For the third time in my life, I am an immigrant. I moved to Sweden in 2015 to work as a PhD candidate in political science at Stockholm University. As an immigrant closely following the Swedish election to be held on Sunday, I can't help but remember 2012.
I was living in London at the time and working on a master's degree at the London School of Economics. The Conservative Party won the general election in 2010, at which time I had been studying in Denmark. The Tories pledged during their campaign to cut immigration to the UK "from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands".
Theresa May became Home Secretary and was therefore responsible for turning this campaign promise into policy. Voters heard "immigrant" and thought of Muslim refugees bleeding the welfare state dry, of hearing Polish in the queue at Waitrose, of Sharia courts proliferating in Birmingham. But refugees are difficult to expel from a country for practical, legal and moral reasons, and EU migrants (pre-Brexit) could not be legally deported.
Everyone said, "But you're American. You will be allowed to stay. There's always a fast track for Americans. You're not a 'real immigrant.'" Fast forward to July 2012 and me sobbing at Heathrow Airport, holding a one way ticket to New York.
In order to deliver on their promise, the Tories in 2012 cut the post-study work visa – a Blair-era policy that encouraged graduates from British universities to stay and look for work in the UK. Without this visa, there were few realistic options for skilled migrants to remain in the UK absent unlimited personal wealth. I applied for more than 300 British jobs, and having a master's degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the country qualified me for an interview for precisely zero. Not one. Many companies sent me auto-reject e-mails when I ticked the "needs sponsorship for a residence permit" box on applications. The same was true for every non-EU student I knew at LSE.
Now we have a fresh election coming in Sweden. The Social Democrats want to restrict labor migration to fields with a government-determined "shortage". The (so-called) Liberals and Moderates want to impose language and culture exams on people like me who want to stay and work in Sweden. The current immigration rules allow me to apply for permanent residence next year. If the right wins, I may not get it. If the left wins, am I guaranteed to be able to stay with my employer?
In addition to working as an instructor and researcher at the university, I work with a consulting firm where I help global companies to enter the Swedish market and Swedish companies to grow and hire domestically. I am young and healthy, paying into a pension system from which I am not guaranteed to benefit. I do all of my work in English, not Swedish. I have dozens of close friends, who are the main reason I want to stay in Sweden. But for three of the mainstream political parties – and one on the far right – I may not, apparently, have "integrated" into Swedish society. I speak some Swedish, but my ability to pass a stringent language exam is not assured. And who knows what arbitrary cultural traditions I must have memorized in order to pass a culture exam.
For less skilled migrants, there are still a ridiculous amount of obstacles to integration and to work that have nothing to do with language. The byzantine and ascetic housing system that imposes segregation is the biggest, but many other factors most Swedes never have to consider play a part. Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) courses are over-subscribed (in my SFI class, there were around 80 students), allowing little chance for many people to learn fluent Swedish. Private language courses, especially in the major cities, are very expensive.
There is also the issue of restrictions on qualifications that making working – and getting to work – unnecessarily difficult for immigrants.
It can cost more than 15,000 kronor to get a Swedish driving licence if one needs courses to pass the notoriously difficult Swedish driving exams; non-EU licences are invalid after the first year of residence. Canadians who have been driving for 30 years in their home country would be considered less qualified than a Swedish teenager with a learner's permit. How are refugees expected to pony up thousands of dollars to learn a skill they already have for a job they barely want?
A Harvard doctorate in clinical psychology is worth less than a Swedish university's bachelor's degree for mental health professionals. And if you do work in a field with transferable qualifications, it can take months – even years – to process the transfer. Yet the Liberals and Moderates rail on about language exams and cultural assimilation as the only path to work, while the Social Democrats insist that the government knows better than employers who to hire.
Immigrants contribute enormously to Swedish society – and those who don't often want to, but can't. Swedes keep telling me, "You'll be fine. You're educated and American. You're not THAT type of immigrant."
Well, I've heard that before, and it's bullshit.
Ian Higham lives in Stockholm and is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Stockholm University and a public affairs consultant with Crimson Clarke.