, multiple groups are campaigning for more support and clearer rules for work permit holders. The non-profit public interest law firm Centre for Justice has taken on several work permit cases; the Work Permit Holders Association represents the affected individuals; and the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce and CEOs of multiple companies in the tech industry have highlighted the damaging economic implications.
And publications including The Local have worked to bring the issue to public attention. A Swedish MP submitted a formal parliamentary question about a sales engineer facing deportation due to a former employer's error, which he learned about by reading The Local. The MP said the case proves that a legislation change is still needed, even after the December ruling.
I'm worried about my work permit status. What can I do?
Speak to your employer as soon as possible if you are a non-EU worker in Sweden on a work permit and have concerns.
Your company should be able to help you with the paperwork for your permit extension and to make sure things like the correct insurance plans are in place. You can also read up on the rules for work permits on the Migration Agency's website, and get in touch with them if you have a specific question.
If you do spot a mistake – a missing insurance policy, an inconsistency in vacation or salary, or so on – don't panic. The December 2017 ruling means that a small error shouldn't automatically lead to a work permit being revoked. Try to speak to your employer to fix the error if possible, and ask the Migration Agency for advice.
Revealed: How many work permits Sweden has granted so far in 2018, and to whom