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EXPLAINED: Why is it taking so long to get work permits in Sweden?

The Migration Agency is currently taking much longer than its target to process work applications for foreigners employed by so-called "certified operators". What's going on and when will the situation return to normal?

EXPLAINED: Why is it taking so long to get work permits in Sweden?
The Migration Agency's offices. Photo: Adam Wrafter/SvD/TT

How long are work permits taking at the moment? 

The Migration Agency told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper in a recent article that in the first half of September the average work permit decision for those who have been hired by so-called certified operators — basically a fast-track for big and trustworthy companies — had taken an average of 105 days, while under its agreement with these companies, it is supposed to take only ten. 

The agency told The Local that this number, though correct, was misleading as the number and timing of applications varies so much from month to month, which is why it prefers to take an average over a longer period. 

According to tables provided to The Local by the agency, it has so far this year taken an average of 46 days to handle a first-time application for a work permit by an employee who has been hired by a company that is part of the certified operator scheme. This is nearly three times as along as the average of 19 days it took in 2021. 

Work permit extensions for employees at certified companies have taken 108 days so far this year, up from 43 days in 2021. 

First time work permit applications outside the certified employer scheme have taken 121 days so far this year, which is actually less than the 139 days it took in 2021. Extensions outside the scheme have so far this year taken an average of 327 days, up from 277 in 2021. 

According to the calculator on the Migration Agency’s website, 75 percent of first work permit applications for people in industries that are not considered high risk are currently completed within three months, and 75 percent of work permit extensions are completed within 14 months. 

For first-time work permit applicants who have been given jobs by or through a certified company, the agency also estimates that 75 percent of applications are processed “within three months”. 

What’s the problem? 

According to Fredrik Bengtsson, the agency’s director for Southern Sweden, who is also responsible for processing work permits, the agency has received far more applications in 2022 than it had predicted at the start of the year. 

“So far this year we have already received 10,000 more applications than our prognosis,” he told The Local. 

New rules which came into force on June 1st have also significantly increased the workload, particularly a new requirement that those applying for work permits already have a signed contract with their future employer. 

“That meant that tens of thousands of ongoing cases needed to be completed,” Bengtsson said.  

The new law also meant that instead of simply having to simply meet a minimum income requirement to bring over spouses and children, work permit applicants also needed to prove that they could support them and supply adequate housing. 

“With the new law, we need to do a much more fundamental analysis of the employee [‘s financial situation], if they want to bring their family,” he added. 

Although the agency has reduced the number of its employees from around 9,000 immediately after the 2015 refugee crisis to about 5,000 today, Bengtsson said this was something decided on by Sweden’s government in the annual budget, and was not directly linked to the current staff shortages, or to the pandemic as some have reported. 

Wrong-footed by war in Ukraine 

While the agency had been aware of these changes in advance, warned about them in its responses to a government white paper, and recruited more staff in anticipation, Bengtsson said that that the war in Ukraine had diverted resources, meaning that at the time the new law came into effect in June, the work permit division lacked sufficient staff to handle the additional workload. 

What is the agency planning to do? 

The agency is still recruiting and moving more staff to the division processing work permits.

It is also increasing the use of digitalisation, or automated systems, to process work permit applications, although there are limits under the law meaning that parts of a work permit decision still need to be made by case officers. 

The new requirement to assess applicants’ ability to support their families has made digitalisation more complicated, Bengtsson said: “As soon as we need to make judgements, we can’t digitalise”. 

He stressed that the agency was still managing to process work permits within the four-month time limit given to it under law. The ten-day goal was just “a service we offer companies”, he added, and was not something the agency was mandated to achieve. 

“We are working full out to bring down the processing time again, but it is possible that we won’t be able to return to the processing times that we had before,” he said. “We may have to say, we can only do it in a month, but we will have to see how it is with the new laws for a few more months, and then we’ll take a decision.” 

In the longer term, Bengtsson predicted that if the labour market test or a much higher minimum salary for work permit applicants is brought in, as seems likely in the coming years, this would speed up processing times. 

“There will be fewer applicants, and it will be easier for those big companies hiring people with a higher education level to get work permit,” he said. 

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‘Work permit holders will not lose permanent residency’: Swedish Migration Minister 

Sweden's Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard has told Swedish state broadcaster SR that the government's proposed abolition of permanent residency will only affect asylum-related migration cases and not people in Sweden on work permits, or those who have come to study for PhDs. 

'Work permit holders will not lose permanent residency': Swedish Migration Minister 

“The government’s idea is that permanent residency will be phased out for those who are related to asylum immigration. That means asylum seekers and their relatives, for instance, but not for workforce migration,” she told SR’s English language wing Radio Sweden. 

She said the coming inquiry into how to convert existing permanent residencies into citizenships would also only focus on asylum-related migration cases, and not on those here on work permits. 

READ ALSO: What do we know about Sweden’s plans to withdraw permanent residency?

“But I think if you come here and you intend to stay, then there should be an ambition to learn the Swedish language, have knowledge about the society, be able to support yourself, and, after maybe eight to 10 years, become a citizen and become a full part of the Swedish society. And that is an important signal to send.” 

Malmer Stenergard said that she wanted to make handling times shorter for those with work permits. 

“We want to focus on the highly skilled workforce coming to Sweden, and improve the rules to make handling times shorter,” she said. “We know that is a great problem for those who apply for work permits and also for those who apply for a prolongation of work permits. We are set on improving the rules so that it will be more attractive to come to Sweden.”

She said that the new government recognised that the long delays faced by those seeking to secure work permits were a major issue. 

“This is a huge problem and I’m really afraid that talented people will hesitate to come to Sweden because of this,” she said. “I’ve read [in the] news today about a girl leaving Sweden because the prolongations didn’t work. So we will look into how can we make the authorities work in a more effective way. That is one thing we can do. And the other thing we can do is take a closer look at the legislation and see if there are things that we can change in order to improve [things] for those who want to come here as skilled workers.” 

PhD students graduating in Sweden have been severely affected by the requirement that came in in 2021 they need to secure a work contract of more than 18 months in duration to be eligible for permanent residency. 

Malmer Stenergard told SR that the government was “well aware of how the changes have affected these students and of course the universities”, and had agreed in the Tidö Agreement to look into what changes might be needed to make it easier for them to get permanent residency. 

When it comes to the bill passed in the parliament last week to raise the minimum salary threshold for work permits, Stenergard said that it was not yet certain that the threshold would be set at the median wage — about 33,000 kronor — which was mentioned in the Tidö Agreement, and that anyway, the government would exclude some groups from the change.

“I don’t think that they should be worried,” she said.  “We will look into the exact amount, but we will also be able to make exceptions for some individual professional groups.”

However, she said that the government was convinced that raising the threshold would help get unemployed people already living in Sweden into work.

“I think it is important that we focus more on highly qualified workforce migration, and that people who are already in the country actually apply for the jobs that are available in the lower income groups, and therefore we have to create higher incentives in the economical systems for those people to actually apply for the jobs and educate themselves.” 

She pushed back at the idea that Sweden’s new government was anti-immigration, saying that the aim was to slow down immigration so that the country was better able to integrate migrants who have already come. 

“I think that we have a huge job ahead of us to make integration work,” she said. “That is why we say that for now, we have to have asylum immigration at a minimum. But Sweden is relying on immigrants, and the skilled people who come here are extremely important for Swedish society and also for Swedish companies in order to be able to compete in a global market.”

“So I want to be very clear that people who come here and contribute to Swedish society and to Swedish companies and Swedish development are more than welcome.”