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‘Not the truth’: Boss of Sweden’s Migration Agency disputes Brexit deportation figures

In an interview with The Local for our Sweden in Focus podcast, the outgoing head of Sweden's Migration Agency argued Sweden's high Brexit deportation figures don't tell the full story and claimed Covid travel rules were partly to blame for the high number of Britons ordered to leave.

'Not the truth': Boss of Sweden's Migration Agency disputes Brexit deportation figures
Mikael Ribbenvik, the Director General of the Swedish Migration Agency, said that the Eurostat figures on the deportation of people from Britain were highly misleading. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

As The Local has previously reported, figures from EU statistics agency Eurostat show that Sweden has told 1,100 Brits to leave the country since Brexit, more than any other EU country, representing 41 percent of the total number of Brits ordered to leave across the EU.

‘Not the truth’

Mikael Ribbenvik, the outgoing Director General of the the migration agency claimed, however, that these figures gave a false impression of the actual number of Brits given deportation orders following the UK’s formal exit from the EU.

“Eurostat does not equal the truth,” he said. “It depends on what you report. Some countries don’t report, that’s the first thing. Sweden always reports very obediently.”

“When you read the papers, the story takes on its own life,” he added.

Ribbenvik estimated that of the 1,100 cases reported to Eurostat, only around 200 fitted the description of “people living here that don’t get a permit and have to return to the UK”. 

He claimed that many of of the Britons who had been ordered to leave had, for instance, fallen foul of Covid travel rules. 

“The rest are like, you come to the passport control in Arlanda and you don’t have your Covid thing, and the police says ‘we won’t let you in’. I mean, we report everything.”

Ribbenvik’s statement drew anger from the Brits in Sweden group.

David Milstead from the group said: “Mr Ribbenvik has given a big ‘nothing to see’ statement which, unfortunately, doesn’t match the evidence base… which shows Sweden to be an outlier among EU countries.”

Milstead highlighted Sweden’s efforts to deport Kathleen Poole, an elderly British lady with Alzheimer’s disease who was ordered to leave Sweden as she did not have a post-Brexit residence permit.

“We don’t see old ladies with dementia issued with deportation in other countries, nor pensioners forced to leave after a decade because their income was too low,” Milstead said.

The Local previously reported that the Eurostat figures include both people ordered to leave due to mistakes or lacking immigration paperwork, such as those who failed to apply for post-Brexit residence status to secure their rights to live in Sweden under EU law by the deadline, as well as those who were deported for other reasons, such as recently released prisoners.

However, EU countries did not provide data on the number of Brits rejected for each reason, and Swedish border police and the Migration Agency were unable to provide this data to The Local when we contacted them in January 2023.

In addition to this, Ribbenvik said that the data does not only measure Brits rejected from entering Sweden or ordered to leave Sweden, but also people of other nationalities attempting to enter Sweden from the UK.

“It’s not even only UK citizens, it’s people arriving from the UK,” he said.

“So you could have a person arriving from wherever – China, Bangladesh, Somalia – residing in the UK, coming to the Swedish border, not having the correct Covid document. The police say ‘we won’t let you in’, and that’s a mark in the statistic.”

He admitted that there were cases where Brits had been issued deportation orders due to not applying for post-Brexit residence status in time, and said that his understanding was that Eurostat was planning to reassess the statistics to understand the real picture.

“Then of course, another thing is that some of our dear friends in the EU don’t care much about implementing their own rules,” he added. “And we always do, so there’s that aspect.”

‘Swedes are loyal to legislation, even when the consequences are silly’

Ribbenvik explained in the context of a question on talent deportations that Swedes are “very loyal to legislation, even when the consequences are silly,” adding that asking for an exception in an individual case is tantamount to asking them to break the law.

“It’s very difficult – or impossible – to explain that in the individual case. On the aggregate level, everybody agrees. ‘Should we follow the law? Yes, of course.’ But when it comes to the individual cases it’s ‘have some reason here’, or ‘have a heart’, or ‘what if it was your kid?’, or all these things.”

“But all those things actually mean ‘can you please not follow the law?’ and we will never do that.”

In some high-profile Brexit deportation cases, British politicians have called for Sweden or even the EU to step in and stop the deportation of affected individuals.

One of these is the case mentioned above of 74-year-old Kathleen Poole, who arrived in Sweden under EU rules 18 years ago. 

British Labour MP Hilary Benn, former chair of the UK’s House of Commons Brexit select committee, called on the UK and the EU to intervene to stop Poole’s deportation order, describing it to The Guardian as “shocking”.

“A lot of countries are like that,” Ribbenvik said. “You go to your dictator and he fixes it. But there are also drawbacks in those societies.”

‘Some people just didn’t take the measures they had to’

When asked about cases of people who were told to leave Sweden despite having lived here for many years before Brexit, Ribbenvik said that the Migration Agency had worked “very, very closely” with the British Embassy to reach out to all Brits in Sweden, describing Sweden and the UK as “best buddies in the EU” before Brexit.

“We worked very hard to say ‘there’s a window, and these are the things you need to do’. ‘It’s not the same, you will be third country citizens, you need to get permits’, and we tried to reach every corner everywhere to have this done. And almost everybody made it.”

He described the roughly 200 cases of Brits who didn’t get post-Brexit residence status in time as “very different”, adding that many boiled down to a failure to act. 

“Some people just didn’t care to take the measures that they had to do.”

Unlike in Denmark, where Brits were sent letters by the Danish Migration Agency telling them to apply for residency, Sweden did not contact individual Brits informing them that they have to apply.

Ribbenvik said he did not believe that it would have made a difference to the number of rejected Brits if Sweden had done so.

“No. I mean, Brexit was well known among Brits. I’m very sure it was. So, no.”

“I think it’s just a massive case of underestimation for some people who just assumed ‘I don’t have to do anything’. But if you look at how Swedish society runs, this is nothing unusual. I mean, everything you have to do, you have to do it yourself. Agencies won’t send a letter to you ‘hello, you need to do this and that’. That’s how it works’.”

Ribbenvik explained that if you want something in Sweden, you have to contact an agency to ask for it, and the agency will decide whether to approve or deny your request.

“Maybe it would have been good to send a letter, maybe we should have done that, but then it’s more a question of ‘who is responsible for things’?”

“I don’t want to sound like a total evil person here, but I don’t know. If I lived in another country and something changed, I’d check it. I’d go on a page that’s pertaining to me. The information is one click away. It’s not a secret. So if you go ‘well, I thought there was no problem and nobody told me’, you’re a bit oblivious, I think.”

Bits in Sweden David Milstead said Ribbenvik’s “doubling down” on his defence of Sweden’s efforts to help Brits was “unfortunate but not surprising”.

“That the authorities were ‘trying to reach every corner’ only works as an argument if Mr Ribbenvik thinks Brits live in a circle,” he said.

“It was a very lucky Brit who encountered any outreach from the Swedish authorities, despite Sweden’s legal obligation to run a campaign. Brits that did contact Migrationsverket frequently received misleading or wrong responses.”

‘Life isn’t over for you’

Ribbenvik underlined the fact that Brits in general contribute to society in his opinion, and this wasn’t part of any conspiracy to force them out of the country.

“There’s not many problems with Brits in Sweden, right? So we really wanted everybody to stay. Let’s not confuse this with an idea that we wanted to get rid of some people. We wanted people to stay, there was information on this, there was a lot of information available, so it’s very sad.”

“I mean, life isn’t over for you, you can apply as a third country citizen, so then you have to have the hassle of that. That’s the consequence.”

Listen to the interview with Mikael Ribbenvik

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Member comments

  1. He really should have been challenged more on these responses. Most of them are blatantly false/misleading and with no supporting data.

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For members


INTERVIEW: How best to respond to the Sweden Democrats’ Swexit gambit

The far-right Sweden Democrats have tried to fire up the long-dormant debate over Sweden's membership of the European Union. We spoke to Lund University professor Ian Manners about what it means and what to do about it.

INTERVIEW: How best to respond to the Sweden Democrats' Swexit gambit

In tweets, interviews, one article in the Aftonbladet tabloid and a second one in Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson outlined his party’s new tougher position, with calls for mandatory referendums on extensions of EU powers, an analysis of how to reduce the negative impacts of EU membership, and, finally, cautionary preparations to leave.


For Manners, a political scientist and EU expert, this is all about repositioning the party.

“He’s caught in a very difficult position in that he’s effectively in a governing coalition, although they’re not in government, and they have no clear anti-system position, because they are in effect part of the ruling coalition in some strange way.” 

Reviving a battle against the EU would allow the party to position itself against the broadly pro-EU Moderate and Liberal parties in the coalition, and also against the Social Democrats, Green and Centre parties of the opposition. 

“In some respects, this is an attempt to ignite support within the party for something distinctive that makes them look different to the other three partners in the ruling coalition,” Manners explained. 

It will also, though, help it find someone to blame if some of its most prominent policies wins fail to make it through parliament and into Swedish law. 

Åkesson and other leading Sweden Democrats, Manners believes, are quickly realising that many of the most hardline policies on migration, energy and environment won in the agreement with the three governing parties will be impossible to enact, as they clash with laws already agreed at an EU level or with the European Convention on Human Rights, or will be challenged by the European Court of Human Rights. 

“What’s become clear over time is that almost nothing EU-related in the Tidö Agreement has materialised in the way that Åkesson, or in fact the other parties, imagined,” Manners said. 

This has probably come as a shock, he added. 

“I’ve met enough SD MPs and MEPs that I don’t think they have that sense of consciousness of what it might mean to enter into a ruling coalition agreement like the Tidö Agreement and the extent to which it would be literally impossible to enact some of the policies made, so I think this probably comes as a little bit of a surprise for them.”

The European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, he pointed out, “really binds your hands on a lot of the migration issues and on the treatment of refugees”. 

The same was true for a slew of other policies in the agreement, as anyone with an understanding would have known. 

“It was quite clear that actually, the government can have little influence over EU energy policy and environment policy and to a certain extent other EU-associated policy,” Manners said. “These are policies that are quite distinctly agreed at the EU level, not at national levels.”

As the Sweden Democrats have realised this, their animosity to the EU, downplayed since 2019, has revived. 

Åkesson’s two articles, while stopping short of calling for Sweden to leave the European Union, contain some radical proposals nonetheless.

The first article complained that EU membership was becoming like “a straitjacket” for Sweden, with EU decisions determining Swedish legislation over forestry, vehicles and fuel, and much of what happens in regional and local government.

The second proposed three government inquiries designed to prevent more powers being transferred from Sweden to the EU:

  • an inquiry into mandatory referendums on any significant extension of EU powers or funding requirements 
  • an inquiry into what actions Sweden can take to ensure that it is prepared to leave the EU, such as removing parts of constitution which state that Sweden is an EU member and training civil servants in trade negotiations 
  • an inquiry into reducing the negative impacts of EU membership, by analysing which EU directives have been “over-implemented”, and ensuring that Sweden only meets the minimum requirements of EU laws 

Manners said that the referendum inquiry was the one that the government should perhaps be most wary of. 

“If I were the Sweden Democrats, I would be after a referendum and I think that’s what they want: anything that splits both their enemies and their coalition members,” he said. 

Rather than an in-out referendum on EU membership, like the one held in the UK, the Sweden Democrats were probably hoping instead to engineer a referendum on a future planned extension of EU powers. 

Manners thinks that pro-European Union forces in Sweden should learn from the example of the UK and go into action as soon as possible, moving to educate the Swedish public in advance not only of the risks of leaving the EU, but also of having the kinds of opt-outs from some EU policy areas, as Denmark has had. 

After Danish voters rejected the Maastricht Treaty in a 1992 referendum, the country obtained four opt-outs from the treaty, covering the Euro, defence and security policy, justice and home affairs, and citizenship. 

The result, Manners argues, was “a total waste of diplomatic capital”, with Denmark’s government and EU diplomats spending all their time managing their opt-outs, meaning they had no energy to push forward other policies they wanted to advance in the EU. 

While the idea of Sweden rejecting a core piece of future EU legislation, let alone voting to leave the EU, may seem far-fetched, Manners said experience showed it was all too possible. 

“It seems hard to imagine in Sweden, but having seen it happen in the UK, and certainly in Denmark over and over (…) it comes with a surprise and it comes with a shock. And the surprise is that anyone is stupid enough to hold a referendum, and the shock is that you have no way of predicting what will happen at any referendum.”

For the Sweden Democrats, a referendum would allow it to dominate one whole side of the debate, attracting any voters wishing to prevent the expansion of EU powers. 

However the risks of the new policy gambit were at least as big as the potential benefits, Manners argued, with few supporting the proposed ideas even within the Sweden Democrats. 

“I think actually it will quite possibly backfire. If you look at some of the dog whistle sentences in the article in Aftonbladet, one is, ‘we need to evaluate our membership of the EU’. Well, there’s literally no support for that.” 

A recent survey of Swedish voters, carried out by the SOM Institute at Gothenburg University, found that support for EU membership was higher today than at any time since Sweden joined the EU in 1994, with 68 percent of voters in favour and only 11 percent against. 

This was even the case for Sweden Democrat voters, a full 43 percent of whom said they were “essentially in favour” of Swedish EU membership, up from 23 percent as recently as 2021. Only 31 percent of Sweden Democrats said they were “essentially against” EU membership. 

This picture could change if Åkesson and his party colleagues start to campaign on the issue and Manners said he thought it was important for pro-EU forces in Sweden to use this opportunity to make their case. 

“The place that Swexit would really hurt is down here in the south of Sweden,” he said, based in Lund. “Imagine all the agriculture and the small and medium-sized industries in Skåne. Imagine all the transport and commuters, all the jobs that are dependent on flowing across the bridge. It’s going to get hurt twice as bad as the rest of Sweden. And this is the base for the Sweden Democrats.” 

He said he believed that pro-EU politicians and media in Sweden should actively discuss the most concrete, material impacts of leaving the European Union. 

He mentioned the long queues of trucks you would expect ahead of the Öresund Bridge, the likely impact on the krona, or the impact on the big investment decisions currently being made in the north of Sweden in car battery manufacturing or Green Steel. 

Even having the debate or putting in place the inquiries Åkesson was proposing could risk these investments or affect the currency, said Manners. 

“Countries do need to have a discussion about what it might potentially mean to leave the EU, so that there is a far greater awareness of the heightened risks,” he said. “Because we never had that discussion in the UK.”