Will a ‘hostile’ immigration climate deter global scholars?

Media reporting exposing long delays suffered by international researchers seeking residence permits through the Swedish Migration Agency has amplified concerns that Sweden’s hard-line immigration policy, while not ostensibly targeting scientists and researchers, is nevertheless weakening the country’s reputation as a viable destination for high-level academic talent and is hurting its research climate.

According to an article published on 19 January 2023 in Universitetsläraren, the newsletter for the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF), the application for a residence permit for a student from another European country was rejected after more than 21 months.

The report notes that 25% of doctoral or postdoctoral candidates applying for permanent residence permits have to wait more than 12 months according to the Migration Agency’s webpage.

The situation is complicated by the fact that all applicants must prove they have employment for a period of 18 months from the date of their application, a period that is sometimes overtaken by the length of time taken to process the application.

President Erik Renström of Lund University, chair of the international committee of the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF), warned about the situation on his blog page back in 2021 when he said the Swedish Migration Agency’s interpretation of the self-support requirement was “unreasonable, as the agency requires employment for an indefinite term or fixed-term employment of at least 18 months from the day the application is assessed”.

“For graduate doctoral students this is more or less a utopia, as recent graduates often move forward in their careers via short-term positions, not least within academia,” he said.

More recently, he told University World News that SUHF was engaged in a constructive dialogue with the Swedish Migration Agency on “issues related to student and researcher mobility”.

Competition from other EU countries

An editorial in business newspaper Dagens industri published on 2 December 2022, headlined “Sweden cannot afford to send international scientists away”, noted that researchers coming to Sweden were “falling between stools” and were encountering difficulties in fitting into the system such that they either leave Sweden or do not come at all.

“A long list of weaknesses with the Swedish migration policy are working together in a way that is now hurting the Swedish research climate,” the editorial stated.

The editorial quotes comments published in Tidningen Näringslivet by Brazilian postdoctoral researcher Mariana Kluge who left the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences for a position in Germany after delays from the migration agency in granting her a residence permit.

“I love Sweden and really would like to choose to stay here, but I did not want it to become so difficult. Is it worth all the hard work approaching the authorities to have to stay?” she asked. “Just now I do not see any advantages of staying here,” Kluge is quoted as having said.

“The attraction [of Sweden as a research nation] has already been weakened. It is not clear that the economic demands for housing, schooling for the children and the general quality of life are attractive. The criminality is worrying. In this situation, when top-talents [internationally] shall decide which country they shall apply to, it is destructive that this mess with residence permits continues,” the editorial stated.

Government’s ‘paradigm shift’

The new centre-right Swedish government – based on a coalition between three parties – has announced a “paradigm shift” in its immigration policies.

As a result of the elections in September, the centre-right Moderate Party, the Christian Democrats and the Liberal People’s Party formed a coalition government supported by the far-right Sweden Democrats, which scored a historic 20% of the votes.

The far-right party was left out of the government in exchange for getting large parts of its hard-line migration policy through.

As previously reported by University World News, the platform for the new government is a 63-page document known as the Tidö Agreement. Nineteen of those pages are addressed to migration issues.

A central theme is the need for investigations into current migration legislation. The document also highlights misuse of residence permits for study and indicates that a comparative study of study permit regulations between Sweden and other EU countries is on the cards.

In the government declaration, Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said immigration to Sweden had become “unsustainable”, the result being “dangerous social exclusion among many people born in other countries, but also among children and young people born here in Sweden”.

He said integration problems affected all of society “in the form of housing segregation and overcrowding, unemployment and benefit dependence, health problems and poor school outcomes, crime and vulnerability to crime, honour-based oppression, insecurity and violations of young people’s rights”.

The government has further indicated that Sweden’s legislation governing asylum will be adapted to ensure that it is not more generous than is required of any member state under EU law and the government intends to enhance internal control measures for foreigners, stricter conditions for family reunification, and incentives for voluntary returns.

Also on the cards are the launch of transit centres, stricter requirements for those seeking Swedish citizenship, and powers giving the state the right to withdraw residence permits in more cases.

Awareness campaign

Sweden, which currently holds the rotating EU Council presidency, has also launched an awareness campaign to discourage migrants from coming to the country – an announcement made by Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard and far-right Sweden Democrat leader in parliament Henrik Vinge.

The campaign will include targeted communication to foreign editorial offices and news agencies and to foreign embassies in Sweden.

“This government was elected, among other things, on a mandate to create a paradigm shift in migration policy. This requires many major changes,” said Stenergard at the press conference.

The Tidö Agreement also makes provision for the government to look into the legal possibility of downgrading permanent residence permits to temporary permits, which will affect approximately 300,000 people.

On 22 November 2022, Director General of the Swedish Migration Agency Mikael Ribbenvik told Anders Holmberg, the Swedish national broadcaster SVT on ‘30 Minutes’ that “great changes” were afoot.

Ribbenvik admitted that he would be “worried” if he were in the category of permit-holders potentially affected by the change.

Concerns about hostile immigration

Swedish academics and researchers are deeply concerned that the government’s hostility to immigration – while not directly targeting scientists – will have a spillover effect on Sweden’s reputation as a research destination.

Senior researcher at the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies Bernd Parusel told University World News that while the new government was planning “many measures and legal changes to make Sweden less attractive as a destination country for different groups of migrants”, as far as he could see, the country still wants to “attract and retain foreign researchers and highly qualified workers, and to offer good conditions for these groups”.

However, he said there could be “a risk that a changing, more negative image of Sweden as an immigrant-receiving society not only deters those that Sweden wants to deter but also some of those it still wants to attract”.

However, he admitted that long waiting periods for residence permit applicants were a “recurring concern”.

“Generally speaking, government policy is that they should be shortened,” said Parusel.

Impact on the knowledge economy

The migration agency was accused of “strangling” the intake of international competence to the country in a 29 January article in Svenska Dagbladet by SULF President Sanna Wolk.

Wolk told University World News the agency’s restrictions on the intake of competences “directly affects” the knowledge economy.

“Short-termism rules. The focus of the agency seems to be to find cheaters instead of more effort being devoted to facilitating a highly qualified labour … that Sweden depends on.”

She said that approximately 40% of doctoral students and young researchers in Sweden are from abroad. Among those graduating, the percentage is even higher.

Referring to the case of Kluge, Wolk said: “It is very common with long wait times [for permits] and often more information is requested.”

“What we hear from authorities in other European countries, for example, Germany, [is that they make] much quicker decisions. There, an application can be decided upon in two weeks while in Sweden it might take several months,” she added.

Linnéa Carlsson, chairperson for the doctoral student committee in the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS), told University World News the committee and the rest of SFS have been active in discussing and advocating for a change in the situation in which many international doctoral students from outside EU-EEA find themselves.

“We acknowledge that the migration agency has regulations (regleringsbrev) stating that the administration time must decrease to reach the stipulated time of 90 days.

“However, when discussing the situation of international doctoral students, we ask why the administration time continues to be longer than the stipulated period and highlight the fact that many stakeholders need to collaborate if Sweden wants to continue to be renowned as an attractive destination for doctoral students.”

Asked about the potential impact of the Sweden Democrats on the country’s immigration outlook, Carlsson said to was too early to say.

“However, SFS sees a clear pattern from other countries: governments characterised by national conservative ideas have opposed free research, equality in academia, and the necessary work for sustainable development and the climate.

“Sweden's new government base consists of conservative and liberal parties, there are tensions between the cooperating parties, and they pull in different directions on these issues. It is impossible to predict how questions such as migration legislation will develop over the next four years,” she said.

The need for internationalisation

Mia Liinason, chair of the Young Academy of Sweden (YAS) and professor of gender studies at Lund University, told University World News that YAS strongly emphasises that internationalisation is essential for maintaining high quality research.

“The stricter migration policies, together with the enormous problems with the handling of residence permits are damaging, particularly to younger researchers who plan to establish themselves in Sweden.

“We are pleased at the expressed ambition by the Minister of Education to improve the conditions but have yet to see the necessary changes in policy,” she said.

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, president of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, told University World News: “This campaign is not aimed at our main target groups (students and researchers) for whom the government more or less promised a more reasonable treatment in the future. At least those are the signals from the minister of education.

“But recruitment may be impacted by the ‘spillover’ effect that can arise from this campaign, which portrays Sweden as an isolationist and not (particularly) welcoming country. Talents and competence might flow into other countries that are perceived as more inviting. In the end this campaign – coupled with the long waiting times for residence permits experienced by international researchers – will be a losing game.”