OPINION: Migration Agency boss is ducking responsibility for Sweden’s Brexit failure

The Local's interview with Mikael Ribbenvik, Director General of the Swedish Migration Agency, only went to underline the agency's refusal to accept responsibility for its own Brexit failures, argues David Milstead, from the Brits in Sweden group.

OPINION: Migration Agency boss is ducking responsibility for Sweden's Brexit failure
The UK voted to leave the EU in 2016. Photo: AP Photo/TT/Alberto Pezzali

The Local’s interview with Mikael Ribbenvik made for interesting and depressing reading.

Instead of tackling the substantive issues affecting Brits in Sweden, Mr Ribbenvik instead chose instead to wrestle with a few strawman arguments and make claims that don’t survive confrontation with the evidence base.

First, the strawman arguments.

Though I’m glad Mr Ribbenvik confirmed that there was no secret goal of getting rid of Brits, I’d never heard anyone suggest otherwise.

Similarly, interesting though it may be to discuss the Eurostat data, we never thought that it did imply that Sweden had actually deported as many as one thousand Brits. The issue is that, once again, there is a difference between Sweden and the other EU countries.

This has also been observed in data on failures of applications for Withdrawal Agreement protections for residence and cross-border workers. This is a contributing factor to the Eurostat data. The failure rate for Withdrawal Agreement protections suggest that Sweden is driving a legally questionable, hard line compared with other EU countries. The conclusion that Sweden is something of an outlier is also supported by lived experiences.

Some of these even led to the European Commission forcing Sweden to change one of its most restrictive criteria for residence following a complaint. Unfortunately, the complaint procedure took two years and the end result was thus of little practical benefit to Brits. This all requires a (verifiable) explanation. It’s a pity he didn’t offer one.

Second, Mr Ribbenvik’s claims.

He argues that the authorities tried ‘to reach every corner’ to let Brits know that they needed to apply. Unless Brits in Sweden live in a big circle, this argument doesn’t hold water. It was a very lucky Brit who encountered any outreach from the Swedish authorities despite the Withdrawal Agreement requiring a PR campaign from Sweden.

Furthermore, Brits who did contact the Swedish Migration Agency frequently received advice that was dangerously wrong. Some missed the application deadline as a consequence. Even now, there is information on the agency’s web pages on Withdrawal Agreement rights that is unambiguously incorrect.

Another questionable claim by Mr Ribbenvik is that Brits who fail to gain Withdrawal Agreement protection just need to deal with the “hassle” of applying as third country citizens for another immigration title. This is disingenuous. The purpose of the Withdrawal Agreement is that Brits resident in Sweden before 2021 retain broadly the same rights as before, as Swedes have done in the UK.

If many need to shop around in a residence limbo for another immigration title then this is a failure of Sweden’s implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, especially if this isn’t happening elsewhere in the EU to the same degree.

Furthermore, Mr Ribbenvik seems to have forgotten his earlier public warnings about residence security for those with a permanent residence permit under national law. He thinks that they should be worried given the plans of the current government.

Finally, and most importantly, it is beyond pure “hassle” to discover that there is no national immigration title to which someone can apply. Mr Ribbenvik claims this isn’t “life-destroying”. True, but for someone who has lived for decades in Sweden, it’s close enough.

Possibly the most bizarre of Ribbenvik’s assertions is that the number of Brits missing the deadline would have been unchanged had Sweden, like Denmark and the Netherlands, individually contacted Brits.

I know people who can’t sleep for worrying about deportation. They missed a deadline of which they were unaware or because they thought (because they had read it on the Swedish Migration Agency web pages) that they had a permanent right of residence.

It stretches credulity to consider that a letter explaining that their ‘permanent’ right of residence would end and that they must make an application to retain legal residence would not have made a difference.

Mr Ribbenvik also commented on the Swedish Migration Agency’s ongoing attempts to have Mrs Kathleen Poole, a 74-year old with advanced Alzheimer’s disease, deported.

In Mr Ribbenvik’s view, one reason why this has happened is that Sweden doesn’t have a “dictator” who can impose or revoke a decision by a government agency. The obvious response to this is to point out that a “dictator” isn’t needed.

The problem could likely have been avoided had Sweden followed the Withdrawal Agreement more rigorously, in particular with respect to the provision to help applicants. For example, the UK’s implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement has measures for vulnerable citizens who can’t obtain photo ID.

Mrs Poole’s case is the most egregious example of how Sweden is implementing the Withdrawal Agreement but it is far from being an isolated case. Many long-term residents have been forced out, usually the most vulnerable.

These include a pensioner couple who had lived here for decades but whose income was deemed too low and a Brit who had been hospitalised with mental illness.

Right now, hundreds are in limbo, having missed the deadline.

Unfortunately, the Swedish Migration Agency refuses to accept responsibility for its own contributing failures, including its own empirically poor outreach and its draconian application of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Listen to the interview with Mikael Ribbenvik

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Twelve things about Sweden that make me smile

With new Swedish citizens soon to be welcomed into the fold with National Day ceremonies across the country, Nordic editor Richard Orange runs through some of the things about their new country that warm his heart.

Twelve things about Sweden that make me smile

Pontoons or bryggor 

Any pond or lake in Sweden bigger than a football pitch will have its own pontoon and whenever I see one, its wooden platform leading my eye out invitingly towards the deeper water, it always brings an involuntary smile to my face. 

Swimming in fresh water is one of life’s simple pleasures, and Sweden’s bryggor do celebrate that, but they also demonstrate how Swedes work collectively. Bryggor are almost always well-maintained, but are rarely owned by anyone. Despite this, they’re always free to use. This is not how things work back in my home country of the UK, and it’s a fantastic thing. 

The pontoon at Richard Orange’s local lake. Photo: Mia Orange

Overloaded box bikes

I suspect some in Sweden would dismiss lådcyklar or box bikes, as a marker of the country’s smug, left-of-centre middle class. But even after owning my own battered and ancient example for nigh on a decade, seeing one can still make me break out into a smile. 

To amuse me, they need to be overloaded. It could be a gaggle of kids of different ages without a seatbelt in sight, a towering piece of furniture, a joyful-looking 20-something, or an enormous dog. 

To me, there’s something wonderfully free about box bikes. A life with fewer cars, slightly chaotic, a little bit hippy but still very sensible. 

A cargo bike, although not quite overloaded enough to qualify. Photo: Sofia Sabel/

A well-tooled utility belt 

Sweden is a country of engineers and practical people and nothing exemplifies this more than the utility belts, often incorporated into work trousers, worn by the legions of prosperous-looking electricians, carpenters, builders and other workmen or entreprenörer – down where I live in Skåne anyway.

They will have, at the very least, a screwdriver, a hammer, a Mora knife, an extendable ruler, and a carpenter’s pencil, all neatly organised and at the ready. 

For me, it’s evidence of the fact that even after years of growing inequality, Sweden’s blue collar workers still enjoy comparatively higher wages than their counterparts in many other countries in Europe, or in the US or Australia. It’s a sign of the dignity and professionalism of the country’s manual workers, and that can only be a good thing. 

Sun worshippers 

They start to appear at some point in March or April. People standing absolutely still on the pavement or sitting with their back against a wall, eyes closed, just enjoying the sensation of warm sun on their faces. 

Even for someone from cloudy, overcast Britain, this is quite strange behaviour, so it must seem wildly foreign to someone from a sunny country like Italy or Spain. 

While Sweden’s winters can be cold, grey and depressing, it can seem worth it, almost anyway, when everything and everyone springs back into life in the spring. For me, it’s the sunworshippers, rather than the first spring flowers, that mark the moment this quickening has begun. 

Valstugor or “election cabins”

The highlight of every election year for me is visiting the makeshift villages of valstugor, or election cabins, that spring up in town and city squares across the country.

Anyone can just wander up and just start chatting to the political activists about whatever political issue they want to talk about, local, regional or national, and very often the parties’ most senior local politicians will be there. 

I’ve witnessed the local head of the far-right Sweden Democrats passionately debating an overexcited crowd of youths with immigrant backgrounds, the head of the local Moderates brutally disown his party’s leader and prime ministerial candidate, and Social Democrats discuss how pessimistic they feel ahead of the coming vote. 

For me, it’s a sign of the openness of Swedish society and of how impressively healthy and alive the country’s democracy is at a local level. I always walk away from spending my lunch break touring the cabins beaming. 

Valstugor or ‘election cabins’ for the Sweden Democrats and Christian Democrats ahead of Sweden’s 2022 election. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT


There’s nothing like witnessing a gleaming 1965 Pontiac Bonneville convertible cruising along a Swedish country road to put a smile on your face. I’m not a car enthusiast, but I appreciate passion when I see it, and the sheer incongruity of seeing American cars from the 1950s and 1960s cars on the roads of Sweden always amuses me.

Sweden’s raggare subculture, which is based around an obsession with 1950s American culture and cars, is fascinating. It’s almost entirely based in the countryside, so you only really encounter it when you leave the big cities.

I like to try and get a look at who the person is who has devoted so much of their spare time to renovating and maintaining their beautiful vehicle. 

READ ALSO: Why are so many rural Swedes obsessed with the American South? 

Power Big Meet in Västerås, the world’s largest meet for vintage American cars. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

The mayor on a bike 

Since foreign minister Anna Lindh was stabbed to death 2003 while shopping in upmarket NK department store, Sweden’s leading national politicians have tended to travel with security. 

But the same is not the case at a regional and local level, and here in Malmö you’ll often see the mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh going from place to place completely unsupervised on her bicycle. 

As with valstugor, for me it’s a sign of the openness of Swedish democracy. 

Toddlers in winter overalls 

Det finns inget dåligt väder – bara dåliga kläder. “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” If you’ve spent a winter in Sweden as a foreigner, you’ve almost certainly heard this Swedish saying over and over again.

It’s true, and particularly true of the gangs of toddlers you’ll see out in the snow in parks and preschool playgrounds across the country, wearing the winter overalls that look almost like little space suits. 

You may be spending the dark Swedish winter largely cooped up in well-heated apartments, but it’s heartening to see that they, at least, are not. And that always makes me smile. 

Coffee mornings (or afternoons for that matter) 

The local village café near where we are building our summer house has a little sign on the wall informing the clientele of its frukostklubben, or “breakfast club”, explaining who were the first locals to attend and which table they sit at. 

If you get there for its 8am opening, you’ll soon see the guy who runs the local plumbing firm, an electrician, and perhaps the odd farmer, take their place at the table and begin gabbling on about local matters, discussing politics, all in the distinctive mellow rural accent of southeastern Skåne. 

These sorts of gatherings happen across the country. You’ll see a bunch of old ladies in their 80s and 90s meeting over cakes and coffee in the more traditional types of konditori, and it gladdens the heart. 

Killjoy festive news stories 

Whenever it’s time for a Swedish celebration, such as Christmas, Easter, Valborg, New Year, I’m always on the look out for the killjoy festive news stories that are a grand, if little recognised, Swedish media tradition. 

READ ALSO: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news? 

“Why Christmas is a dangerous time for your pets”, “The particle pollution caused by Valborg bonfires”, “How Sweden’s Christmas herring are dying out”. Whether they come up with a totally new angle or refresh an old classic, no festive period ever passes without a little injection of misery from Sweden’s newspapers and broadcasters. 

For me, it says something about the Swedish reluctance to ever really enjoy anything absolutely and without reserve, a hangover perhaps from the country’s Lutheran heritage. 

“Alarm on chemicals in Swedish crayfish.” A typically miserable headline for a Swedish festive story. Photo: Screenshot


This might perhaps be something limited to people who live in Skåne, but the wide fields of bright yellow rapeseed flowers you come across when driving around Sweden in the early summer always blow me away. You come over the crest of a hill and there it is. If you throw in a whitewashed medieval church, and a few wind turbines rotating majestically on the horizon, it can be a breathtaking sight.  

A field of rapeseed in Skåne, southern Sweden. Photo: Jerker Andersson/

The kulturtant, or “culture lady”

Once you develop an eye for them, Sweden’s kulturtantar, or “culture ladies”, are instantly recognisable and everywhere, with their baggy patterned clothes in rough cotton or home-knitted wool, brightly coloured arty looking glasses, and chunky jewellery. 

They are gently ridiculed in Sweden as another manifestation of the smug, liberal middle classes, but they are also celebrated as the core audience that keeps Sweden’s cultural world alive. It’s the kulturtantar who buy the theatre tickets, go to the literature readings, and visit the art galleries in Sweden’s cities and towns. 

In a country that I sometimes find a bit too practically minded, I’m glad they exist, and a lot of my friends, though still in their 40s, are well on the way to kulturtant status.