University leaders say new passport rules may deter talent

University leaders in Sweden have warned that new rules that require applicants of work or residence permits to present their passports in person to Swedish authorities abroad before having their applications assessed by the Swedish Migration Agency may add to red tape and discourage students and researchers from considering Sweden as a study and research destination.

The Swedish Migration Agency announced the changes, which came into effect on 1 November 2022, on 10 October.

In terms of the changes, applicants of residence or work permits intending to come to Sweden from countries that do not require visas will be required to present themselves at an embassy or consulate abroad with their original passport before the agency assesses their application.

In terms of the previous process, visa-exempt applicants could submit their biometrics in Sweden once their application had been approved.

The new requirement affects both those applying for a residence permit for the first time and those who are applying for an extended residence permit. However, it applies only to people using a passport that has not previously been shown to the Swedish Migration Agency, a Swedish embassy or the consulate general.

Increased control

“The Migration Agency is responsible for examining people’s passports and identities either … [for] travel to or [to] apply for residence in Sweden. By increasing the control and with more education of our staff we are going to make better and more standardised control of all passports,” said Carl Bexelius, head of legal affairs at the Swedish Migration Agency.

Bexelius said people who made an application for a permit before 1 November will need to visit an embassy or general consulate or one of the Migration Agency’s service centres to show their passports.

“We are working at making the transfer to the new routine as smooth as possible and we really do not want people who come to Sweden to be affected negatively by this change, but the handling time at the migration agency might increase somewhat during the transfer period,” Bexelius said.

The changes come in the wake of an investigation by the National Audit Agency into the efficacy of identity checks at Swedish embassies and general consulates which uncovered cases in which people with false identities had managed to get through the checks.

When parliament received the report of the National Audit Agency, a recommendation that applicants would need to show an original passport was endorsed and parliament also made recommendations that the Migration Agency should be adequately staffed to manage the increased workload this might present.

Legally speaking, there is provision for the move. As far back as 2009, a Swedish migration court found that a third country citizen applying for a temporary residence permit for Sweden is required to produce a passport.

Warnings from academia

When the 10 October 2022 announcement entered the public space, the presidents of both the Royal Institute of Technology and Karolinska Institute in Stockholm issued warnings about the impact of increased bureaucracy on international talent on their blog pages.

In a 28 October blog headlined “Hastily introduced passport requirements risk preventing our ability to recruit cutting-edge expertise”, President of the Karolinska Institute Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, emphasised the hurried nature of the new requirements, considering the length of time since the 2009 court ruling, as well as their likely impact.

“In so short a time, to introduce so extensive changes in the routines for handling residence permit applications will have long-lasting consequences, not only for higher education institutions that are dependent on recruiting highly competent people regardless of where in the world they are living in order to perform our research and teaching, but also for our businesses and industry.”

Ottersen said the requirements would have “unreasonable consequences” because they made the process more difficult practically, more expensive and lengthy.

“In practice, this might mean the Karolinska Institute and other Swedish universities will lose out in the competition for recruiting the top competence we are in need of and we will not be able to welcome students, doctorate candidates and researchers that can contribute to our knowledge development,” he wrote.

In her own blog, Professor Sigbritt Karlsson, president of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, said knowledge and research “by nature” are without borders.

“Most people within higher education prize internationalisation. Nevertheless, new regulations mean that people coming to Sweden to study or do research will risk meeting difficulties, misunderstanding and increased costs,” she wrote.

Linn Svärd, president of the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS), said the SFS was “greatly worried” about the newly announced passport regulations for residence permit applications.

“The new regulations are a hindrance for international students and doctoral students who want to contribute to the development of Swedish higher education and research. The new Swedish government must fulfil its earlier announced improvement of regulation for foreign researchers and research students. This is a step in the opposite direction.”

New government’s promises

Immigration legislation (the Aliens Act) drafted in 2021 has already made it more difficult for doctoral students and young researchers to stay in Sweden by imposing onerous self-sufficiency requirements on international doctoral students and researchers and requiring them to apply for family residence permits from outside the country.

Asked by University World News to explain the implications of the wording in the new government’s coalition agreement (known as the Tidö Agreement) that suggests the government intends to find a solution to the difficulties presented by the 2021 regulations, Madeleine Timmermans at the Ministry of Justice said: “The government has recently taken office and will return with more specific information on how to proceed with implementing various issues related to the Tidö Agreement.”

However, she did say the following: “The Tidö Agreement states that ‘in order to strengthen Sweden’s competitiveness as a research nation, provisions for doctoral students and researchers regarding the possibility of a residence permit after a certain continuous employment are examined, and if necessary, constitutionally regulated’ (this part is translated by the undersigned).

“In the Statement of the Government from 18 October 2022 the government stated that ‘the rules for highly qualified labour immigration and foreign researchers and research students will be improved, to reinforce Sweden’s competitiveness as a research nation’,” she wrote.