While Sweden has not had a coronavirus lockdown, I’ve been ‘locked down’ here since May 2020
A glance in the bathroom mirror reveals a face that’s a lot older, lined and sadder than it was four years previously.
It’s hard to recall the excitement of moving here many moons ago. After almost four years living in Malmö, it’s hard to believe that my ‘Swedish adventure’ is ending on such an unexpected and bitter note.
I moved to Sweden in November 2016 with a great sense of excitement and huge relief. Relief that almost a year after completing my MBA at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands, I had finally found a permanent job; excitement that I had finally attained what I’d been striving for since 2009 – the opportunity to live and work abroad. People often ask how I came to live in Sweden. Some assume that I came for or with a man, for a relationship, which is often the way many foreigners became a part of the Swedish population. I often smile and tell them that I’m part of the tiny percentage of people who came here just for work. To be honest, Sweden was not part of my top ten countries to work in after graduation. Not even the first twenty!
After graduating in March 2016, I learned the hard way that an MBA degree is not a magic bullet for getting your dream job and faced a herculean task trying to get employment in Europe. I found myself battling the wrong perception that because I’m from Nigeria, my education was substandard and inferior to that from other countries. I worked very hard to find employment. After months of painful rejections, I found an American employer living in Sweden, happy to hire me. After accepting the job offer in June (I was then in Amsterdam), I applied for a work permit in July 2016 and after waiting for five long months, finally got the green light to pick up my residence permit and come to Sweden. At the time, all I was concerned about was that I had received and accepted a solid work offer, I had somewhere to stay, and I had a job and colleagues that liked me. I believed that everything else would fall into place as time went on. I had no notion of institutions like Migrationsverket, Skatteverket or Arbetsförmedlingen. All I desired was a simple life- work hard, be paid fairly and live quietly, with occasional travels thrown in.
I have become a survivor of a phenomenon called ‘kompetensutvisning.’
Today, my dreams of living a quiet Swedish life – minding my business and adding value to the society – have evaporated like drops of water on hot asphalt. I have become a survivor of a phenomenon called ‘kompetensutvisning.’ Until mid-2019 last year, I had no idea what it meant or that it even existed. Basically, kompetensutvisning is when a skilled person is evicted from the system based on an administrative or other negligible error.
So, how did I get from excitedly moving into Sweden in 2016 to being deported in 2020?
It’s a series of unfortunate events. In mid-2017, the American agency I worked for as a brand analyst unfortunately had to downsize. Being one of the last to be hired (we weren’t many), I was (according to Swedish labor law) one of the first to be let go. The agency planned to enable me stay until I could find another job, as I was already adapting to life in Sweden. After many grueling and soul-destroying months of job searches and applications, I found a job in a digital communications agency. This meant that I had to get another work permit as (according to the law) I was changing employers and roles. The Swedish work and residence permit for non-EU workers is only valid for two years, even with a permanent (tills vidare) contract. I started my new job in August 2018 and completed my new application.
However, this digital comms agency was Swedish and, I realized, unused to hiring third-country foreigners. It became clear that they had no idea about the rules for hiring foreign talent, specifically, the requirement for employers to first issue a job offer, and then advertise the job for 10 days on Arbetsförmedlingen (Swedish unemployment website) so it is visible to everyone in the EU, EEA, and member states. This rule, as mild as it sounds, is non-negotiable and the reason I am deported today. The employer must also justify why they are hiring a foreigner and not someone from within the EU. Because my employers rarely hired from outside the EU, they were either unaware of the advertisement rule or simply ignored it.
I waited in vain for six months for my decision. With several holidays planned for 2019, I finally reached out to Migrationsverket for a response. All along, I had taken it for granted that my permit would be easily renewed. I was even asked to go to the immigration office here in Malmö, to have my photo and fingerprints taken for my new work permit. So, when I got the letter saying that my application had been refused and I was required to leave Sweden within four weeks, my mind just went blank. I was being deported because my employers had not advertised the job on Arbetsförmedlingen.
Saw this on Migrationsverket's website. It doesn't mention anything about advertising on the unemployment website.
One has a right to appeal the decision to the migrations court, which I eagerly did. With the benefit of hindsight, I realize the appeal is merely a formality. The high court only reverses a deportation decision in extremely rare cases. In the year that followed my appeal, I existed in a state of uncertainty, anxiety and dread- and it taxed my considerable mental strength. Finally, in April 2020, the migration high court upheld the decision of the lower court, and I was out of appeals. It made no difference that I had found another (3rd) job through the proper process. At no point in the appeal process did I get the opportunity to defend myself in court. No appellant does. These decisions are made through an opaque process, behind closed doors.
As I close the door on a turbulent 3 years, the roller coaster still hasn’t ended for me. My final decision was handed down on April 27th and I was required to leave Sweden by 25th May.
So, that’s it for my idyllic Swedish adventure. As I close the door on a turbulent 3 years, the roller coaster still hasn’t ended for me. My final decision was handed down on April 27th and I was required to leave Sweden by 25th May. For some reason, I got the decision on 5th May, which meant I had less than twenty days to sort out my life and get out of the country. As I look back, it’s a testament to God’s grace that I didn’t buckle under the mental turmoil and emotional upheaval I suffered in those weeks. The coronavirus pandemic was a distant gathering storm, and I had no idea how strongly it would impact my decision.
During a phone call with my case officer, I was told “it’s none of our business how you survive; our concern is that you leave the country when you’re supposed to leave.” And that’s it.
As it turned out, I couldn’t go anywhere. The world had closed its borders to prevent the spread of the virus and my country was no different. Nigeria had even closed her airspace. While Sweden has not had a coronavirus lockdown, I’ve been ‘locked down’ here in Malmö since May 2020. Migrationsverket have been considerate in extending my leave to stay in Sweden but that’s the most they’ll do. I specifically asked them how I would live from day to day, as I was not allowed to work or earn an income, nor leave the country. Their response was not encouraging. During a phone call with my case officer, I was told “it’s none of our business how you survive; our concern is that you leave the country when you’re supposed to leave.” And that’s it. I (continue) to follow and respect the law in Sweden. Ironically, this is one of the reasons I liked Sweden, their laws were made to protect and empower the people and society. However, it’s obvious that even in Sweden, political winds can cruelly change the rule of law without mercy or grace.
The law needs to change to reflect today’s market realities. These are my suggestions:
1. Don’t punish an employee for the employer’s negligence! Companies that fail to observe the work permit rules should face the consequences, not the employee who, in many circumstances, cannot control or influence the process. We foreign workers have uprooted everything to work here, including learning a new language and culture.
2. Amend the appeal process for greater transparency. The current process is already so imbalanced and stacked against the employee. The courts almost always uphold Migrationsverket’s decision, regardless of the facts. In the many cases I heard of, only about two got their decisions reversed.
3. Give deportees a voice and opportunity to defend themselves and have a say. Sweden prides itself on being a country that upholds human dignity and equal rights. These must not be mere buzzwords. The current system robs affected parties of their voice and is tantamount to denying their humanity and intrinsic value.
4. Treat deportees with dignity. It’s quite brutal, the haste with which they hustle one out, as though one is a dangerous criminal. Giving a person just four weeks to dismantle a life that has taken years to build and establish is as cruel as it is unjust.
Deporting highly-skilled foreign professionals will do Sweden and it’s failing economy no favors and may scare away the professionals they so desperately need to attract.
Kemi Gbadebo is an international professional, kompetensutvisning survivor, and a verified member of Real People. She is an expert in marketing communication, and has a passion for branding and helping companies discover their 'why.'