Foreigners in Sweden: How the migration paradigm shift affects our lives

One year after Sweden's new right-wing government took office with the help of the far right, The Local's readers share how the coalition's so-called migration paradigm shift has changed their lives for better, worse or not at all.

a crowd of people in Malmö
Just over 100 readers responded to The Local's survey. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Sweden’s last election on September 11th, 2022, led, after much wrangling, to the creation of a minority three-party government that relies on the support of the Sweden Democrats, a party that recorded a better result than Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson’s Moderates. 

Many of The Local’s readers said at the time that they were very concerned about the direction Sweden was taking. In a recent survey, we asked readers again how they are feeling today about the crackdown on migration, one year after the election. Here’s what they said.

‘I notice the divide’

Several readers said they had experienced a rise in micro-aggressions in public spaces or their workplace, and argued that inviting a far-right party to collaborate with the government on crucial policies had lowered the bar for people to make racist or xenophobic comments.

“I feel many Swedish colleagues feel more open to express their xenophobic or racist opinions, and often make comments about immigrants that do not speak Swedish well enough, then turn to me and say ‘but we aren’t talking about you’,” said Kyle, a dual citizen from Canada.

One reader who wished to remain anonymous, an Ericsson engineer from China, said he had been asked several times by strangers “when will you go back to your country”.

Many expressed sadness about what they perceived as a change of mood in Sweden.

“I have been here for five years and since the election I can notice the divide between the white Swedes and the Swedes who are not white, which I never felt before,” said a Yemeni reader working with the UN.

“There’s a clear change in society,” said a university teacher from Iran. “I do not feel national pride for any country and don’t like it either, but I once strongly felt a sense of attachment to Sweden as I had for my birth country. I wanted to contribute to an even better Sweden, I sacrificed more money and comfort and stayed in Sweden while I had a lot of better career opportunities outside. I don’t feel that way any more and day after day, I feel more inclined to leave. This makes me indescribably sad.”

‘I’m seen as part of the problem’

While the majority said they had negative views about the new government, many were keen to stress that their problem was with the politics, not with Sweden, and some pointed out that anti-immigrant sentiments existed under the previous centre-left government too.

“I did not feel any difference in the way Swedes treat me, but I certainly feel that from a government perspective I’m seen as part of the problem and I feel way less welcome than before, judging by all the changes in the immigration policy, implemented and upcoming,” said a software developer from Brazil.

“On a positive note, I would say that after having been granted Swedish citizenship last year, I was invited for a ceremony in my kommun, which I find very nice, because it felt like someone showed they cared,” said Piotr, an engineer from Poland, who otherwise criticised the “paradigm shift”.

Anna, a Stockholm-based reader from Eastern Europe, sent in her request for a decision on her citizenship application on the day of the election out of concern of a win for the far right.

“I was quite unhappy with the result of the election but pleased that the Sweden Democrats couldn’t enter government or get a ministerial seat. I also sense that the government still stands up for basic rights, even against the Sweden Democrats,” she said, mentioning Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson throwing a Pride party at his official residence during Stockholm Pride Week earlier this year.

“There are plans for stricter policies but I have not seen anything outrageous being added in the actual proposals. Sweden is still quite liberal compared to other EU countries,” she added. “Feeling welcomed really depends on one’s micro environment and mine has not changed since the election so no change in it.”

‘Our neighbours are decent and kind’

Several readers said they were happy in Sweden or supportive of the government’s policies.

“I feel positive about the current government. So far the government has had no positive or negative impact for me. I still feel very welcome as a foreigner, I never experienced any issue as far as I can remember. This has not changed in the past year,” said Ben, a French citizen living in Stockholm.

Another reader, Bene, an engineer, said: “I think it is very positive that Sweden tries to get some order into immigration, cut illegal immigration, plan to get more strict concerning integration and focus on skilled immigration. The welfare system will otherwise not survive this and the effects on society would be even worse than they are.”

Rod, a British reader, said: “I’m a Brit and came to live here in 2003. I married a Chinese lady in 2015 having lived together from 2013. We live in a small village in Skåne and have always found our neighbours to be decent, kind people who have always treated us with respect and who are helpful if requested.”

‘Proposed changes are reasonable’

While cracking down on asylum migration, the government has also said it wants to make it easier for highly qualified foreigners to come to Sweden and plug a talent shortage. This includes, for example, trying to cut work permit waiting times, which a lot of people will benefit from.

“Honestly, in the beginning I thought it would be worse because of what people said, but so far it has been the same. I don’t feel less welcomed but I noticed that my permanent residence permit process has been pretty fast and unhindered. While I heard it takes many months for others, or even my friend who applied last year. Maybe just luck…,” said an Indonesian reader in Stockholm.

“I feel more positive about Sweden and its future as the new government is taking steps to fast-track skilled immigrants into the country,” said Jack, who got his Swedish citizenship a few years ago.

“The proposed citizenship changes are reasonable,” said Jesse from Canada, referring to proposals to increase the waiting period to become eligible for citizenship from five years to eight years (in general) and introduce language and civics tests for would-be citizens.

Far from everyone agreed, however.

“I find the current government to be out of step with the opinion of the average Swede,” said an American consultant.

“They are allowing their priorities and policies to be mandated by the Sweden Democrats. If the Sweden Democrats are going to continue to be allowed veto power over everything but not have any actual responsibility, this country will suffer. This is not rocket science and I’m baffled by what the Moderates, and especially the ‘Liberals’ are thinking,” he added.

“Although I am a well-paid tech worker in a field with a talent shortage in Sweden, I identify more as ‘an immigrant’ than anything else,” said Eric Peterson, a software engineer from the US.

“So it doesn’t matter that the government wants to attract more people like me here or improve queue times for people like me; all of the other awful things they are doing or investigating doing in service of their ‘paradigm shift’ feel like an attack against the group I belong to, even if I won’t be directly, individually affected.”

‘Legally I feel precarious’

Several readers said that although their lives had not changed and they still felt generally welcome in Sweden, they recognised that that feeling might not be shared by all immigrants across the board.

“I don’t feel unwelcome but that is entirely because I’m from North America and as soon as someone hears me speak English, they’re fascinated,” said one reader.

“I’m ethnically Middle Eastern and I can feel the shift from when someone assumes I’m another ‘black head’ in Sweden to being a North American in Sweden. Despite this, immigration laws apply just the same to me so while socially I don’t feel unwelcome, legally I feel precarious,” she added.

Saaya Sorrells-Weatherford, a Japanese-American chief operating officer at an immigration-tech startup, said: “How welcome I am in Sweden is largely dependent on the fact that I come from an ‘ideal’ foreign background. But I have friends from ‘non-ideal’ countries that certainly feel unwelcome, both before the election and more so afterwards.

“How the foreign community is viewed as a whole and the stark differentiation between a good and bad immigrant is troubling.”

Survey results

Just over 100 people responded to The Local’s survey. It was non-scientific, but to give you an idea, around two-thirds described their feelings about the current government as very or slightly negative. The rest were very or slightly positive (approximately one quarter), or neutral.

Around half said they felt more negative about the government now than at the time of the 2022 election, whereas one third said their feelings hadn’t changed and around 15 percent were more positive.

Half of respondents said they felt very or slightly unwelcome in Sweden, just over one third said they felt very or slightly welcome, and the rest described themselves as neutral.

Just over half said their feelings hadn’t changed since the election, while two quarters said they felt less welcome now than a year ago, and only six people said they felt more welcome.

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Is Sweden losing the European race to attract highly skilled foreigners?

Sweden’s government says it wants to attract highly skilled international workers to fuel growth – but a general clampdown on immigration risks alienating the very people the country needs, experts tell The Local.

Is Sweden losing the European race to attract highly skilled foreigners?

All across Europe, countries are scrambling to woo workers from abroad to ward off the adverse effects on the economy of aging populations and chronic skills shortages.

Sweden’s government too has acknowledged that the country wants and needs highly skilled international workers.

But experts worry that Sweden’s tougher immigration policies and high barriers to entry are pushing candidates in the direction of the countries Sweden is competing with in the global race for talent.

“It’s very concerning, because it’s about the long-term health of the Swedish economy and our industry. We rely on foreign talent and ideally the companies could hire the right person regardless of where they are from,” says Per Strömbäck, head of Dataspelsbranschen, an organisation that represents companies in Sweden’s highly successful games industry.

Games companies are in fierce competition for workers who can fill very specialised roles, he explains.

“Let’s say that you are the best in the world at making smoke for games,” says Strömbäck. “Connect the dots, right? If the government is making immigration more difficult, that’s not going to help that person choose Sweden over California or Spain or some island in the Pacific or wherever they want to work.”

READ ALSO: How to switch to a career in Sweden’s booming gaming industry

Strömbäck’s concerns are reflected in new Migration Agency statistics showing that Sweden approved 20 percent fewer work permits for highly qualified workers in the first five months of 2024 compared to the same period last year.

Specialists in the games industry are very well paid and would not be affected by Sweden’s new salary threshold for work permit holders. But high-profile “talent deportations” in the past decade and now the government’s harder line on immigration have combined to make applicants think twice about moving to Sweden, says Strömbäck.

“We have many cases where people had to leave Sweden against their own will. And I also know people who have to stay in Sweden and couldn’t leave even if they had very important family things such as a parent passing away. So there are some very severe consequences for individuals and I think it’s an obligation for any modern country that wants to be proud of the way it treats its people to make more progress on this.”

Whereas most games industry professionals have high salaries, the new salary threshold is a real cause of concern for Stina Lantz, the CEO of Swedish Incubators and Science Parks (SISP).

“If you’re founding a startup yourself you’re just taking as much salary as you can afford to buy, like, noodles. It’s kind of the same thing to start a company as being a student: you don’t have any money,” she says.

READ ALSO: Business leaders: Work permit threshold ‘has no place in Swedish labour model’

At the same time as other European countries are introducing tax relief schemes and special visas targeted at startup founders, she says Sweden’s government won’t take into account the fact that startups are not like other companies and cannot pay competitive salaries at the outset.

“There’s actually kind of a war on talent ongoing in all of Europe,” says Lantz.

“It’s not at all good for Sweden, it’s not at all good for our growth, that we are going in the opposite direction, making it much harder and much more expensive.”

Lena Rekdal, the founder of immigration and relocation company Nimmersion, says she’s convinced that Sweden will regret making life more difficult for labour migrants – but not before sustaining damage to its reputation among international job seekers.

“You can roll it back quickly but the damage is still there.”

Rekdal remembers how she, like many others, stopped buying French wines and mustard while the country was conducting its highly controversial nuclear testing in the Pacific.

“What happened instead was that people looked for the same thing but a little bit different. So we started importing much more wine from Australia, South Africa, the US. Other mustards were tried out.”

The boycott led to lifelong changes in her own habits. In the same way, she worries that Sweden will disappear from the radar of many skilled migrants even if immigration rules are relaxed at a later time.

READ ALSO: Swedish work permits granted to top international talent drop 20 percent

All three experts are also at pains to highlight many of the positive aspects of moving to Sweden, such as work-life balance, generous parental leave, flat hierarchies and the benefits of four clear seasons. But Lena Rekdal fears that companies and Sweden’s economy will suffer when not enough people make the move.

“I think across the board, in many sectors, companies are nervous about not finding the talent.”

You can listen to the full interviews with Lena Rekdal (July 20th), Stina Lantz (July 27th) and Per Strömback (August 3rd) in a summer interview series on The Local’s Sweden in Focus podcast.