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Denmark: more refugees and immigrants into work

| Text: Marie Preisler

Far too few refugees and immigrants in Denmark are in work, and there is broad agreement something needs to be done about it. Yet there is little support for the Prime Minister’s proposal to get refugees and immigrants to clean up Denmark’s beaches and fix swings in kindergartens.

Denmark’s integration programme does not work as it should and needs reform to get more refugees and immigrants into work. This will be central to a proposed new Danish integration policy which the government is presenting soon.

Less than one in four refugees and immigrants in Denmark are self-sufficient one year after arriving in the country, and two in three participants in the three year long Danish integration programme are not in work or education at the end of it.

There is broad cross-party agreement that far too few get a job and that the integration programme is in need of reform. The social partners also support this view. There is still some way to go before a political consensus can be reached for just how this will happen, but it looks like the new integration programme will be more flexible and shorter than the existing one. 

At least that is the recommendation from a committee of experts who recently advised the government on the matter. The committee is headed by the former Minister for Taxation Carsten Koch, who has been asked to look at Danish employment policies and come up with suggestions for how it can be improved.

Closer cooperation with businesses

The committee’s first report came one year ago. The second one — looking at the integration into the labour market of refugees and immigrants and people on family reunion — was presented on 19 January 2015. It makes three main suggestions: 

  • More business-related measures 
  • A shorter, more intensive integration programme
  • Following up those who do not get a job as a result of the integration programme. 

The experts highlight the need for closer cooperation with businesses and measures like subsidised jobs or internships. 

“Business-related measures work best when it comes to getting newly arrived people into work,” Carsten Koch said when he presented the committee’s recommendations. 


The government has asked the committee to present its results earlier than planned. The increase in the number of refugees to Denmark has made it urgent to improve the country’s integration measures, says the Minister for Employment, Henrik Dam Kristensen (the Social Democratic Party) 

“We are facing an urgent challenge with the increase in refugees from Syria and elsewhere, and it is crucial that we do not repeat past mistakes. We need integration measures built on rights and duties which make sure that refugees who are able to work find a place in the Danish labour market and in Danish society as soon as possible,” the minister said in a comment to the Carsten Koch committee’s recommendations. 

Just how the government will go about achieving this is still not known. Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt (the Social Democratic Party) did use her new year’s speech to tell the Danish people that new refugees should work, no matter how long they would be staying in Denmark, that her goal was to get as many refugees and immigrants as possible into the labour market. Those who can’t might be asked to carry out different kinds of tasks:

“Others can get started with some of the tasks which also need to be carried out. We have beaches which need tidying. We have kindergartens where the sandpits or swings need fixing,” the Prime Minister said. 

Praise from the municipalities

In Denmark the municipalities are responsible for the implementation of employment and integration measures and for running the job centres. They are very positive to the Carsten  Koch committee’s proposals for more flexible and business-oriented measures aimed at newly arrived refugees and people on family reunion, and for speeding up the mapping of their qualifications and skills.

The Confederation of Danish Employers (DA) is also positive to the Carsten Koch committee’s recommendations, but DA wants to see more economic incentives and the inclusion of immigrants who have lived in Denmark for a longer period of time. 

There is not much support for the Prime Minister’s proposal to make refugees and immigrants on family reunion carry out menial jobs on beaches and in kindergartens, however. The government’s parliamentary base, the municipalities and the government’s own expert group are all sceptical to the idea of turning refugees into menial workers. The Prime Minister’s suggestion is not mentioned at all in the Carsten Koch committee’s report.

The Carsten Koch committee’s proposals

At total of ten proposed improvements to better integrate refugees and immigrants on family reunion into the labour market, including: 

  • Municipalities to be given more effective incitements for including businesses
  • Measures to be adapted the individual’s needs
  • No more than two weeks should pass from an immigrant arrives in a municipality until the first conversation is held
  • The integration programme should run a maximum of two years, down from three
  • Immigrants who are not in work at the end of the integration programme will be assessed by a multi-disciplinary rehabilitation team
Major differences

There are major differences between Danish municipalities when it comes to getting newly arrived refugees into work or education, according to a comprehensive study commissioned by the online publication Ugebrevet A4. 

In one municipality nearly half — 45 percent — of refugees were self-sufficient one year after arriving. In other municipalities only one in ten are self-sufficient after a year. The national average is 23 percent.

Municipalities which do well are proactive from the start and instigate parallel offers — both language training, subsidised gym memberships and other measures depending on the family’s situation.


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