OPINION: Sweden’s new migration act will send international talent elsewhere

OPINION: Sweden's new migration act will send international talent elsewhere
Sweden's new Migration Law or Aliens Act has created impossible conditions for PhD students to pursue a career in Sweden, write the authors of this opinion piece. Photo: Tor Johnsson/SvD/TT
Sweden's new migration act imposes tough conditions for permanent residency. Jenny Iao-Jörgensen and Benny Borghei of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) argue this will do long-term damage to the country's attractiveness to the top international talents.

The Aliens Act brought amendments to the Swedish migration requirements for obtaining a permanent residence permit (permanent uppehållstillstånd – PUT).

The new requirements that came into force on July 20th, 2021, severely affect foreign doctoral candidates and researchers in Sweden. It wastes several years of tax-funded investments in research by expelling thousands of foreign PhD graduates and researchers from the country.

Furthermore, it hampers Sweden’s research and development attractiveness and impedes the scientific excellence brought by international talents to the country.

The new requirements for permanent residence permits stipulate that the applicants provide proof of permanent or fixed-term employment contracts lasting at least 18 months from the date on which their applications will be examined, or in some cases show the proof of trial employment or other means of support.

Unemployment insurance benefits are not counted as qualifying financial support, and the application for permanent residency can only be made 14 days before the current permit expires. There is no transition time; hence those who applied before July 20th are also subject to the new requirements at very short notice.

Many of our members at SULF Doctoral Candidates’ Association expressed their deepest concerns about these requirements, which completely overlook the generally vulnerable nature of doctoral employment conditions, making it practically impossible for anyone from outside EU/EEA to fulfil the stringent conditions. Hence, we draw the attention to the following issues that place our members in an extremely unfavourable situation:

  • Researchers and doctoral candidates’ employment contracts are short, fixed-term and often extended annually. In many cases, contracts may get even shorter, sometimes three-to-six months at a time. 
  • Doctoral candidates cannot change job due to the temporary residency permits issued specifically for doctoral employment. Hence, they get caught in a circular deadlock where their temporary residency permit does not allow for changing of employment-type, while their permanent residence permit depends on the proof of long-term or permanent employment.
  • Doctoral candidates experience the most stressful situation near graduation. They may still be teaching and must publish articles and write a doctoral dissertation while preparing for final defence of their doctoral degree. It is during this time that they have to find a long-term or permanent employment to fulfil the new requirements for permanent residency permit; otherwise, they would run the risk of being expelled from Sweden as their temporary residence permit expires.
  • A majority of them have already spent several years of continued residency in Sweden, made special ties with the Swedish academic system and the public society. Many of them have families and children born in Sweden and have lived in Sweden for many years, contributing to Swedish society in different ways. Many accepted the job in Sweden based on previous legislation grounds that allowed permanent residency after four years. The prospect of being expelled from the country with these new requirements completely break those social contracts.

According to the Swedish Higher-Education Authority (UKÄ), 37 percent of the total 17,000 doctoral candidates registered in 2020 are from foreign countries; of whom six-in-ten leave Sweden after graduation.

Other reports suggested 66 percent of the non-EU/EEA researchers previously eligible for Swedish permanent residency are considering leaving Sweden. Now, with the tightening requirements in force, further numbers will have to leave or will be deterred from accepting doctoral or research employment due to the gloomy residency regulations in Sweden.

These changes stand at odds with the ambitions for internationalisation of higher-education and scientific advancements, hampering Sweden’s reputation and aspirations as an attractive place for global talents. Sweden has made significant investments in research and education in recent years, but the tightening requirements for permanent residency permits would make other countries reap the benefits of those public investments. 

Since the 2014 landmark legislation granting doctoral candidates permanent residency, we observed great advances in attracting talents from other countries, but the new requirements set back those advancements, adding another layer of vulnerability to thousands of researchers and their family members in Sweden.

We demand that politicians, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Education and the Migration Agency take immediate action to mitigate the insecurities implied by the Aliens Act. They need to work together to ensure that the implementation of the Aliens Act does not play against Swedish public interests. Meanwhile, we inform respective university staff about the aforementioned challenges and call for their consideration and support to the foreign doctoral candidates and researchers affected by those extreme requirements inflicted by the Aliens Act.

Jenny Iao-Jörgensen is chair of the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers – Doctoral Candidates Association (SULF-DCA). Benny Borghei is member of the Nomination Committee and a former board member at SULF-DCA.

Benny Borghei and Jenny Iao-Jörgensen. Photos: Private

Member comments

  1. Times have definitely changed in the once welcoming Sweden , and I don’t blame the Government for tightening up the requirements for living and working in Sweden . Too many people come to Sweden to abuse the hospitality the country offers out of empathy for the downtrodden .

    1. Aye, changed they certainly have. The immigration policy of Sweden has indeed been profoundly naïve and resulted in an undesirable situation, but let us not buy into the pretense that the government is doing this because they actually give a damn about the damaging consequences of a policy they have only been too happy to stand by up until recently. The ruling social democrats are terrified of losing even more ground to the right come next election and are doing this to appease public sentiment. They have held onto the reins of power for far too long and are not willing to relinquish it.

      The problematic aspect of Sweden’s immigration policy has been asylum-seeking and illegal immigration. They have been grossly exploited and now in attempt to save face and curtail it, the government is tightening the immigration screws, but are doing so indiscriminately and without adequately differentiating between the different forms of immigration.

    2. ” today in Sweden, around 40% of all doctoral candidates and around 75% of all staff with career-development positions (a position people have within a certain time after completing their doctoral degree) have a foreign background.” please read this article “New migration law will ‘harm Swedish research’ – Unions” at worlduniversitynews.com

      It is worth noting that just in December 2020, the Swedish government wrote that it wanted the proportion of international doctoral students who stay in Sweden to increase and that it was important to be able to both recruit them and retain the skills and competencies they possess within this country (Research, freedom, future-knowledge, and innovation for Sweden, Bill 2020/21: 60, p. 123). Despite this, only a few months later the proposals for changes in the Aliens Act were presented which will quite obviously lead to the opposite result.

  2. A classic case of creating more problems in order to solve one. The social democrats wanted to appear tough on immigration so that they stop losing votes to the right-wing parties. In my understanding, the initial idea was to stop or make it difficult to get PR to refugees and to introduce the language requirements for citizenship, but they ended up screwing the other immigrant categories as well. This will result in 1) highly qualified trained manpower leaving Sweden to other countries, 2) for Universities to struggle to hire new doctoral students from abroad.

    Reading this article gives me the impression that those who drafted the bill had no idea of its implications on doctoral students. How could a doctoral student be expected to show/get a permanent (or 18 months minimum) job during the last/fifth year of her Ph.D.? Ridiculous!

  3. If doctoral students won’t be allowed to stay in Sweden upon completion of their studies, that would be indeed very damaging to research in Sweden in general. However, the specific section on studying and research in Sweden on Migrationsverket website reads the following: “If you have lived in Sweden and had a residence permit for doctoral studies for a total of four years over the past seven years, and are in employment or self-employed in Sweden, you may be able to get a permanent residence permit. Studies at a PhD-/doctoral level are studies that will lead to a licentiate degree, licentiate degree in design, doctoral degree or a doctoral degree in design.”
    As far as I know, universities are obliged to provide funding for doctoral students for four years, which automatically entitles them for a permanent visa. Is there anything I miss here?

    1. You have to check on the separate website titled “Perma­nent resi­dence permits for doctoral students” or “Perma­nent uppe­hålls­till­stånd för dokto­rander” for the swedish version. It seems to me you are looking at the generic doktorand permit which is not the permanent one. Migrationsverket has separate websites for the permanent and temporal permits for doctoral students as the requirements are different and they are different permits.

      Yes you are paid during the doctoral studies, usually 4 years. Though it seems you’re missunderstanding the time frame: To get the permit you have to have been PhD students 4 years which is usually how long it last to get the degree. So basically you have to apply during the last 2 weeks of your PhD at the earliest and already have a job lined up for the subsequent 18 months after graduation.

      1. Here is where I check: https://www.migrationsverket.se/English/Private-individuals/Studying-and-researching-in-Sweden/Permanent-residence-permits-for-doctoral-students.html – just as you mentioned, it’s “Permanent residence permits for doctoral students”. Actually, I found another page here: https://www.migrationsverket.se/English/Private-individuals/Studying-and-researching-in-Sweden/Nyhetsarkiv/2021-07-28-New-requirements-for-permanent-residence-permits.html with some clarifications, which seem to actually contradict the first page. I guess, I’ll give them a call…

  4. “37 percent of the total 17,000 doctoral candidates registered in 2020 are from foreign countries; of whom six-in-ten leave Sweden after graduation.”

    In my own (developed) country, when the government funds a foreign PhD student’s education they will literally beg you and bribe you to stay. Otherwise what’s the point of paying for that? Unlike the refugees, many of us doctoral students and highly-skilled people are confident that we’ll do just fine in another country.

    Tax payers of Sweden have paid for my education. I wanted to stay. If the Swedes let me stay, the tax that I and my family will pay in the future will definitely exceed the cost of my education in just a few years. But now if the Swedes want to kick me out of this country then I really can’t have much complaints at all, except saying “thanks” and get my buttocks out of this country as they wished…

  5. There is another way to look at this, and this is that this gives Swedens own citizens an opportunity in both school and future employment. I see this as looking out for yourselves first.

    1. ” today in Sweden, around 40% of all doctoral candidates and around 75% of all staff with career-development positions (a position people have within a certain time after completing their doctoral degree) have a foreign background.” please read this article “New migration law will ‘harm Swedish research’ – Unions” at worlduniversitynews.com

      It is worth noting that just in December 2020, the Swedish government wrote that it wanted the proportion of international doctoral students who stay in Sweden to increase and that it was important to be able to both recruit them and retain the skills and competencies they possess within this country (Research, freedom, future-knowledge, and innovation for Sweden, Bill 2020/21: 60, p. 123). Despite this, only a few months later the proposals for changes in the Aliens Act were presented which will quite obviously lead to the opposite result.

  6. Hello: I can only say to my fellow doctorate graduate that’s its an opportunity to get out of this country even though may be not by choice. I am sure you won’t regret it…..better to take the bold decesion before its too late.

    1. Hi,

      For those who are stuck in a bad position and looking for options, I recommend Canada. It has the easiest immigration policies of any country on Earth, and is an advanced nation with high standards of living.

      Happy to provide the tip to help out.

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