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IMMIGRATION

Sweden eases rules for international students during coronavirus pandemic

The Swedish Migration Agency has scrapped a rule that made it harder for international students to get a residence permit if their university moved classes online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sweden eases rules for international students during coronavirus pandemic
The Migration Agency has announced changes to its rules for student residence permits in Sweden. Photo: Adam Wrafter/SvD/TT

The Swedish Migration Agency has removed a previous requirement that student permit applicants physically be on campus for 50 percent of their course.

This means that unlike last year, in 2021 it will be easier for non-EU students to get a student permit despite many universities having switched to remote teaching due to corona. Normally, one of the requirements for a student permit is that the majority of teaching takes place on campus, which means distance teaching is usually not sufficient.

Swedish universities have generally been offering mostly distance teaching since mid-March last year, and many international students have told The Local that the many conflicting recommendations and requirements caused them a lot of stress, with time zones and travel restrictions causing problems for those who had to return to their home countries because they could not renew their permit. Meanwhile, many universities required students to be present on campus at the start of their course.

The Migration Agency said at the time that they were able to grant permits as long as most of the teaching was on-campus, and would try to interpret the rules generously.

But it will likely come as a relief to international students that the 50 percent in-person attendance requirement will now be removed for student residence permits in 2021.

The Migration Agency writes that “the starting point is still that you must stay in Sweden to complete your education” but that “the reason for the loosening of the rules is that attendance on campus cannot be decisive for the agency’s assessment of residence permits for full-time students, because higher education institutions have adapted their activities to national advice and recommendations based on the current situation”.

The exception will only apply to courses that would normally have been held in person, but have moved online due to the pandemic.

A previous exception that student permit holders no longer have to leave Sweden to apply for a new permit for the coming semester during the summer holidays when they are not studying will also be kept in place for 2021, said the Migration Agency.

Thirdly, it will be possible to receive a student permit for university education from August 1st, 2021, regardless of when the course starts. Normally, the permit is only valid from 14 days before the start of the semester.

“The purpose of the decision is to make it easier for higher education institutions to offer study preparation courses to their international students before the start of the semester,” writes the Migration Agency.

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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend showed how Sweden’s third party, the far-right Sweden Democrats, has shaped Swedish politics since the last elections four years ago, argues David Crouch

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

In the build-up to the 2018 elections, the world’s media descended on Stockholm, expecting a breakthrough by the Sweden Democrats (SD) who had been polling as high as 25 percent. In the end, SD took third place with around 18 percent of the vote.

Four years later, SD are hovering at around the same level in the polls. However, Swedish politics has been utterly transformed, as the other main parties have moved onto political terrain previously occupied by SD.

This would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. When they first entered parliament, SD were treated as political pariahs, a racist party, held at arm’s length by the other parties who refused to cooperate with them in any way.

Attempts to bring the SD into the mainstream of Swedish politics fell flat. The leader of the centre-right Moderates lost her job after suggesting it was “time to stop demonising” the SD. Her replacement, Ulf Kristersson, said he would neither negotiate nor govern with them. After the elections, two smaller centre-right parties – the Centre and the Liberals – agreed to prop up the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to prevent the SD gaining any influence in parliament.

It was clear, however, that the only chance for the centre-right to govern would be with SD support. After all, in Finland and Norway right-wing populist parties had entered government with the centre right. And in Denmark, the centre-right had governed with populist support. If it worked there, why not in Sweden?

In early 2019, the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson famously had meatballs for lunch with Ebba Busch, the leader of the tiny Christian Democrats, who acted as a bridge-builder. A few months later, Kristersson met the SD leader for the first time in his Stockholm office. By early 2021 the cordon sanitaire dividing the parties had been truly dismantled, and in the autumn the three parties presented a joint budget.

Meanwhile, the Moderates stepped up their rhetoric against immigration and crime. But perhaps the influence has worked both ways? Maybe the far-right have toned down their policies, compromising with the centre so the parties can work together?

On the contrary, Åkesson and other leading SD figures have stoked up the fire and brimstone in their anti-immigrant message. For the SD, the problem is dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries whose values conflict with Sweden’s and who should therefore be deported.

The response among the Moderates – and also the governing Social Democrats – has been a deafening silence.

After the Easter riots in six Swedish cities, the Social Democrat government proposed a package of coercive measures to help the police and social services crackdown on criminals.

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend brought this out very clearly. More than that, it showed how the Sweden Democrats have shaped Swedish politics since the country last voted four years ago.

In the debate on Sunday, prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about being tough on crime and boasted that Sweden now has one of the strictest immigration regimes in Europe.

It was left to the Green Party (polling 4 percent) and the Centre Party (6 percent) to challenge the SD on immigration. They pointed out that the violent minority is tiny, and that tens of thousands of recent immigrants hold down jobs, obey the law and contribute to Swedish society.

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf listed some of the SD’s more extreme proposals, including demolition of high-immigration neighbourhoods, dawn raids on refugees, and collective punishment for crimes committed by a single family member. This was “pure racism”, Lööf said – where were the “red lines”, beyond which the centre-right would turn against the SD?

All the parties agree that segregation along ethnic lines has gone too far in Sweden, that integration efforts have failed and that something must be done. But there is a paucity of bold ideas that could really make a difference.

Immigration will once more be a battleground at the elections in September, with key politicians competing to be the toughest in dealing with unruly “foreigners”. Meanwhile, the underlying problems that have fuelled disaffection among people with immigrant backgrounds are unlikely to be addressed.

A few weeks ago, Swedish journalist Janne Josefsson spoke to Ahmed, one of the stone-throwing youngsters who shocked the country at Easter.

“We are second class citizens. You let us in, but then Sweden doesn’t care about us,” Ahmed told him. “We are trapped here. I have studied, but will never get a good job. At least once a week we are stopped by the police. In the end, you feel hunted, like a quarry. Do you understand?”

It seems that Swedish politicians don’t really want to.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

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