New migration policies raise concerns over foreign students

The difficulties facing international students in securing Swedish residence visas in the wake of changes in the legislation in July 2021 are likely to multiply when the country’s new minority coalition government starts to implement tougher immigration-related provisions contained in a recently signed cooperation agreement.

The Tidö Agreement (Swedish: Tidöavtalet), a 62-page agreement between the centre-right Christian Democrats, Liberals and Moderates and the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), was signed on 14 October at Tidö castle outside Västerås after one month of negotiations.

The agreement is the basis upon which the new government, with Moderate Ulf Kristersson as prime minister, will govern following parliamentary elections held on 11 September.

While not formally part of the government because of a prior agreement among mainstream parties to keep it out, the SD (known to be anti-immigration) will support the coalition in parliament and, for the first time, will wield formalised influence over government policy, including the latest proposals around immigration.

In terms of the Tidö agreement, an investigation is to be undertaken “to come to grips with abuse of residence permits for study”.

Such an investigation will also map the different forms of abuse to which the residence permit is subjected and conduct a comparison of the Swedish permit with those granted by other European Union countries.

It will also consider the introduction of “further options for rejecting an application for a residence permit” where there are suspicions of abuse.

Furthermore, the agreement requires “further investigation” into the possibility of reducing the work rights of permit holders and introducing restrictions around applying for residence permits from within the country.

Language requirements

Leader of the Liberal Party, Johan Pehrson, who is the new employment and integration minister, told the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper he intends to make it necessary for all citizens of Sweden to master the Swedish language.

He said he also intends to ensure that work permits are given to more people with high-level skills rather than poorly paid workers and suggested that the integration policy in Sweden needed improvement.

The Sweden Democrats, which gained 20% of the votes, promised to address growing criminality in the country, notably in the big cities.

In order to do so, the government agreement proposes the establishment of a “national social intervention force” that will apply “proven methods to prevent crime and train social workers in dealing with young people who commit or are at risk of committing crime”. The agreement also proposes the expansion of parental support programmes.

It notes that “a complete and thorough review of the criminal legislation” is under way with the aim of, among other things, increasing the punishment for violent and sexual crimes. “The police, correctional services and other authorities within the justice system will expand greatly,” it notes.

‘Feminist’ foreign policy

The new government also reportedly plans to abandon its ‘feminist’ foreign policy approach.

Newly appointed Foreign Affairs Minister Tobias Billström told Aftonbladet there will be an end to “Sweden’s feminist foreign policy” when the new government takes over.

“We will not pursue a feminist foreign policy. That label has not served a good purpose. It has obscured the fact that Swedish foreign policy must be based on what Swedish interests and Swedish values are,” he told the newspaper.

Under the previous Social Democratic government, in power since 2008, Sweden adopted a ‘feminist foreign policy’, defined as a policy promoting equality between women and men as a fundamental objective of foreign policy, according to pan-European media network Euractiv.

“This policy encompassed the fulfilment of women’s and girls’ fundamental human rights as both an obligation within the framework of international commitments and a prerequisite for achieving Sweden’s broader goals of peace, security and sustainable development,” it wrote.

The government is also planning to cut the number of quota refugees selected by the United Nations refugee agency for resettlement from 5,000 people per year to 900.

International students

Speaking to University World News, Bernd Parusel, senior researcher at the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies and an expert on migration, said the cooperation agreement seems bent on reducing immigration as much as possible, which will affect international students.

“Nineteen pages of the 62-page-long cooperation agreement … are about migration and asylum, and they outline a very restrictive framework.

“The goal seems to be to deter asylum seekers and immigrants, to reduce immigration as much as possible, and to increase the return of migrants to their home countries as much as possible. There will also be increased pressure on immigrants to assimilate or leave,” he said.

Parusel said while most proposals were about asylum seekers, conditions for refugees and people migrating for family reasons, work-related immigration and international students would also be affected if the proposals were executed.

“Allowing international students to work in Sweden in parallel to their studies as well as possibilities for them to stay in Sweden after their studies have contributed to making Sweden an attractive destination for foreign students. With the announced changes, Sweden will likely become less popular,” he said.

EU rules

However, Parusel said EU law could impose limits on how far Sweden could take any future immigration restrictions and deterrence measures.

“For example, the EU students and researchers directive demands that international students are allowed to work for a certain number of hours per week (at least 15 hours) and at least in certain occupations … The EU directive also says that after the completion of research or studies, researchers and students shall have the possibility to stay in an EU member state for a period of at least nine months, to seek employment or set up a business.

“However, with a more restrictive approach, Sweden will certainly appear less attractive and Swedish universities might have to compete harder if they want to recruit students from non-EU countries.”

Parusel said the new government was also planning to make changes to the welfare system that could exclude non-citizens from benefits to which they are now entitled if they stay in Sweden “on a longer-term basis”.

Researchers and doctoral students

Linn Svärd, president of the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS), told University World News the union was pleased that the new government had pledged to “re-evaluate” residence opportunities for foreign researchers and doctoral students.

The Tidö Agreement states that in order to “strengthen Sweden’s competitiveness as a research nation, special provisions for doctoral students and researchers regarding the possibility of a residence permit after a certain period of continuous employment will be examined and, if necessary, constitutionally regulated”.

“This indicates to us that the government coalition sees that the current situation is problematic, but it remains to be seen whether they will take real action. We will continue to urge them to do so,” she said.