The Swedish Migration Agency and (im)mobility precariousness during COVID-19: Deportability & the threat to public health

Published 21 November 2020 / By Gloria Gemma

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This article 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

Defined as ‘surreal’, Sweden’s strategy against COVID-19 has been remarkably different than other European nations’, relying mainly on voluntary measures to reduce the spread of the virus. One of the few compulsive measures instituted by Sweden was to shift university courses to an online mode. However, even this action was not enacted within a strict national plan, and its long-term implementation has been ambiguous at best. Reopening strategies have been left up to the universities themselves, who have adopted a number of approaches. Gothenburg and Malmö University declared that their teaching was to be carried out remotely during the autumn semester, while others opted for a more gradual reopening during the spring or the autumn term. Nearly a week before the end of the spring semester, the already precarious situation took an unexpected turn when the Swedish Migration Agency announced residence permits would no longer be guaranteed to those international students whose programmes had gone online.

This announcement had an impact on both international students and Swedish educational institutions. Non-European students who were already accepted and were planning to move to Sweden saw their future study and life trajectory thrown into jeopardy by this decision. Meanwhile, non-European students already resident in Sweden saw the possibility of their visa not being renewed for the upcoming year. This latter precariousness can be expressed as a double-sided (im)mobility. As holders of an unstable, soon-to-be-expired visa during a global pandemic, international students were prevented from returning to their home countries due to COVID-19 travel bans and from staying in Sweden if their visa was not renewed. Non-European students have been left by Sweden in a state of precariousness and deportability.

Deportability, in fact, does not refer to the order of deportation itself, but rather to the precarious status produced by immigration law. When we talk about deportability, we denote the legal production of a deportable subject who faces the possibility of a deportation order, together with the possibility of being forcibly removed from their social networks and everyday life. In this sense, non-European students in Sweden find themselves in a situation whose outcome is uncertain. Living in both a legal and personal limbo, they live in fear that they will be forced to leave Sweden, and their academic careers, behind.

In response to the Migration Agency’s decision, all Swedish universities shifted their strategy towards a return to on-campus teaching for the Autumn Semester. However, the choice to gradually reopen did not completely improve the non-European student migration status, since they must attend strictly 50% of lectures on campus to have a residence permit guaranteed. As this text is being written, visa-less students are still waiting for their residence permits to be renewed. It seems unlikely that the Swedish Migration Agency will reject all of the currently pending visas, but it is possible that it will continue to postpone its decision for the most uncertain cases, perhaps hoping that those non-European students will leave Sweden as soon as the study period finishes in June. In either case, the uncertainty of the international students’ position in Sweden persists.

On the other side, educational institutions were put in a difficult position. Due to the decisions of the Migration Agency, Swedish universities had to choose between either guaranteeing health security to their staff and students or ensuring that their international students could obtain residence permits. It must be acknowledged that universities have an economic interest in ensuring that their international students get residence permits. The expensive tuition they pay represents one of the key income sources for international programmes. Reopening campuses, moreover, would guarantee a stable income for student housing companies. From the beginning of the reopening, the priority for campus-based teaching was given to first-year students claiming to be protecting their more vulnerable learning process. This move guaranteed economical stability to housing companies since it allowed new international students to enrol.

The plan followed by the Swedish Migration Agency has made Swedish education a less attractive option. This dynamic could also reflect the rising anti-immigration sentiment in Sweden. On a more general level, it can be argued that the prioritisation of economic profit over national public health represents a major failure of Sweden’s socialist political approach, and of the Swedish welfare state itself. Although Sweden has always presented itself as a social democracy, it has failed to reflect critically on the actions taken during the pandemic. COVID-19 clusters are currently spreading in university cities, and the transmission rate is increasing all over the country. While more research needs to be done to determine if these are the result of students returning to campuses, it is clear that priority has been given to economic profit rather than safeguarding public health.

Gloria Gemma is a second-year Masters candidate in Ethnic and Migration Studies at Linköping University, Sweden. During her studies, she focused her interest on critical theory and decolonial and intersectional approaches.