Futures in limbo: The impact of the pandemic on non-European students in Sweden

Published 19 November 2020 / By Kenna Simm

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This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum and is co-published with Routed: Migration and (Im)mobility Magazine in its special issue of “The future of educational migration


In Sweden, COVID-19 has radically altered the lives and study plans of international students, particularly those from outside the European Union. Not all international students are the same under Swedish law, creating a tiered system of citizenship that subjects students coming from outside the EU to different migration legislation and added financial obligations. Many non-EU international students have been thrown into a state of precarity, illustrating how citizenship plays a role in one’s everyday life and future, even outside one’s country of origin. While all students have been impacted by the pandemic on some level, international students must contend with the possibility of deportation, or at the very least, cessation of their studies, on top of all the usual COVID-19 woes.

Non-EU students are required to pay tuition fees in order to study in Sweden, and for some, the pandemic has made payment difficult or impossible. In addition, non-EU students must prove that they have the financial resources to support themselves in order to get a student visa. Alisha, a Masters student from Pakistan studying at Linnaeus University, was unable to pay his tuition fee on time because of the economic situation in Pakistan, as well as lockdown measures. His university rejected his request to extend the payment deadline or give him a needs-based scholarship, and Alisha had no choice but to take a study break. To avoid deportation, Alisha applied at the last minute for a work permit and was able to find a full-time job. He had intended to graduate in 2021, but he is now unsure when he will be able to return to school. He found this lack of support disappointing, saying, ‘I was hoping for some encouragement on the Swedish side, but it has been really negative’.

The uncertainty intensified in May when Migrationsverket, the Swedish Migration Agency, announced that if most or all of a student’s courses were to be conducted remotely in the autumn semester, they would not be granted a study permit extension. The announcement from Migrationsverket came as a shock to many international students, since most Swedish universities had not yet announced what their plans were in regards to continuing distance learning. Now, on top of financial constraints and a lack of institutional support, many international students faced the possibility of deportation.

This decision was particularly bizarre because most students who are applying for an extension have already been living in Sweden for at least one year. They had already completed the spring semester in distance learning mode, and there was no reasonable explanation for why they should have to return home if online courses continue – especially if campuses could reopen later. Denying students residency permits would dramatically uproot their lives.

‘I felt really sad, confused, and uncertain about my stay in Sweden’, said Muizz, a Masters student from Nigeria. ‘I understand the rules are the rules, but given the situation, an exception could have been made.’

Students applying for a study permit extension for the new academic year have had a variety of experiences. Muizz, for example, was able to renew his residency permit within five days. However, other students have not been so lucky and are still waiting for a decision from Migrationsverket as classes resume. The experience has been incredibly stressful, adding to the burdens of what has already been a difficult year.

While students from the EU are not subject to any migration controls, non-EU students require a study permit in order to live in Sweden. Applying for a permit can be a lengthy process and also requires one to prove that they can financially support themselves on top of paying tuition. For non-EU students, residence in Sweden is conditional, based on whether they meet the criteria outlined by Migrationsverket. The pandemic has made fulfilling these requirements more challenging than ever.

‘I might just take a study break and see if I can make sense of things looking into the future’, says Muizz. Alisha hopes to continue his studies next year if he is able to pay the tuition fee. Across the world, there has been a recognition that, despite the rhetoric about the entire world battling the pandemic together, the suffering and uncertainty engendered have been unevenly distributed. People have experienced the pandemic differently based on their race, gender, and class. In Sweden, international students’ experiences of the pandemic have also been impacted by their citizenship. Students from the European Union are not hindered by tuition fees and visas. Meanwhile, their colleagues from outside Europe, especially those from the Global South, must contend with all the added stress of the pandemic, as well as financial constraints and a restrictive migration policy, on their own, and without the help of universities or the Swedish government.

Kenna Sim is originally from Canada and is completing a Master of Arts in Ethnic and Migration Studies at Linköping University. She is interested in examining social issues through a decolonial and intersectional lens.

Man in shoes with bag standing next to line with word IMMIGRATION and flag of Swede