Why I wish Sweden’s failing Migration Agency was an election issue

The Migration Agency has a reputation among immigrants for being slow to respond to applications - be it for citizenship, work permits or residence permits. Ben Robertson asks: why aren't the failures of the Migration Agency an election issue?

Why I wish Sweden's failing Migration Agency was an election issue
Migration Agency offices in Sundbyberg. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

I took a visit to Swedish Migration Agency, or Migrationsverket, earlier this week.

This is unusual, as I not only moved here ten years ago but also have Swedish citizenship, and this is an agency Swedish citizens would not usually have any dealings with. However the joys of Brexit mean that both me and my son are temporarily registered in Sweden’s system as “British” rather than “Swedish”, so we can register for some cute little ID cards with Article 50 [the article signalling the UK’s wish to leave the EU] emblazoned upon them. Thanks Boris.

Holding one of these Brexit cards actually holds a tiny advantage over Swedish citizenship, which I won’t go into here.

The Migration Agency has been a government department in chaos for the best part of ten years. Sweden took in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria back in 2015 and overloaded the department, and frankly, it hasn’t come close to recovering.

The agency has its own timescale calculator for cases: applying to work in Sweden in the building industry comes with a twelve-month wait for 75 percent of cases; if an Albanian (to pick a random non-EU country beginning with A) wants to move to Sweden after living together in a relationship with a Swedish woman for over two years, 75 percent of cases are settled within 17 months; if you want to be a Swedish citizen, regardless of whether you meet the criteria or not, 75 percent of cases are settled within 39 months.

That is three years and three months.

For those thinking this is a worldwide problem, think again. The United Kingdom estimates that you should expect a wait of “around six months” for citizenship after applying. The average processing time in the United States is 14.5 months and it’s “up to two years” in France. In Denmark, it’s around 14 months, and in Norway 16 months.  Finland keeps it vague at between eight and 23 months.

Nowhere that is as slow as Sweden is today.

The country tried to solve this politically by bringing in a law that meant that if your case had been dragging on for more than six months you could request it to be heard by the Migration Agency. A queue jump effectively. Except that soon almost every applicant tried to jump the queue in this way, and was then automatically rejected, meaning a huge amount of of administration was created for nothing. Slow hand clap there, Sweden.

As we come into an election it is easy to shout the virtues of democracy, but this is an example where democracy has failed. Migrationsverket as an issue is completely absent from the election. 

When it comes to migration policy, politicians may speak about the need to bring in language tests, or ensure that Sweden remains or doesn’t remain a country open to refugees, but not one is discussing the crumbling framework of the Migration Agency.

And perhaps isn’t so surprising that it is mentioned in none of the party manifestos, as the people it affects are people who can’t vote. 

So back to my visit to the Migration Agency’s Sundbyberg office to get photographs and fingerprints done. I was lucky to find an available booking (when I first looked, Stockholm had zero availability, and I was recommended to go to Västerås instead). Booking time slots at the agency works better than trying to ring them. It is common knowledge among immigrants that if you aren’t on the phone at 8am sharp, you can forget about speaking to anybody at the Migration Agency call centre.

On arrival, you come to a busy customer service point. I had a a pre booked time and apparently I needed to put my code in somewhere, but the only people I could find to point me in the right direction were the security guards.

With a little help, though, I eventually found the little machine, but it’s little surprise to me that several people were so befuddled by the need to punch in numbers that they got in the long snaking queue around the room to speak to an adviser, and as a result missing their pre-booked time

I had my (sometimes) adorable three year old in tow, and I don’t think I’ve seen a sadder children’s room in all of Sweden. Most toys were broken, the number of books were in single digits and the walls had been scribbled all over.

When I finally got to the desk to get my photos and fingerprints taken from the Migrationsverket member of staff, it was easy. Once we’d not-smiled for the photos and checked the information, the last piece of information we received was that it would take between two to four weeks to receive our shiny cards confirming our rights as former EU citizens. That’s not a problem, but the letter beforehand suggested this would be a one week wait, so it was yet another Migration Agency delay.

Given the agency’s poor service, you might be surprised to find out that it has actually decreased staffing 9 percent in the last year, and since 2019 the amount spent on salaries has dropped by 11 percent.

When faced with backlogs, cutting staffing seems the opposite of what you should do, and, like clockwork, the wave of refugees from Ukraine resulted in a department unable to cope, with multi-day queues and unnecessary conflicts.

In the elections coming up, the majority of people voting have never and never will have to deal with the Migration Agency. It is a crying shame that this issue will never be one a government can win or lose an election over.

Member comments

  1. I’m intrigued by Ben Robertson saying that he and his son need “cute little ID cards with Article 50 emblazoned upon them.” Pray tell us more. Do all UK-Swedish citizens need this little card?

    I haven’t seen The Local mention this hiccup, although they usually publish a lot of useful information about nationality issues. There are thousands of UK-passport holders who have obtained Swedish citizenship over the years, and I haven’t seen a squeak about us needing a cute little ID card. Please tell us more.

    1. The ID card in the article probably meant the residence permit. If you have citizenship, you don’t need it.

  2. FYI – the Uppsala Office has drop-in times available daily. There were no times available for 3 months when I arrived in May. We showed up around 11am, waited over 2 hours and then I got my photo and fingerprints done the same week I arrived in Sweden. I thought it was definately worth the wait!

  3. I was calling them for tracking my visa extension status 3 months after submission – I was kindly told by the staff the average waiting time is 14 months, without shame

  4. The cruelty is the point. The government boasts of reducing migration, and it doesn’t matter how. Attrition of applicants resulting from years of abuse at the hands of a failing system is a policy decision, just like any other.

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OPINION: Sweden should welcome Russians who don’t want to kill Ukrainians 

Finland, Poland and the Baltic states are stopping Russians from leaving Russia. It would be a tragedy if Sweden did the same, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Sweden should welcome Russians who don’t want to kill Ukrainians 
An iron curtain is descending across Europe. But in contrast to the beginning of the Cold War, the curtain is being drawn down by EU countries – not Russia. 

Any day now, Finland is poised to ban Russians from entering the country on tourist visas, to keep out men who want to avoid being drafted to fight in Ukraine. Announcing the policy, the country’s foreign minister said Finland was becoming “a transit country for Russians who want to leave their homeland for fear of being forced into war, and this traffic could harm Finland’s international position”. Opinion polls put 70 percent of the public in favour of a ban.

The number of Russians entering Finland doubled following Putin’s imposition a week ago of a “partial” mobilisation of men for the war effort in Ukraine. Finland’s Border Guard service is demanding a border fence 2.5m to 4m tall, topped with barbed wire, to keep the Russians out – an idea that taken seriously by the government.

Our Nordic neighbour is following a trend: the Baltics and Poland have already put an end to visas for Russians, including conscientious objectors to the war. The Czech Republic said last week that Russian deserters will not receive asylum. 

“We see them not as antiwar people, we see them as anti-fighting-the-war people,” Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, told the New York Times. “They were not fleeing Russia when Bucha happened, when Kyiv was shelled or when any other horrific things happened in Ukraine.”

Latvia’s foreign minister chipped in: “Many Russians who now flee Russia because of mobilisation were fine with killing Ukrainians. They did not protest then. It is not right to consider them as conscientious objectors. There are considerable security risks admitting them and plenty of countries outside EU to go to.”

The EU is under pressure from some of these countries to ban Russian tourists, and has already made it much harder for Russians to get tourist visas. But the bloc is divided. Politicians from across the political spectrum in Germany, for example, want to offer asylum to Russian deserters. 

Sweden is starting to debate this question. As a shiny new member of Nato, some Swedes feel we need to show how tough we can be towards the Russian threat. And with a new government keen to stress its anti-immigration credentials, Stockholm may also be tempted to punish Russian travellers because of their brutal government. 

In a situation already tragic beyond the imagination, banning Russian draft dodgers would only add to the tragedy in Europe.

Men of fighting age have been brought up on a diet of state propaganda, pumping nationalism, racism, militarism and hatred of the West into the Russian mainstream. Access to independent and social media has been extremely restricted. Opposition to the “military operation” in Ukraine is punishable by 15 years in jail.

In these circumstances, the mood has changed slowly, fuelled by snippets of official information, incidents such as the death of a friend, social media posts and kitchen conversations. But the steady drip drip of doubt and fear has filled the cup to overflowing. 

Then came last week’s mobilisation, and the pace of change accelerated. Family men without military experience are being dragooned into the army and sent to the front line. A wave of anger has swept across the nation, with arson attacks on army recruitment offices, thousands of arrests and a revolt in Dagestan. The country’s security service itself says 261,000 men fled Russia in barely a week. At one point there was a queue of cars 13km long at the border with Kazakhstan.

For EU nations to turn away Russians who don’t want to fight in Ukraine is to abandon them in their hour of need. At they very moment when they are most open to alternative facts about the war in Ukraine, we would conform to the Kremlin’s propaganda picture of the West as hostile, self-interested and Russian-hating. 

Denying draft dodgers the right to get out of Russia means painting them all as representatives of an enemy with whom we are at war. There might be some short-term political benefits in terms of “uniting the nation”, but this would leave a deep scar on the European psyche.

The debate in Europe has not gone unnoticed in the White House, where the US National Security Council has cautioned against seeing all Russians as universally responsible for the disaster in Ukraine. 

“We also continue to believe it’s important to draw a line between the actions of the Russian government and the Russian people,” a spokesperson told the Financial Times. “We wouldn’t want to close off pathways to refuge and safety for Russia’s dissidents or others who are vulnerable to human rights abuses.”

Sweden has a history of welcoming men who don’t want to fight in unjust wars. Between 1967 and 1973, Sweden granted asylum to around 800 Americans fleeing the Vietnam war. Fifty years later, the decision by the European Court of Justice that Syrian draft dodgers can claim asylum in Europe gives Sweden the legal basis to extend this right to Russians.

What is happening now in Russia could be the beginning of the end of the war in Ukraine, and of the Putin regime. Sweden should welcome with open arms all Russians who would rather get out than be sent to kill Ukrainians. And we should pressure other EU countries to do the same. 

It is likely that Russia will soon close its own borders to stop men from escaping. But let’s not give them an excuse to do so. 

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.