Student deportation case triggers more calls for change

United States citizen Miranda Andersson from Atlanta, Georgia, is of Swedish heritage and was starting her last term out of four for her masters degree at Uppsala University this spring term when the Swedish Migration Agency (SMA) did not renew her application for a residence permit.

According to the current regulations, SEK80,640 (US$9,800) has to be documented per year in a bank account during the studies of an international student as a guarantee that the student has enough money to cover living costs during his or her studies.

The Swedish newspaper Expressen reported that last summer Andersson had transferred her deposit in her bank account to her parents’ account for safe-keeping.

Andersson, who started her masters degree in digital media and society at Uppsala University in 2016, speaks fluent Swedish and is working in a PR agency alongside her studies.

Her case has been yet another trigger of debate over whether Sweden’s immigration laws in respect of international students and researchers are too restrictive and their implementation too inflexible.

David Lindstrand, law expert at the SMA, said that the regulation is that the student must have a bank account with sufficient deposits during their study time in Sweden. He told Expressen that he does not think that this is an inflexible regulation and that students have to act according to the law.

“The authorities have rejected her claim that she had documented sufficient funding deposited. She has appealed this decision to the migration court and we have to wait for their decision,” he said.

Intervention in parliament

But Johanna Jönsson, spokesperson for migration at the Centre Party, and Fredrik Christensson, spokesperson for higher education, wrote in the same newspaper that Sweden’s handling of residence visas for international students was a “catastrophe – not only from an economic perspective, for the university and society at large, but also for those international students who are studying here and get their future plans destroyed”.

“It is urgent,” they said. “The government has to speed up the processes and address the question of residence visas for international students. The case of Miranda should not be met by a cold hand but by a letter of welcome.”

Johanna Jönsson on 15 February directed a question in parliament to Migration Minister Heléne Fritzon on what measures the minister would take to quickly make changes to the overall evaluation of the situation with respect to international students and researchers.

Minister Fritzon refused to be drawn on the Andersson case, which she said was a matter for the Swedish Migration Agency and the migration courts, which deal with work and residence permits, to decide.

On the broader issue she did point out, however, that the SMA in its annual report for 2017 states that the average time for decisions on granting a student visa has been reduced from 75 days in 2016 to 45 days in 2017.

She also said that regarding the foreign citizen law on residence permits for students, these are grounded in a directive of the European Union, a student directive from 2004 and a student and researchers directive of 2016, that specifies that applications for student visas are conditional upon the student having sufficient means for living expenses and the return trip home.

“The government is, however, open to looking into how the regulations about living costs’ coverage and the length of the residence permit shall be formulated,” Fritzon said.

Rector of Uppsala Univesrity, Eva Åkesson, wrote in her blog on 9 February that “international students are suffering from inflexible rules” and the SMA is threatening to deport international fee-paying students who do not document a sufficient bank account deposit to cover expenses for living costs and the return-home travel.

“It does not matter,” she wrote, “if they have managed their studies and covered all expenses incurred at the universities. This is not in accordance with the ambition to increase internationalisation within higher education and it gives Sweden a bad reputation abroad.”

She said the changes of practice announced recently by the migration agency are “not sufficient” and that the rules have to be changed immediately.

The special investigator into increased internationalisation in higher education, Agneta Bladh, in her first report, has called for the SMA to be mandated to collaborate with universities and university colleges to see how the processes with regard to residence visas can be improved towards students, guest professors and other staff in order to reduce bureaucracy and shorten the processing time.

Attitudes to handling money

University World News, having repeatedly covered cases highlighting the inflexibility of the SMA in the handling of residence visas for doctoral and other international students, asked leading Swedish academics how it is that Sweden receives more immigrants per capita than any other country in Europe, yet is highly restrictive about admitting talented students and researchers who could greatly benefit the country if they stayed on and worked there.

The internationally successful Norwegian author Karl Knausgaard, having lived in Sweden for several years, made one observation that he found surprising regarding the Swedish way of looking upon minor economic offences.

"Not paying your bills upon the deadline is regarded as a serious offence in Sweden," Knausgaard wrote, "and this record will stick with you whatever happens to you later," he stated after having gained fame and fortune.

Could it be that a similar attitude is entrenched at the Swedish Migration Agency and that the inflexibility towards foreigners in money matters is not grounded only in the legislation but stems from a Swedish attitude?

Former rector of Stockholm University Professor Kåre Bremer doesn’t think so. “If anything, it is inflexible legislation that is the problem and the migration agency is very careful to follow the legislation to the letter, or it would be very difficult for them to handle effectively all the applications they have to process. It is the politicians that need to do something about the situation.”

Lena Adamson, former director general of the Swedish Institute for Educational Research and associate professor of psychology at Stockholm University, told University World News: “Your hypothesis may well be true.”

She said at the same time as Swedish women were entitled to vote (1919), the big battle was around whether persons (men and women) who had not paid their taxes also were going to be given the legal right to vote. “So there does seem to exist a long tradition of regarding economic offences, especially towards the state, as serious ‘crimes’.”

Bladh told University World News earlier this year that the rules guiding the SMA seem to be “very much focused on the student as a financially independent person, fully responsible for himself or herself. This is not always the case”. The internationalisation review will devote part of its remaining work to foreign fee-paying students.

Now Andersson is striking back, having set up her own Facebook page calling for an end to “competence deportations” and recording all the press coverage about her case.