Slow reactions from Swedish officials on labour immigration

“What we tend to forget is that Sweden is neither politically, economically or culturally an optimal immigrant country. We have labour and housing markets for insiders, we are a nation united by a thick layer of identity bearing markers and we’ve historically had limited experience with multiculturalism.”

Andreas Johansson Heinö – PhD in Political Science at the University of Gothenburg

This according to one of Sweden’s most demanded commentators on the issue of multiculturalism. Translated into plain English, he is saying that it is not easy for immigrants to settle or fit in. In the last 48 hours, I’ve listened to two very senior Swedish leaders explain their policies on how to make this work better.

On Monday night, I attended the STHLM Tech MeetUp. Normally its a venue for aspiring start-ups to pitch their business plans for investment. But this time, the organisers set time aside to focus on immigration – in particular the highly contentious issue of obtaining visas. They were able to attract Mikael Ribbenvik, the Director General and Head of the Migration Agency (Migrationsverket) to explain what is happening for visa issuance. Given just how heated the conversation has become credit goes to the DG for exposing himself to the crowd. And, I would also emphasise that he performed very strongly, and showed genuine empathy to the issues.

Ribbenvik was allowed time at the beginning of the session to provide context, before he answered questions. Essentially, he argued that before 2008 Sweden had a closed labour market. But, when it opened up it became an extremely liberal market – meaning that there were few checks on foreigners living and working in Sweden. This operated without friction (from the expats perspective) until 2015, when the courts decided on cases about exploited workers, such as Thai berry pickers. From this point, Migrationsverket had its hands tied – the law was set, and literally any minor administrative mistake in employment details was a reason for deportation. According to Ribbenvik, all the Agency could do was to process visa applications and make decisions without any interpretation.

At the same time, Migrationsverket also had to deal with the flood of refugees, and developed a huge backlog of cases. Hundreds, or even thousands of labour migrants were deported from Sweden over the next 2 years. The situation played out in the media, until eventually the Migration Court of Appeal (Migrationsöverdomstolen) ruled in a new case that Migrationsverket should use “proportionality” in its determinations (see our write up), ie that small clerical errors should not be a reason for deportation. The DG explained that Migrationsverket was releasing new guidelines for how the Agency would interpret the rules – essentially the guidelines say that an overall assessment is made of the case, where any deficiencies are taken into account as well as the positive motivations for the application. Further, Ribbenvik explained that the Agency used to have a backlog of 30,000 applications, but by the middle of this year it would be essentially nothing, and that processing times were also dropping.

At this point the facilitator invited panel members to debate the issue. One of them was Patrik, who began a litany of complaints. This included being told one week by a case officer that a Russian programmer, whose wife was pregnant could stay, only to shortly afterwards receive a letter saying that they must go. The case officer then refused to take dozens of calls, or even answer emails for a month. It was described as normal practice for case officers to go on vacation, leaving their files unattended for many weeks, and that an interpretation of facts by one official would frequently be contradicted by the next official. Unfortunately, a very similar situation had been described to me a friend that I trust, so the situation appears to be correct as Patrik was describing. Ribbenvik apologised, and made the general point that he thought the Agency could up its game on accessibility, but that they were processing 1,500 applications every week. Ultimately, if they got the decision wrong, aggrieved parties could appeal the decision in the courts.

Afterwards, as I walked out, I observed the DG surrounded by half a dozen immigrants, all trying to get his attention for their case. Later that night a friend, who was also in the audience said that Ribbenvik had taken her details and promised to put her in touch with someone who could handle her case.

What I found absorbing in the whole discussion was how the difference in perspective between Swedish officialdom and the expats in the audience. To the Swede, he was patiently explaining that this was just a process, and he, and others on his team, were doing their best at their job. But, ultimately, it wasn’t up to him, given that the courts had created the situation. Last August, the Minister for Migration, Heléne Fritzon, told Svenska Dagbladet that the government had not acted slowly at all, in fact, it had acted very quickly. To her, it was important that a proper process was followed. However, for the expats, more was at stake. In the case described, there was obviously very anxious parents-to-be, and Patrik, the employer, was unsure of whether he could keep his talented staff. Similarly, for thousands of expats it meant their lives were at best on hold, and in many cases, they were actually deported. The need to follow a proper process was probably of less relevance to them. The consequence of this difference in perspectives was well-aired on Monday. Several speakers described how much this was costing Stockholm’s international reputation as a tech location.

On Tuesday, I attended a Meet the Leaders breakfast at the American Chamber of Commerce, where Ylva Johansson, the Minister for Employment and Integration, spoke. Johansson gave a good impression. In her opening remarks, she described growing up in Botkyrka, a neighbourhood with many immigrants, where “integration used to work, not so bad”.  She was a maths teacher, before becoming a politician, and rose to become a minister, already at the age of 30 in 1994. Johansson said that when she first became the Integration Minister, she looked to understand the process for integration. This was Sweden, so there should be a process. To her surprise, there was no process, just well-meaning persons fighting fires. Then, with the 2015 Refugee Crisis, Sweden was faced with the situation of having to deal with the biggest refugee intake ever, per capita in an OECD country, and at the same time needing to invent a process to integrate people.

Johansson highlighted that the government had on Monday announced an agreement with “Social Partners” (unions and employers) for the creation of 10,000 jobs for refugees, that would put them on the path towards better integration. This seemed an impressive announcement, from a minister who understood what was at stake – in her own words, “people come to Sweden because it is a stable society, but if they feel marginalised, then their feeling might change, and become something harder”. Therefore, it was a surprise to learn that the timescale for this program to begin, was in the second half of 2019. Assuming that the refugees arrived in October, 2015, that means that their official integration was to begin almost 4 years later.

The Minister also said that Sweden is “actually quite good at getting people employed … its just that it takes a bit too long”. Evidently it used to take 8-10 years, but recent evidence suggests that it is now only taking about 5 years. Her aspiration was to get it to an average of 4 years for the first job.

My worry is, what if those refugees feel marginalised while they’re waiting for that?

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Sean is responsible for Mundus’ strategy and commercial activities. He began his career in the oil industry Australia. After working internationally in commercial roles with BP in South Africa, the UK and Singapore he moved to Sweden with his family in 2009. He worked in business development and then as the Strategy and Growth Director for NASDAQ Commodities from 2009 to 2015. Sean holds an engineering degree from Adelaide University and an MBA from the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia.