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He’d bought an apartment and a car, taken Swedish lessons, signed his toddler up for daycare and even improved his skiing skills to embrace the frozen temperatures. Yet more than three years after his family arrived in Sweden and despite his well-paid senior position at one of its most prestigious power and technology companies, Ali Omumi was asked to leave the country.

“For me it was a huge frustration, for my wife it was the beginning of a deep depression,” laments the engineering sales specialist, who is originally from Iran.

Omumi, then 38, was given a final deportation order in 2018, after unsuccessfully appealing a decision by the Swedish Migration Agency. Officials denied his application for a work permit extension based on an administrative mistake made by a software company he’d previously been employed by, which had failed to provide the correct insurances.

“Deportation gave me the feeling: ‘I am a criminal’ – while I know I am not. I came to work and pay taxes, and I brought my experience and money.”

Sweden’s talent shortage

Sweden has a shortage of qualified graduates in subjects including engineering and programming, meaning employers are increasingly looking beyond national and EU borders in order to plug vacancies. Thousands of skilled foreign workers move to the Nordic country each year and many decide they want to stay, thanks to a relatively strong economy and a high quality of life.

Ali Omumi, originally from Iran, was deported from Sweden after his employer made an administrative mistake on his work permit extension application (Credit: Ali Omumi)

Work permits – required for non-EU workers – are initially linked to a specific job, but those who wish to move companies can start new roles while they are waiting for their visa extensions to be processed. Yet hundreds of non-EU workers like Ali have had their extension applications rejected on the basis of minor administrative mistakes made by former employers during their residency.

Alongside insurance issues, other errors that have led to deportation include incorrect pension payments, taking too little or too much holiday, or even scoring a job via LinkedIn that wasn’t advertised by the Swedish Public Employment Service.

Swedes call these deportations kompetensutvisning, which means the “expulsion of someone who has skills required in the labour market”, and the issue is a long-running hot topic, especially in its fast-expanding tech-scene. One Pakistani developer’s deportation in 2016 sparked a petition signed by more than 10,000 people including Spotify’s cofounder Daniel Ek, who later admitted that 15 of his company’s top hires had been threatened with deportation.

Many people…feel insecure about the legal system in Sweden. – Alexandra Loyd

Earlier this year the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce warned that the trend could damage the Swedish capital’s economy, while a local branch of Startup Grind, the world’s largest independent start-up community organisation, held an event called Keep The Talent to protest against Sweden “draining international talent”. In March, the results of a major survey for The Diversify Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation which campaigns for a more inclusive labour market, found that 81% of non-EU workers who responded said their health or their family’s health had been affected by the threat of deportation. Nearly 70% said they would not recommend Sweden as a destination for foreign workers.

“We think that it has been harmful for Sweden's international reputation,” says Alexandra Loyd, a lawyer for Centrum för Rättvisa, a not-for-profit public interest law firm which represents some of the affected workers. “Many people – workers or employers that are in contact with us – feel insecure about the legal system in Sweden.”

The root of the problem, she argues, is the Swedish Migration Agency’s strict interpretation of a 2015 ruling made by the Migration Court of Appeal, which said that permits should not be extended for workers whose employers had not upheld industry norms. The ruling was linked to two cases where foreigners had been underpaid and was designed to protect migrants from exploitation by dishonest employers.

This is a cornerstone of working culture in Sweden, which has a long history of strong unions and strict agreements designed to protect employees’ rights.

Swedish employers are outsourcing jobs in engineering and programming more and more due to the nation’s shortage of qualified graduates (Credit: Sokol Vjerdha)

However, it resulted in a spell of deportations of sought-after talent based on small administrative errors. In 2017, more than 1,800 people had their work permit renewals rejected, although it is not possible to break down exactly how many of these were due to minor mistakes.

Limited progress

The situation has improved over the past two years, in part thanks to an amendment in the law, which allows employers to correct errors retroactively. Meanwhile a fresh decision by the Migration Court of Appeal in December 2017 ruled that there should be an “overall assessment” of each applicant’s case in order to make more proportionate decisions, instead of automatically issuing rejections based on minor errors.

Per Ek, a spokesman for the agency, says he understands that some foreign workers end up “in a very difficult situation” if their visas are declined. But he insists that “overall assessment” method is largely “working quite smoothly” to limit the expulsions of skilled workers, while at the same time staying true to earlier legislation designed to protect workers across all industries.

“We are here for one clear reason. We have to make sure that the legislation or the laws are fulfilled… and we are trying our best to inform everyone who's coming here, in different kind of languages – in English for sure – on what kind of rules or requirements need to be fulfilled.”

I hope this lawsuit will push the decision makers to design better legislation – Ali Omumi

So far, 550 people have had their work permits rejected in 2019, including around 50 working in skilled IT and programming roles, significantly fewer than in 2018 and 2017.

However lawyer Alexandra Loyd believes the agency still has the tendency to “stick to the rules” – rejecting cases where there is no legal precedent and waiting for these to be appealed in the courts, rather than looking at the bigger picture at the start of each visa renewal process. “There is a lack of foreseeability in the system and in the decisions from the Migration Agency,” she argues.

Sales engineer Ali Omumi is now back in Sweden where he has taken on a new role with his former employer ABB. But securing his return was a long process. The Iranian temporarily relocated to Istanbul with his family while he looked for new opportunities in Sweden and elsewhere in northern Europe. He initially rented out the family’s home, but was soon forced to sell it at below the market rate, after being told he had broken rules which ban most apartment owners in Sweden from hiring out their properties unless they have moved because of work, studies, sickness or to live with a partner or other relatives, none of which applied to Omumi.

When he was offered his job in Sweden, he was initially blocked from applying for a new visa, because the Migration Authority said he had not been outside the country for long enough, a decision which was eventually overturned. Centrum för Rättvisa is now helping him sue the Swedish state for loss of earnings during the period he was away. It’s the first time a deported worker has lodged a case of this kind, and he could be awarded around 600,000 Swedish kronor ($62,900).

“The main objective is to get acknowledgement that what has happened has been wrong and for the Migration Agency not to do this anymore,” says Loyd, who hopes the case will prove to be a landmark. If it reaches Sweden’s Supreme Court, it could set a precedent for other deported workers who believe they’ve been unfairly treated.

Before Aniel Bhaga lost a three-year battle to remain in Sweden, he worked as a business developer for fashion brand H&M in Stockholm (Credit: Maddy Savage)

“I hope this lawsuit will push the decision makers to design better legislation, in which the international talent can come here… and stay in Sweden as long as they contribute,” adds Omumi. “Ultimately, it will be a better Sweden for all.”

Sweden’s Migration Agency says it does not want to speculate on the potential impact of the lawsuit. “Let them make the decision first on that case, then we can comment,” says spokesperson Per Ek. The agency did not comment on the specifics of Omumi's case.

Who is still affected?

In the meantime, many skilled foreign workers remain in limbo. Front end web developer Zena Jose, who is from India, is currently appealing against the decision to reject her visa extension. The 28-year-old works at a start-up in Stockholm, but previously worked for a major company in the Swedish capital, followed by a stint working remotely from Mumbai. Her first employer’s failure to cancel her original visa has, she says, been given as an administrative error that warrants her deportation.

“It's very discouraging because it's not my fault that this is happening and I haven't done anything wrong. But I'm the one who has to pay for it,” she says.

There are a lot of people who are in tougher situations... who don't have an easy or nice country to get back to – Aniel Bhaga

The start-up worker has been advised not to leave Sweden during her appeal, since she might face problems if she returns without valid paperwork. This means she’s unable to visit relatives over the Christmas break. “It's pretty depressing because I cannot visit my family or my friends back home... and it's been almost a year now,” she says.

Aniel Bhaga, a 34-year-old from Australia who most recently worked as a business developer for Swedish fashion brand H&M in Stockholm, lost a three-year legal battle to remain in the country in October, due to administrative errors made by previous start-ups he’d worked for.

“I built up a massive professional network, built up a really, really, good family-and-friends network here, I built my life,” he laments.

Bhaga is now living with his parents in Brisbane and freelancing while he launches a fresh application for a work permit to resume his job at H&M. Although he’s fed up with his situation, he believes he is “one of the lucky ones”, explaining that “there are a lot of people who are in tougher situations... who don't have an easy or nice country to get back to” while they wait out the process.

A divisive issue

Sweden’s government has addressed the issue on a political level, but progress is slow. In January, an agreement signed between Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s centre-left Social Democrat party, its coalition partner the Greens and two smaller centre-right parties promised to “solve the problem” of kompetensutvisning and floated plans for a new talent visa for highly qualified foreign workers, starting in 2021. Since then, however, few concrete details have been revealed and Migration Minister Morgan Johansson declined to be interviewed for this article.

‘Kompetensutvisnig’ is a Swedish word meaning the “expulsion of someone who has skills required in the labour market” (Credit: Zena Jose)

Labour migration in general remains a divisive issue, with opposition parties and workers’ unions offering a broad range of views on the top priorities for any further legal changes. Some want to limit visas, offering them only to foreigners working in professions where there are proven labour shortages, while others stand against labour market tests and want even more flexibility when it comes to handling minor administrative errors made by employers. Meanwhile several recent high profile media investigations, such as Swedish public service broadcaster SVT’s documentary about the exploitation of Vietnamese nail salon workers, have added fuel to the debate by exposing the potential for circumventing even the current regulations.

Matthew Kriteman, chief operating officer for The Diversify Foundation, says Sweden is being pulled in different directions, with officials still “finding their way on how to keep the traditions of labour regulations” while also “integrating the foreign talent they need to diversify”.

If you want to grow and move things forward and make companies global, you need international talent to bring that extra ‘spice’ – Aniel Bhaga

He says Sweden’s experiences should be closely watched, with kompetensutvisning representing much more than a collection of individual court battles or internal debates. “I think it actually reflects the challenges of this kind of fourth industrial revolution, where technology, ideas and innovation are more fluid,” he says. “When it comes to mobility, this is a problem of the future... there's no doubt that innovation and disruption and the real talent actually [have] an enormous marketplace of different destinations to go.”

‘Keep the ones you have’

“If you want to grow and move things forward and make companies global, you need international talent to bring that extra ‘spice’ into all the companies and the teams,” agrees Aniel Bhaga, who warns that foreign start-up talent in Sweden will be increasingly tempted to relocate to cities like Berlin or London if the Nordic country doesn’t find a long-term solution to kompetensutvisning.

He argues that “raising awareness” of the current rules among employees and employers is the key first step, alongside “better collaboration” between the country’s leading corporations and start-ups, unions and politicians.

“You're attracting all these people here. But you also need to keep the ones you have... because that’s what’s going to drive innovation forward in Sweden.”

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