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In Sweden, anguished foreigners call it quits

Heba Habib Stockholm
June 2, 2020

Sweden has left residents to decide for themselves how to behave in the COVID-19 pandemic. That's outraged some foreign residents, who now plan to move away from the country as soon as they can.

People enjoy warm weather in Stockholm during the coronavirus pandemic
Image: Imago Images/H. Montgomery

Eva Panarese grew up in Italy with a Swedish mother and had always dreamt about leaving Italy and settling down in Sweden. Two years ago she managed to make the move.

Panarese and her husband and children happily settled into their new Swedish life. But like many others, their lives were upturned by the coronavirus pandemic once it spread to Europe.

After returning to Sweden from a work trip in Italy in February, her son and husband fell ill. "I was pretty shocked by the way the hospital dealt with it, no masks, nothing, we may have brought corona to the hospital," she says. It transpired that they had pneumonia. Her son recovered quickly, but her husband remained sick.

To protect him from possibly catching COVID-19 from her children, she decided to keep them at home. But the school objected. Panarese began fielding threatening calls and letters from them daily.

"They don't care if you have an at-risk person at home. If your child is healthy, then they have to go to school," she says.

Eva Panarese with her husband and children in Sweden
Eva Panarese (here with her husband and children) feels like the Swedish authorities have let her downImage: privat

It is illegal not to send a healthy child to school in Sweden, while discretion is left to individual school principals to decide whether a child may stay at home. There have been myriad reports in the press of schools and local councils threatening parents who keep their kids at home with fines, calls to social services or issuing failing grades.

It has led Panarese to decide to move away from her dream country. "I will keep my job in Sweden and just move to Denmark — which is a 30-minute drive away — where they are sensitive to at-risk families."

While most countries have opted for lockdown measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Sweden has gone a different route, releasing loose guidelines on social distancing, leaving schools, restaurants and bars open and asking citizens to act responsibly. The Swedish strategy has elicited praise and condemnation both at home and abroad.

Strong feelings

Like Panarese, people who feel they have been affected adversely by Sweden's policy — or who would rather the country took a different tack — have started forging plans to move away once the pandemic is over.

"The aftermath of the pandemic will see a hemorrhage of foreign talents," predicts Emanuelle Floquet, a project manager at the Swedish think tank Working for Change Matters, which focuses on cultural diversity in business.

"Many are also losing jobs and will be even more at the bottom of the list of priorities," she says, "way behind Swedes."

A woman sits outside a café where a sign reads "Keep the distance"
Sweden did not institute a lockdown but it did issue guidelines for behavior during the pandemicImage: Imago Images/Bildbyran/P. Arvidson

Floquet has seen two tendencies in monitoring Facebook expat groups: people who strongly support the Swedish strategy and people who want to leave. In an informal poll on a private Facebook group, 350 foreign residents indicated they were planning to move away or were in the process of doing so, Floquet said.

Deporting skilled workers

The government expects unemployment to reach 9% this year, the highest rate in more than 20 years, which would mean half a million of the 6.4 million people of working age in Sweden would be unemployed by the end of 2020. Meanwhile, foreigners who hold a work permit must find a new employer within three months if they lose their jobs, according to Swedish law.

But finding work within that grace period may not be enough to guarantee that a foreign resident can stay. A Nigerian IT specialist — who did not want her name published due to fear of reprisal — told DW she was recently served a deportation notice despite getting a job within the allotted time. The reason given by the migration authorities was that the position hadn't been advertised by the Swedish Public Employment Service, but was listed on LinkedIn, where she found it. She is now unsure how — or even whether — she can leave, since Nigerian airspace is closed.

The director of Sweden's migration agency stated in April that foreign workers and asylum-seekers who have lost their jobs could also lose their work permits without new legislation. Other EU countries like France have automatically extended all permits for six months.

People sit outside a restaurant in Stockholm
Life has not remained exactly normal in Sweden since the coronavirus reached the countryImage: getty Images/AFP/TT News Agency/H. Montgomory

"I don't know if talent will leave because of Sweden's handling of the coronavirus. But we do know that the authorities have very clearly told everyone what will happen with no legislation," says Matt Kritteman a migration expert with the Diversify Foundation, a Swedish organization that works for foreign workers' rights.

Criticism at a cost

It's too late for Belgian epidemiologist Dr Nele Brusselaers, who plans to move away after eight years in Sweden.

Brusselaers, who works for the prestigious Karolinska Institute, has been one of the most vocal opponents of Sweden's strategy and has found there has been a high cost for being a critical voice. "I am trolled and insulted because I worry about the safety of my students, friends, colleagues and their family," she wrote in an email.

She believes that the trust that many foreign residents had in Sweden has been damaged, possibly beyond repair.

"Every school all over the world worries about the safety of their teachers and pupils … except for Sweden. Every hospital or care facility worries about the health and safety of their healthcare workers, patients and residents, except for Sweden. Nobody takes responsibility, nobody takes the blame. Nobody seems to care."