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Jobs are key to all Nordic countries’ integration policies

Jobs are key to all Nordic countries’ integration policies

| Text: Björn Lindahl

All of the Nordic countries are attractive targets for refugees and labour migrants alike. But there are major differences both between which groups arrive and how they are received. Finland and Iceland have always stood out, but now the differences are increasing at a faster rate also between Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Until the 1980s the three Scandinavian countries followed what researchers call a multi-cultural integration model. Immigrants could decide where they wanted to live and the general belief was that integration would happen naturally. Although immigration cost some money, it was considered to have a positive impact on growth. 

Integration is a complex process:

“If people are to be considered, and consider themselves, worthy citizens they must be given access to certain basic resources which are valued in the society in which they live. Social rights create social cohesion - integration - between a country’s citizens,” write researchers Karin Borevi and Gunnar Myrberg at the University College of Malmö, and refer to the definition introduced in 1950 by British sociologist Thomas Humphrey Marshall.

An integration model under strain

As immigration increased, both as a result of external issues like the fall of Yugoslavia and war in the Middle East and because of more and more family reunions, the integration model began to feel the strain.

The Nordic welfare states face special challenges when it comes to migration. Grete Brochmann, who led the major Norwegian study of immigration’s consequences for the welfare model, describes it like this:

“The model is dependent on high work participation and relatively equal income distribution in order to maintain a generous and universal welfare system. Meanwhile, a flat salary structure could create high thresholds for those trying to gain access to working life and well developed welfare rights can weaken the incentive to take on paid work.”

Both immigration and emigration influences the welfare model’s sustainability. If the costs of financing the model rise it could impact on the population’s view of how welfare should be distributed and how universal these rights should be,” she points out.

Migration a special challenge in the Nordic region

In countries like the USA, where even immigrants with few qualifications can find low-paid work, the immigrants do not challenge the foundations of the social model to the same extent. But immigrants could also have just the right qualifications for the country they move to. High levels of immigration could therefore be a positive thing. There is no correct answer for what the effect of immigration is. Everything depends on which groups are arriving and how quickly they can be integrated.

Politicians who want to influence integration can use a number of tools:

▪ They can try to limit how many people arrive to the country and what kind of immigrants arrive.

▪ They can limit immigrants’ rights to settle where they choose and try to control this to make sure people are placed in areas which need labour.

▪ Immigrants can be given skills through language courses and other relevant education to help them find jobs.

▪ The rules governing the welfare system can be changed. 

Looking at immigration in a long-term perspective, from 1960 to 2010, it is clear that immigration has not fallen even in countries with a more restrictive immigration policy, like Denmark. On the contrary, immigration has increased over the past latest decade, although it eased off somewhat after the 2008 economic crisis.

Diagram 2

Data for Denmark is available from 1980. Native born persons who re-immigrated are also included in the graph. Source: Nordic Pocket Facts. Statistics on integration 2013.

Immigration has changed in character, however. Refugees and family reunions dominated until 2004. After two rounds of EU expansion labour migrants have dominated. EU rules on the free movement of labour apply to EEA countries Norway and Iceland. Norway is almost on the same level as Sweden in all measurements of the number of immigrants.

There were major variations to which immigrants came to which Nordic country between 2000 and 2011.

Country of origin

Source: Nordic Pocket Facts. Statistics on Integration 2013.

Poland is the dominating country of origin over the latest decade, with Iceland and Finland representing the extremes when it comes to destinations. 38 percent of immigrants to Iceland during this period came from Poland. In Finland they weren’t even among the ten largest groups of immigrants. There, Russians and Estonians dominate. Sweden is one of the European countries to welcome the most refugees from Iraq. Denmark has the most equally divided immigration - no group is larger than eight percent.

Hard to see effect of tighter rules

It is hard to see any major effect of political decisions on the immigration statistics. External factors like war in the Middle east and the introduction of free movement of labour in the EU/EEA has been more important. Despite the fact that Sweden and Finland were the only two countries without temporary limits on labour migration after the EU expanded with eight new former Eastern European countries in 2004, most Poles chose to go to Norway, tempted by higher wages and a better labour market.

Most of the conflicts in immigration politics stem from the housing of refugees. Denmark, Norway and Sweden stand out.

▪ In Sweden refugees can choose where they want to live if they have the means to do that.

▪ Norway’s system is similar to the Swedish one, but financial housing support is only made available when integration authorities have been involved in finding housing and space on an introduction programme in cooperation with local authorities.

▪ Danish authorities have sought to strengthen their control of housing. Asylum seekers will routinely be housed in an asylum centre while applying for asylum. When they are granted residency, they will be “placed” in housing by the Danish Immigration Service. 

Protests against the housing of refugees mounted when the number of asylum seekers began to increase towards the end of the 1980s. Swedish authorities had planned to build three main refugee centres, and ended up with 17.

Sweden’s Migration Board encouraged all Swedish municipalities to welcome refugees in 1987, when a sharp increase in the number of asylum seekers put pressure on capacity. The aim was for each municipality to accept three refugees per 1,000 citizens. This did not happen without protests. The referendum on asylum centres which was held in the municipality of Sjöbo in Skåne that year cleared the way for the establishment of the immigration critical political party Ny Demokrati (New Democracy) in 1991. The party later split and disappeared out of politics. What followed was the Sweden Democrats, who won parliamentary seats in 2010.  

In Denmark the Danish People’s Party was founded in 1995 and from 2001 to 2011 it supported the centre-right government in parliament. Denmark’s immigration policy changed tack during those years. New restrictions on family related immigration were introduced and the welfare system was restricted for new arrivals.

Norway, which for many years had integration policies similar to Sweden’s,   moved towards a more Danish approach in the early 2000s. Grete Brochmann’s 2011 study of welfare and migration marked a sea change in the Norwegian debate. It estimated the long-term impact of immigration and concluded that some groups of immigrants put great strains on public spending. The study bluntly puts it like this:

“The generous and redistributive welfare state, which should include all legal residents, makes it necessary to choose and limit potential new members from abroad.”

After the 2013 elections the Conservatives and the Progress Party formed a coalition government with parliamentary support from the Liberal Party and the Christian Democrats. Immigration issues proved to be the most difficult during government negotiations, but the four parties finally agreed on a detailed policy.

Jobs a main strategy

All of the Nordic countries have a main strategy for improved integration which focuses on giving immigrants language skills and labour market training to help them find jobs. This is reflected in a shift of responsibilities. In Sweden, for instance, the Public Employment Service was given the responsibility for integration measures for new arrivals from 1 December 2010. The Ministry of Labour was put in charge of coordinating integration policies from 1 January 2011. 

Language and labour market training is mainly offered to refugees. But the level of its success depends mainly on employment levels. If there is high unemployment, immigrants struggle to find jobs no matter how many courses they have attended. 

Not even in Norway, with its high demand for labour, are results very impressive. Since 2004 new refugees have had the right and obligation to follow a two year long language and society course. The aim is for 65 percent of participants to go on to study or find work. Yet when Statistics Norway summed up the results for those who finished the course in 2010, only 54 percent were in work or education. That was the worst result since the reform was introduced.

Institutional racism?

In Sweden there is much debate whether the bad results can be blamed on the immigrants or whether they are hindered by so-called institutional racism. In Denmark and Norway the responsibility for integration is laid more squarely at the feet of immigrants themselves.

When politicians don’t succeed in managing or controlling the stream of immigrants and when language and labour market training does not have the desired results, only tool number four remains: to adjust the rules of the welfare system.

Norway’s 5,500 kroner (€600) a month cash-for-care benefit, given to parents who want to stay at home looking after their child in its first year, has been used as an example of what is being called social tourism, or welfare export. When the benefit goes to a Polish labour migrant’s family in Poland, it represents several times the purchasing power it has back in Norway. 

The counter argument is that these are rights which have been earned by labour migrants on an equal basis with Norwegian labour. EEA regulations also say these kinds of benefits should be exported.

If politicians tighten the belt too much they risk creating a kind of guest worker who lives in the country on different conditions. As Grete Brochmann pointed out when she presented the study on migration and welfare:

“The welfare model is both part of the problem and the solution when it comes to the integration of immigrants. Despite the fact that welfare tools can pacify they can also help people qualify, prepare for working life and provide quality of life for newly arrived families."


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