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The Nordic region wants more refugees in work

The Nordic region wants more refugees in work

| Text: Berit Kvam

The Nordic countries are leading the way when it comes to the inclusion of refugees, says the OECD’s Thomas Liebig. He holds up the unique structural introduction programmes as one example. The problem is that not many find work after finishing the programme. Norway’s Minister of Labour Anniken Hauglie wants to improve the way the measure is targeted in order to get refugees into the labour market.

“We have to facilitate refugees’ participation in the labour market, allow them to use their skills and provide for their families,” Anniken Hauglie, Norway's Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, said as she opened the Nordic conference on the integration of refugees into the labour market.

The conference, part of Norway’s Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers, brought participants form politics and civil society in the Nordic region together to exchange knowledge, ideas and experiences.

The refugee crisis has made this a particularly topical issue. It was also a focus of debate during the OECD Forum 2017, where Thomas Liebig was among the speakers. He is the co-author of the OECD report Making Integration Work; Refugees and others in need of protection. Liebig was one of the keynote speakers at the Oslo conference.

Many believe the Nordic region does not welcome enough migrants, failing to take its share. That is not correct, says Thomas Liebig, who argues that the region has a different tradition.

“The humanitarian tradition in the Scandinavian countries means the share of refugees accepted here has been larger than in most other OECD countries. It is thus difficult to compare the immigrant population of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, where a great number of past immigrants have arrived as refugees and their families, to those who arrived in Canada and Australia largely as labour immigrants and their families. Labour migrants do not face the same integration challenges.”

Keen to work

Norway’s Minster of Labour and Social Affairs Anniken Hauglie underlined that refugees who have been given permission to stay are keen to work.

“Most of those who come to our countries have taken tough decisions. They have left their loved ones, travelled far and experienced stress and uncertainty. During their flight, many feel as if they are putting their lives on hold. That is why I think many of those who have fled and got permission to stay in new countries are impatient to get on with their new lives. They want to work. They want to learn. So it is important that we as a destination – and as fellow human beings – encourage this and help make it happen.

“The 2016 integration white paper proposes to target measures in a way which will get people into the labour market at an earlier stage. Refugees’ skills will be mapped in refugee centres, allowing their skills to be put to use faster in the labour market. Skills are also perishable goods, they need to be used and honed not to be lost,” underlined Hauglie.

Linking the individual refugee’s skills to the needs of the labour market is a challenge which can be crucial for finding a job.

“You need tools to find out which talents and skills each individual possesses. Many tools have been developed, and Norway has been leading the way, believes Thomas Liebig.

Sweden has been praised for their snabbspor, the fast-track into working life, which has also inspired Norway.

“A fast track is a good idea,” says Thomas Liebig.

“It is not the answer to everything, but it works well. It is limited to a certain number of occupations and professions, that’s the way the programme works, it cannot become universal. But the way I see it, it is a very promising programme.”

He also agrees with politicians who say policy development in this area takes time, integration into the labour market is not something that can happen overnight.

The general picture drawn by Anniken Hauglie was not without its challenges either:

“Refugees take part in working life to a lesser degree than the general population and other immigrant groups. Many have low skills. Some struggle to get the skills they do have recognised. The culture is foreign. Language can be an obstacle. And employers can be sceptical to giving people a go, because they are not sure how competent they will be.”

Thomas Liebig pointed to the introduction programme as a good measure which he felt could be improved upon:

“The Scandinavian countries have a structural introduction programme lasting from two to three years. This sets them apart.”

Australia and Canada have a different model, where the state provides language training and other support but falls short of offering a separate introduction programme. That falls more to civil society initiatives.

“But with the increasing number of refugees arriving, we see that the systems begin to resemble one another. Germany, for instance, has developed a more structural approach, and Canada has stepped up its integration efforts.

Need help from civil society

“The Nordic countries do face the challenge of making their integration systems more flexible and to involve civil society more. When so many are arriving, the state cannot do the whole job alone without support from civil society.

“The crisis could also bring opportunities to involve civil society to a greater extent than what has been normal in the Nordic region –  with benefits for the society beyond migrants themselves. For example, by creating greater social cohesion and civil society engagement more broadly.”

High skills levels represent another factor which sets the Nordic countries apart. When you compare employment rates among refugees and the general population, the bar has been set very high for the refugees, because skills levels and female employment rates are so high in the Nordic region.

Benchmarking is difficult because these are not comparable variations. The Nordic region has a highly skilled labour force, for instance. There are two sides to this, points out Thomas Liebig. You can either increase the level of skills among immigrants in Scandinavia, or you can lower the entry level pay in the labour market.

“But I want to underline that this is not only about skills, but also networks and how the labour market works. Many of those arriving have high informal skills. Although they might not have very high formal qualifications, many have skills in trade, for instance – something which the Scandinavian countries also need.”

There are many challenges. One which the OECD is keen to address is a lack of coordination.

“Refugees need to settle where the jobs are, not where there is available housing. That is easier said than done, of course, to quickly get them out to where the jobs are.”

A more flexible introduction programme

“The Nordic countries are doing many things, there aren’t many more obvious ways to improve things,” says Thomas Liebig, but more flexibility is something he believes is important.

“More flexibility needs to be injected into the systems. They are too rigid sometimes. Take these two-year programmes. Some people might need only six months, while others need four or more years –someone who lacks basic skills for instance.

“You can get someone else to take over at the end of two years, which is being done more and more often but not often enough. It is happening to an increasing degree in the Scandinavian countries, but not always in a particularly systematic fashion. It does not always go according to plan, but this goes for countries outside of Scandinavia too. The implementation is a challenge everywhere.

“We must also not forget unaccompanied minors. They often do not have much formal education, but they are very resourceful. They have undertaken this journey, and are keen to work.”

Employers need to take more responsibility

Another challenge the OECD’s Thomas Liebig highlights is the lack of a business case in the views of many employers:

“Employers need to give refugees a chance. You often see that if they don’t identify a ‘business case right away’, they are not so interested. This is partly about corporate social responsibility, but there are also many hidden talents among the refugees.”

It could be a win-win situation, believes Liebig:

“Good integration can be a benefit for a lot of companies too. Many businesses say that this is something we use in order to stand out, and to show our employees that we care. People working for these businesses must also get involved, because they are the ones who will be working alongside the refugees. It is important to show that this is good for them also, and that they are not competing with each other for the jobs.

“Sweden has good economic conditions, partly because of the number of refugees arriving. They have created new demand and new jobs. We have to stop thinking as if there were a set number of jobs, as if bringing someone into employment will reduce the number of jobs available for others. That is not how it works. Integration creates new opportunities for the native population too,” says  Thomas Liebig, the Principal Administrator International Migration Division at the OECD.

Nordic conference on the integration of refugees into the labour market

Thomas Liebig, Principal administrator for Migration at the OECD, and Norway's Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Anniken Hauglie (above)


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