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Nordic region next stop for the Portuguese?

Nordic region next stop for the Portuguese?

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

Will the Nordic countries see an influx of labour form crisis-hit Mediterranean EU countries? Portugal’s emigration rose by 85 percent in 2011 and 240,000 Portuguese - two percent of the entire population - have emigrated in the past two years. In Switzerland they already make up the largest group of people born abroad. But are the Nordic countries equally tempting?

When Nordic labour ministers met in Svalbard last year, they agreed to work together to prepare for the consequences of a possible increase in immigration from southern Europe.

So far there are few signs of a major migration wave from Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, or the PIGS countries as they are called, to the Nordic countries.

Unemployment is indeed very high, 26.6 percent in Spain and 26.0 percent in Greece. Portugal and Italy are on a somewhat lower level, 16.3 and 11.1 percent. But deciding to move to another country involves far more than just fleeing unemployment. There should be good chances of finding a new job, you need language skills and qualifications and the economy of the country you move to needs to be good enough. It helps to establish contact with other labour immigrants from your home country who have already moved to the new country. 

What's the state of the market?

Norway, with the lowest unemployment figures of all of the Nordic countries (3.5 percent) and with a considerable need for workers including engineers to the oil sector, saw 49,800 people from non-Nordic countries arrive to find work in 2012. Most came from the EEA area, which includes the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein

4,231 people from Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy got work in Norway for the first time in 2012. That was twice as many Spanish and Greek as the year before. But taking into account that just 2,800 of these counted as labour immigrants, the increase from southern Europe was less pronounced, at around 30 percent. Other countries are still far more important, like Poland and Lithuania.

“Despite the Euro crisis we’re not seeing a wave of immigration from southern Europe. Less than six percent of the total labour immigration came from these countries,” says Norway’s Minister of Labour Anniken Huitfeldt.

Few previous PIGS immigrant

Norway has no major groups of immigrants from the PIGS countries from earlier, while in Sweden Greek immigrants celebrated their 50 year anniversary a couple of years ago. 

1,254 Greeks got residency permits in Sweden in 2012, along with 1,034 Italians, 214 Portuguese and 1,255 Spanish - a total of 3,757 people. If you count the number of labour immigrants from other countries, nearly as many Swedish residency permits were granted as work permits in Norway, 45,437. The PIGS share was somewhat higher at eight percent.  

In an increasingly globalised world it becomes harder to predict where workers will be moving to. The Portuguese have other alternatives, like Brazil, when looking for work where Portuguese is a first language. A new trend sees young, well educated Portuguese moving to former colonies like Angola. 

Not just young men

For the past 50 years the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has tried to follow the emigrant current. In the 1960s it was simple: young men moved from the south to the north, often tempted by industry jobs which were just waiting for them. Recipient countries expected them to be able to move back to their home countries after a few years. 

Today’s picture is more akin to a kaleidoscope.

Low-cost airlines have shrunk the world. Large groups of people can now arrive directly from countries which are further away. The age spread is greater than before and those who move often have higher education. They also enjoy far better access to information - young people will monitor Facebook to see what is happening to those who already have moved to a different country. 

The currents do flow both ways to a degree, and only a few OECD countries, like Poland and South Korea, have seen very little immigration. 

There are many paradoxes - the 170,000 Chinese who have moved to Spain are starting up businesses and buying property like never before. A third of the 8,613 foreigners who started a business in the past ten months in Spain were Chinese. The reason is that the low-cost shops and restaurants run by the Chinese immigrants gain customers as the Spanish feel the economic pinch. 

Polish has become the second most common language in the UK. 500,000 people list it as their mother tongue. Poles choose the UK because of the language. Nationalities aside, major migration currents also create challenges.

Delicate balancing act

Going through its past 50 years of refugee policies, the OECD concludes:

"It's a delicate task to achieve a balance between attracting labour with the required skills without negatively impacting domestic labour, firmness in managing migration inflows to demonstrate to public opinion and to potential migrants that unauthorised movements are not tolerated, and the implementation of effective policies to ensure immigrant integration."

Not even Germany, Europe's engine, attracts as many skilled workers as the country's businesses would like.

In Germany companies can hire foreigners with university degrees to all jobs which fit their qualifications. Yet a new report shows that although Germany has the most open rules for highly educated labour within the OECD with no limits on numbers or quotas, employers rarely recruit from abroad.

Better than their reputation

“There is a widespread perception that international recruitment is complex and unreliable. Germany’s system does involve many actors and is not fully transparent for applicants, but its negative reputation is unjustified: processing times are fast in international comparisons; the procedure is inexpensive; and refusal rates are low,” reads a new OECD report, ”Recruiting Immigrant Workers, Germany.”          

Nordic job seekers within the Nordic countries don’t need a visa, residency permit or job permit. Within the EU/EEA all citizens have the right to move to another country without having to apply for a visa and they have the right to spend three months looking for work. This also means the political room for manoeuvre is small. Most rules have already been laid down.

Kaleidoscope migratory patterns

If you want to analyse Nordic citizens’ migration within the five Nordic countries, you need to take 40 different patterns into account because Swedes can move to Denmark, but Swedes can also move back home from Denmark. In other words, Swedes can move in eight different ways, and the other four nationalities have the same opportunities. 5 x 8 = 40.

Within the 30 EU/EEA countries there are 29 countries to which people can move, and as many countries they can move back home from. That means you have 30 x 58 = 1740 different migratory patterns to keep on top of. If you wanted to set up a matrix of all the possible movements on a global scale, you get 250,000 possibilities! 


Photo: Wikipedia

And then we are still only taking into account a country’s own citizens. When the EU opened its borders to new member states from former eastern Europe, one of the big surprises was that Poles didn’t pour into Germany. Instead many Poles who already lived in Germany moved to the UK.

Immigrants are also divided into four main groups:

  • Labour immigrants
  • Refugees
  • Family reunification
  • Students

But refugees need jobs too - just like family members who arrive as part of family reunifications. If a country introduces rules for refugees that are too strict it risks scaring off other job seekers by appearing to be anti-immigration. Many countries are debating whether social rights should apply to family members who do not live in the country. In Norway the child benefit for one year olds has become popular among Polish mothers who are still living in Poland, where the costs of living are lower than in Norway. But if the rules for ‘cash support‘ are tightened the effect could be that the entire family moves to Norway.


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