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The Alien(ating) Act

Fisseha Fantahun Tefera, Juanita Esguerra Rezk, and Signe Askersjö | April 2022

With special thanks to Joseph Trawicki Anderson for insights and formulations.

Watercolour illustration of black human-like silhouettes in front of a gray building on a green background
The illustration by Jonas Gustavsson (@artbygustavsson) depicts the feelings of anxiety and depression felt by Ph.D. students generated by the Aliens Act.

Introduction: The Aliens Act

In the summer of 2021, Sweden introduced broad changes to the rules and regulations for obtaining permanent residence (permanent uppehållstillstånd). Previously, doctoral students could obtain permanent residence after four years of doctoral employment. Today, they must show both four years of doctoral employment and an ongoing contract for at least 18 months in the future . This is either through employment or self-employment (or, if appropriate, through pension). Other sources of income, such as savings and unemployment insurance, do not qualify. The minimum 18 month employment contract requirement counts from the time a Migration Agency officer makes a decision on the case and not from the time of application. Once a relatively straightforward process, applying for and receiving permanent residence after four years of Ph.D. employment is now almost impossible. This system is particularly insidious for several reasons: 1) the processing time is usually very protracted, 2) there is a massive discrepancy of processing time between cases, and 3) there are never any indications given as to how long the process will take. Thus, in practice, one needs to have at least a 20- to 24-month employment contract, allowing for two to six months of processing time.

Given the precarity of the academic job market, few doctoral students will be able to meet these requirements. While these changes do not affect the ability of Ph.D. students to receive a visa during the time they are studying or the time they are employed, obtaining permanent residence nevertheless remains important for many people in the Ph.D. and postdoc/research community. These changes are, therefore, not simply a private matter, and, arguably, affect the entire Swedish research community.

Various articles and reports have already been written about the Aliens Act and its consequences on foreign doctoral students’ abilities to obtain Permanent Residence in Sweden (see here, here, and here ). In this blog, we highlight the experiences and feelings of affected Ph.Ds. In the Facebook group Intl. Ph.D. students in Sweden call for change in permanent resident law; we posed the question: How is the Aliens Act and the change in requirements for Permanent Residence for Ph.D. students affecting your academic performance and emotional wellbeing? The answers we received all pointed to similar and connected themes. In the following section, we discuss the main themes and illustrate the concerns voiced by the affected Ph.D. community in their own words.

Perilous Paths: experiences and emotions of non-EU Ph.Ds

Despite the appeal and attraction of academic life, doctoral study is a perilous journey. The heavy workload in an increasingly insecure academic career and the much overlooked mental health effects are some of the issues usually raised. The new Aliens Act exacerbates these problems.

I was quite depressed and disappointed…lots of self-doubt, crying, worrying…my daily stress baseline is about 40% higher, which already means I reach the level of burnout quite often in the 4th year of my Ph.D. I am also much less motivated to both do my research and stay in Sweden.

These feelings are shared by many other affected Ph.D. students. As another student put it, “I am feeling distracted, stressed and cannot focus on my thesis.” Feelings of anxiety and difficulty focusing on research are some of the familiar stories Ph.D. students have shared with us. They also describe these feelings as permanent: “[s]ince its announcement, it hasn't left my mind…I have felt anxious about my future…”

The new law, according to one respondent, “[n]either…considers the nature of the jobs in academia nor [does] it offer any transitional period.” Having to show an employment contract longer than 18-months at the time that the application for permanent residence is reviewed is almost impossible for early-career academics, where short-term, low-paid contracts are the rule.

In addition to working on my dissertation and handling all teaching, administrative matters, and activities that are part of being a doctoral student, I am now desperately searching for a job – any job – that would give me a long-term contract and allow me to apply for permanent residence.

According to our survey, finding a job has become an obsession for many Ph.D. students, as they feel that until they meet this requirement and obtain residency, they cannot make any plans for the future and must postpone their personal lives.

Other respondents fear being trapped in a state of “eternal return” (in the style of Nietzsche’s ideas), where their lives become an endless repetition of constantly applying and reapplying for short-term residence, which prevents them from building a stable life in Sweden. This precarious and uncertain situation generates feelings of uprootedness, as it is not only about losing the opportunity of building an academic career in Sweden but also the networks and relations that sustain the lives of Ph.D. students and their families.

Will I need to apply for residence permits every six months? That is the usual length of postdoc contracts. It means I won't be able to get a good loan and buy an apartment. (...) I want to be able to plan my life.

Since many international Ph.D. students chose to come to Sweden because of the possibility of obtaining permanent residence, insecurity regarding their chances of staying in the country was something they did not expect. Some say that they feel “cheated,” “humiliated,” and “discriminated” against, and as the Aliens Act was unexpected, it left Ph.Ds unable to prepare for the consequences. Their possibilities of establishing roots for stable futures have become dramatically limited.

Usually, people pursue a doctoral-level education at an age where they tend to settle down with family and plan to have children. So, it was very important for me that I could settle down in the country where I studied at the doctoral level. When the new rule was applied retrospectively, it felt like a rug was pulled out from under me.

The law states that to meet the requirements of permanent residence , one needs to be able to provide for oneself and one’s family. The uncertainty of obtaining residency in Sweden has caused many affected Ph.Ds. to delay starting a family and some even wonder if they will ever be able to have children. Those who have families in Sweden fear what will happen if they are forced to move abroad.

I have a family here in Sweden (...) my kids are integrated and learned the language, they have friends here. I have a life here and was planning to settle (...) Everything will be taken from me.

The Alien(ation) continues?

In already stressful working conditions and insecure career prospects, the new Aliens Act has worsened the situation by affecting the current work performance of students due to distraction, stress, anxiety, and related consequences.The Ph.D. group is only one group affected by the Aliens Act. Indeed, other groups face similar, if not more precarious, situations. This blog post attempts to illustrate the emotional consequences of this law.

To bring about change and improve conditions, Ph.D. students, through different bodies and trade unions, like SULF, have called upon political parties, government agencies, and universities to address the consequences of the Aliens Act. Recent actions by Ph.D. students include demonstrations/manifestations in different university cities, including Gothenburg, Uppsala, and Lund. This brings hope to the community and the possibility of change. However, no changes have been made to date, and the Migration Agency continues to process and make decisions based on the new Alien(ating) act. We encourage all actors with the capacity to make a systemic shift to address these concerns and act accordingly.


More information:


This post is written by three Ph.D. students in Peace and Development Studies and Social Anthropology at the School of Global Studies. We write this in solidarity with our colleagues whose futures have become increasingly uncertain, as we share their concerns and as some of the authors are also affected by the new legislation.


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