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Changes in Migration Act to disproportionally affect PhD students and early-stage researchers at Öre

The following text is a debate article. The opinions voiced is belonging to the respective authors, not Lösnummer. Lösnummer is independent from any organisation or viewpoint and is working as a forum for debate regarding Örebro Student Union and Örebro University.

When the new Migration Act came into force on 20 July 2021, the rules for being allowed to stay in Sweden suddenly changed. More specifically, temporary residence permits are now the standard, and new requirements are placed on everyone who applies for a permanent residence permit. Prior to 20 July 2021, an amendment to the Aliens Act 2014 made it possible for foreign doctoral students to apply for a permanent residence permit after four years. This has now been discontinued without transition time.1

This change requires applicants to prove their ability to support themselves financially in the form of a long-term contract at the end of their studies. Unemployment benefits do not count in this sense – which is counterintuitive considering that throughout the duration of the employment the employee has paid taxes and possibly additional insurance fees to qualify for unemployment benefits.

As anyone familiar with academia can tell you, the new requirements are pretty much unrealistic in this industry. In fact, even PhD students hired for a 4-year program renew their contact with the university every year. Moreover, it is typical for early-stage researchers to work in projects of diverse nature characterized by short-term contracts. It is also common to have months of ‘limbo’ between positions (without mentioning voluntary sabbaticals).

In the Swedish research world, criticism of has aroused from both the Swedish Association of Universities and University Colleges (SUHF) and the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF).2 The issue has by now been discussed and raised not only at university level, but also in the government. On Thursday 21 October, a proposal presented by the Liberals (L) in the Riksdag’s Social Insurance Committee was voted down by the governing parties, Moderates (M), Christian Democrats (KD) and Sweden Democrats (SD), as reported by Svenska Dagbladet.1

Many among those at risk of being deported (and those standing in solidarity with them) have argued that this is at best an extremely unfair – and xenophobic at worst – measure, as these changes result in most non-EU/EEA doctorands and researchers no longer being eligible for permanent residency. SUHF wrote that ”Our most competent workforce, which is really needed in Sweden, is now stressed, anxious and confused and in many cases, they are already looking away”.

In my opinion, upon further inspection, the recent changes in the Swedish Aliens Act have revealed some other criticalities worth noting:

  1. Regarding the 18-months timeframe

This timeframe has been decided arbitrarily, and it is not included in the law itself. What it is stated instead (Utlänningslag 2005:716 chapter 5 section 7) is: “a permanent residence permit can only be granted if […] the alien can support themselves […]”. Moreover, the Utlänningsförordning 2006:97 (chapter 4 section 4 d) states that “[…] in order for the maintenance requirement to be fulfilled, the person should be able to support themselves for a certain duration of time. The Migration Agency may issue more detailed regulations on the maintenance requirement”. “A certain duration of time” has thus been interpreted through a legal directive (Särskilda krav för att beviljas permanent uppehållstillstånd RS/084/2021) and set as at least 18 months from the time of the decision.

However, one cannot help but notice a gap in terms of accountability, as these 18 months are counted from the moment the application is reviewed by a migration officer and not from the application is received. How can equality and transparency be assured under such circumstances, when every application can potentially be reviewed after months it has been submitted?

  1. Not only an economic loss for the Swedish society

According to data shared with DokSek by SULF (the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers), there are roughly 17.000 doctoral students in Sweden. Of these, 40% are international. In Sweden, being a doctorand is a job, but we should not just think about the economic loss – but keep in mind that we are talking about millions of Swedish crowns that are invested in the education of every single PhD student and candidate.  Research is always an investment for society, that will eventually also have an economic return. I am talking about the complete waste of resources and of human capital that will go hand in hand with the inevitable brain drain that the changes in the Aliens Act will cause. A person coming to Sweden to start a PhD is always a resource, in the sense that they bring expertise but also were often trained at the expense of other countries and literally kept alive while weighting on a foreign welfare systems. Also, do not think only about the researchers, but also their families, the often perfectly integrated children that could contribute to the betterment of the Swedish society in the future: most of PhD students are in their twenties or thirties. You do the math.

  1. Regarding working in academia

The legal directive does not take into consideration how likely it is that the applicant will find a new job at the end of the current employment. As mentioned earlier in this text, academic contract law is sui generis in the sense that it is characterized by flexibility and relative uncertainty that does not apply to most industries in Sweden. Paradoxically, a doctoral candidate would have better chances of landing a permanent contract by quitting their position and looking for employment in another field requiring fewer qualifications.

  1. Paradoxes

Several paradoxes are exacerbated; one of the most telling is that in many cases, our colleagues’ children are likely to become eligible for permanent residency, unlike (or before then) their parents. Or: one partner only receiving the permanent residence permit, leading to break up family ties.

  1. On Swedish values

Finally, one cannot forget that many people chose to pursue their careers in Sweden, basing their decision on the widely known (and advertised) Swedish values, such as feminism and equality. Some colleagues made potentially life-changing choices without expecting to be at risk of being deported. An example is all the LGBTQI+ colleagues that felt comfortable enough to come out once in Sweden. Also, one can’t help but wonder if, under these circumstances, some will feel pressured into having a child to benefit from the time extension resulting from the parental leave or to stay in a relationship that they would otherwise leave to maintain some rights.

Many universities have already publicly taken a stance on this issue,3,4,5  and on behalf of the Doctoral Student Union I ask Örebro University to do the same. Support our colleagues and lobby (hard) where it’s needed.

Alessandra Paiusco, President, DokSek (Docotral Student Union at Örebro University)


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