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Immigration amplifies differences between Nordic countries

Immigration amplifies differences between Nordic countries

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

One of the things separating the Nordic countries from each other is what immigrant groups they have attracted, and how long they have stayed. Compared to many other European countries though, they have something in common: the refugee percentage is high.

Depending on which country you're in, the word immigrant has different connotations. In Norway the Pakistani has become the typecast immigrant. It is the only country in the world where Pakistanis for many years remained the largest immigrant group.

The first ten Pakistanis came to Oslo in 1967 from areas around the city of Kharian in Gujrat district, Punjab province. They ended up in Norway by coincidence. Others living just five kilometres away from this group ended up travelling to Denmark. 

Today there are 30,000 people of Pakistani heritage in Norway, and 20,000 in Denmark. In Denmark Pakistanis ended up being a far smaller group than those with Turkish heritage, of whom there are 59,000.

Sweden has longest immigrant history

Of all the Nordic countries, Sweden has the longest immigration history. At the end of World War II 100,000 people there were born abroad. By 1970 there were more than five times as many: 538,000.

For a long time the immigrants came from countries which were close both culturally and geographically to Sweden. 400,000 Finnish came between 1945 and 1980, but 200,000 of them returned to Finland during that same period.

In the 70s Swedish industry went on a recruitment drive for workers from Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia. These people are now approaching retirement. The Finnish who remained in Sweden have the highest average age of all immigrant groups; 59 for men and 57 for women. Somalis have the lowest average age with 29 for both men and women.

Iceland didn't see many immigrants until the 1990s. In 1996 the island had 5,357 immigrants - 1.8 per cent of the population. One third of these came from other Nordic countries. By 2009 the number was 28,644 - nine per cent of the population. No other Nordic country has been hit harder by the economic crisis than Iceland, and the country's immigrants - who've been there for a relatively short amount of time - find it easy to leave.

The first nine months of 2009 saw 3,538 foreign nationals leave Iceland, while 2,793 moved there. That meant a net loss of 750 immigrants, which still is no more than a 2.5 per cent reduction.

At the same time many Icelanders have moved out. They are now the sixth largest immigrant group in Norway. No more than 200 Icelanders moved there during the first three quarters of 2008. The numbers for 2009 were 1,300.

Immigrants hardest hit

In an economic downturn politicians often feel forced to restrict immigration. At the same time we know immigrants are often hardest hit by a financial crisis. In its International Migration Outlook for 2009, the OECD identifies five main reasons for this:

  • Immigrants are overrepresented in cyclically sensitive sectors.
  • They often have less secure contractual arrangements, and many work part-time.
  • They have shorter education.
  • Immigrant-owned businesses go bust more often, and they suffer discrimination.

Still, immigrants do not work exclusively in cyclically sensitive sectors. One third of immigrants in Nordic countries work in more stable sectors like the health service and education. Naturally there are large variations within different groups of immigrants. 

Only 3.9 per cent of Turkish immigrants in Denmark have higher education, while 33 per cent of Swedes in Denmark do. The percentage of Swedes with higher education in Finland is lower at 22 per cent.

Harder to predict

Across Europe it is becoming harder to predict how many immigrants will be arriving in the future. The OECD points to two major changes here. Firstly, southern countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy have opened up for immigration. 

Secondly changes within the EU between 2004 and 2007 means a more open pan-European labour market. Between 2004 and 2007 half a million people moved within the EU. Ireland has received most immigrants per capita, while Lithuania saw the largest per capita emigration.

Yet other factors must be taken into account. There are 100,000 Iraqis in Sweden today. They've become the largest immigrant group very quickly.

Within the Nordic region it's become harder to find clear links between economic cycles and immigration. In Sweden less than one per cent of the total labour immigration comes from non-European countries. The free EU labour market counts for 35 per cent, while humanitarian immigration counts for 24 per cent and family reunions make up 40 per cent. 

From Iran to Norway

Reza Tashakkori is originally from Iran. He's lived in Norway for 23 years. Here seen with daughter Melody in Oslo.


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