Foreign PhDs ‘won’t give up’ residency rights fight

A group of foreign PhD students have said they will continue their fight for new rules to ease their path to permanent residency in Sweden, despite the defeat this week of a parliamentary motion in favour of the move.

Foreign PhDs 'won't give up' residency rights fight

“We won’t give up,” Shiva Habibi, a doctoral candidate at the Royal Institute of Technology (Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan – KTH) in Stockholm, told The Local.

Habibi, along with two other PhD candidates at KTH, launched an online petition earlier this year to gather support for a parliamentary motion calling for new residency permit rules for non-European countries.

In just a matter of weeks, the petition garnered more than 3,000 signatures from people supporting permanent residency for foreign doctoral candidates.

A parallel campaign on Facebook urged people to write to members of the Riksdag in an effort to build support for a change that would give foreign PhD students the same opportunity for permanent residency offered to other labour migrants who come to Sweden.

“This is something that PhD candidates spend a lot of time discussing and we thought it was time to take action,” Habibi said of the decision to start an online petition.

The grassroots campaign came on the heels of a parliamentary motion, put forward last autumn by Karin Granbom Ellison of the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet), which called on the government to adopt new rules that would make it easier for PhD candidates from outside the EU/EES-area to stay in Sweden upon completing their doctorates.

Currently, foreign PhD candidates complete their programmes on student residency permits meaning that, despite having jobs and paying taxes, none of the time they spend in Sweden obtaining their doctorates counts toward the four-year residency requirement which is a prerequisite for seeking permanent residency in Sweden.

By contrast, other labour migrants can apply for permanent residency directly after having spent four years living and working in Sweden.

“As soon as we start our PhD programmes, we are employed by the universities. We pay taxes, we work, but after four or five years, we still aren’t any closer to gaining permanent residency,” Habibi explained.

“If we end up getting hired by a company in Sweden, we end up having to start the whole process over again.”

The motion by Granbom referenced findings from a 2011 government inquiry on circular migration which proposed creating a new class of residence permit specifically geared toward PhD candidates that would give them the same rights granted under labour migrant work permits.

“Today, it’s unnecessarily difficult for doctoral candidates who come from outside the EU/EES-area to stay in Sweden after completing their doctorates,” the motion read.

“This is a huge waste of both competence and millions of kronor in Swedish tax money which is invested in their doctoral education.”

According to Habibi, the current rules put Sweden’s position as a popular destination for bright, foreign-born researchers at risk.

“Sweden is investing all this money in our education, but risks losing that investment because people may not end up staying,” she said.

“We’re the kind of immigrants Sweden should want. We’re highly educated, we want to stay, but we feel like we’re valued less than other immigrant workers and no one knows why.”

On Wednesday, Granbom’s motion was debated in the Riksdag along with several other bills related to labour migration.

But despite what Liberal Party MP Ulf Nilsson called “widespread” support in parliament for making it easier for foreign PhD students to gain permanent residency in Sweden, the motion was defeated.

Nilsson sits on the social insurance committee which initially took up the motion and explained that PhD candidates shouldn’t lose faith simply because the motion didn’t pass.

“It’s important to note that the committee said it was positively inclined toward the changes,” Nilsson told The Local.

“But as the government is currently preparing a broader piece of legislation which includes this along with many other labour migration-related issues, it was voted down.”

Nilsson explained that motions submitted by individual MPs rarely pass in the full chamber, but are meant more as a way to put pressure on the government by drawing attention to a particular issue.

“I’m convinced this will happen, but it will take some time,” he said.

“It’s regrettable that it’s taken the government so long to act, but this is a complex issue.”

According to Nilsson, foreign PhD candidates hoping for changes to rule regarding their path to permanent residency in Sweden will likely have to wait “at least until next year”.

Despite the setback, Habibi said she and her fellow PhD students have been encouraged by the support they’ve received thus far.

“The fact that we got 3,000 signatures really says something,” she said.

“We’re not exactly sure what our next move will be, but we certainly aren’t going give up on our efforts.”

David Landes

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Swedish Migration Agency boss admits confusing ‘patchwork’ of rules

Mikael Ribbenvik, the outgoing Director General of the Swedish Migration Agency, has acknowledged that Sweden's migration rules are a messy "patchwork", saying that he understands why applicants are confused.

Swedish Migration Agency boss admits confusing 'patchwork' of rules

In an interview with the Sydsvenskan newspaper, Ribbenvik, who will end his 24-year career at the Migration Agency in May, complained that migration legislation had become ever more complicated and confusing over the past decade as a result of a series of coalition governments where different parties have “sought to cram in all their pet issues”. 

Since the refugee crisis in 2015, there has been the temporary migration law from 2016, which made temporary residency the default for asylum seekers, and then the two ‘gymnasium laws’, which he described as “half-amnesties”. 

The two laws opened the way for people who had come to Sweden as unaccompanied child asylum seekers and whose asylum application had been rejected to stay if they finished upper secondary school and got a job. 

Now, Ribbenvik worried, a new barrage of new laws from the three-party right wing government and their far-right backers, the Sweden Democrats, risked making the system even more complicated. 

“The legislation is starting to become too complicated for anyone to understand. It’s absolutely impossible to explain in the media, because you don’t have the time,” he told the newspaper. “We need to have our absolutely smartest migration people in our legal unit to work everything out.” 

When the new government announced its intention to phase out permanent residency, the agency’s phones were deluged with worried calls from permanent residency holders. 

Ribbenvik summarised the message to Sydsvenskan as: “OK, you can stay… no, you can’t stay.”

“I have a great amount of understanding for the confusion this has caused,” he said. “Debate articles attack the Migration Agency, and we’re an easy target. But this is a consequence of the legislation there has been in recent years.” 

After Sweden’s government announced that Ribbenvik’s contract was not going to be extended, Björn Söder, a Sweden Democrat MP and member of the parliament’s defence committee, celebrated the decision. 

“Time to tidy up Agency Sweden,” Söder wrote on Twitter. “Kick the asylum activists out of the agency.”

In the Sydsvenskan interview, Ribbenvik characterised himself as a “proud bureaucrat”, who was apolitical and saw his role as enacting the orders of politicians in the best way possible. He didn’t join the agency because of a passion for immigration issues, but because he needed a part-time job while he finished his law degree, he said. 

“I read now that I’m a Director-General appointed by the Social Democrats. So am I going to be politicised now, right at the end? Because I never have been before.” 

Very often, he said, attacks like Söder’s “say nothing about the accused, but a lot about the accuser”. 

He did say, however, tell the newspaper that he had been surprised by how quickly the debate had shifted in Sweden from the days when most of the criticism the agency received came from those wanting more liberal treatment for asylum seekers to today, when they are accused of being too lenient. 

“As someone who’s worked here for 24 years, I’m stunned over how the debate has shifted in recent months, when the whole time I’ve been here, it’s been the opposite: ‘why do you analyse people’s language, why do you do age assessments?’. We’ve always been criticised from the other direction.”