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Municipalities could be saved by newcomers
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Municipalities could be saved by newcomers

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

By 2030 Sweden’s countryside could have lost one third of its employable population compared to the year 2000, resulting in lost tax revenues, increased healthcare needs and a lack of labour. Many municipalities now put their hopes in the successful integration of newcomers. Krokom municipality is one of them.

“The most common question we get from people in our municipality is ‘What are you doing to make sure the refugees stay?’ Our biggest challenge going forward is not the refugees, but how we will find labour,” says Elisabeth Wickzell, head of integration in Krokom municipality.

It is one of ten best municipalities in Sweden when it comes to integrating newcomers, according to fresh figures from the Swedish Public Employment Agency. After two years, 56 percent of the refugees who have arrived in the municipality have found some form of work, compared to the national average of 27 percent.

“We have several parallel measures and people show great engagement and creativity when it comes to employing newcomers,” she says.

The Åre-Krokom model

The neighbouring municipality of Åre also scores high – 53 percent of newcomers have found work after two years there. Both municipalities talk about the Åre-Krokom model, and enjoy an ongoing exchange of ideas and tips for how to carry their work forward. It started when Åre’s heads of integration mentored colleagues in Krokom, but over time this has turned into a more equal exchange of experiences.

“We borrowed ideas from each other. It has become a bit of a race – sometimes one party pulls ahead, sometimes the other. It spurs us on and each of us  have the goal of becoming the best places in Sweden for getting newcomers into work,” says Elisabeth Wickzell.

When someone arrives in Sweden, the economic responsibility for the two first years rests with the state, and it is the public employment office’s job to make sure the newcomer gets established in the labour market. In Krokom they have not settled with this, and the municipality itself is active from the day the newcomer arrives. It enjoys close cooperation with the public employment office, sharing the responsibility of helping the newcomers get established.

“The newcomers get the best of both worlds. They get the employment office’s knowledge and our freedom. We are in the same building and share several projects,” says Elisabeth Wickzell.

Targeted measures for elderly care

It is a small municipality, and that makes things easier, she thinks. It is easier to keep tabs on who arrives and what their skills are, but also on what employers in the municipality need. When newcomers and employers meet, they often start with language practice, which turns into an apprenticeship which in turn becomes a job with state support. The hope is that the process ends in a regular job.

“We also follow up how people are doing in their employment. Sometimes problems arise out of minor issues, for instance how the coffee kitty works,” explains Elisabeth Wickzell.

Getting refugees into the labour market is important for integration and self sufficiency, but it is also a necessity for the labour market. The centre of Krokom sees much immigration, while the less populated areas are loosing people. With newcomers, schools can be saved and the hope is that they will also seek employment in marginal occupations – not least in elderly care, a sector for which it is getting harder to recruit year on year.

“I am absolutely convinced that it is imperative to successfully integrate newcomers if we are to meet the future demand for labour,” says Elisabeth Wickzell. 

Anna Berkestedt Jonsson, head of Krokom social services, agrees.

“It is important to create incentives for people to enter marginal occupations. Towards 2020 we must recruit 128,000 assistant nurses in the elderly care sector. We cannot do that without the newcomers,” says Anna Berkestedt Jonsson. 

So the municipality has targeted measures for elderly care. Newcomers are paired with a Swedish borne person who is outside of the labour market. The newcomer’s energy is linked with the Swedish born person’s language skills. Together they create a service team that can clean, tidy, lay the table for meals and more. This frees up time for assistant nursing staff who can then concentrate on what they know best, which again can help increase the status of that occupation. Kommunal, the trade union representing assistant nurses, is positive. 

“Sometimes it works wonderfully, sometimes not so much, but there is no-one who dislikes the concept,” says Anna Berkestedt Jonsson.

Daring to face the problems

Receiving refugees is, of course, not without challenges, but the municipality has always tried to be open about the problems which can arise. It has also been actively sharing information so that citizens have had a chance to relate to the process of establishing housing for unaccompanied minors, for instance. Many of those working with integration are of foreign heritage themselves, and often know what might create problems.

“We have been open about the problems which might arise, for instance gender equality and whether unaccompanied minors really are eighteen years of age or not.” 

Just like Ann Berkestedt Jonsson, she praises all the volunteers who help with everything from language support to various activities. The municipality provides economic support for different activities, and also personnel if necessary.

“The fact that we are so successful comes from a combination of clever, engaged professionals and engaged citizens,” says Ann Berkestedt Jonsson. 

One important factor behind the successful integration work is that measures are targeted both at adults and children. If the children are happy, the parents feel safe and can get on with integrating into their new society and learn the language. 

There are many examples of voluntary work. Anna Berkestedt Johnsson mentions her own sports club Nälden IF as an example. When the flow of refugees arrived the club decided that all the children in the municipality should be given the chance to do a sport. They collected ice hockey and ski equipment, and today children from Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan are fully fledged members on the local ice hockey team.

“It is really cool to see,” she says, and adds:

“Never underestimate voluntary organisations.”

Anna Berkestedt Jonsson’s advice to other municipalities working with integration is to consider the potential which comes with accepting refugees.

“It is important to believe that all people will become self sufficient. And if you have come here via that tough Mediterranean crossing, you have power. Try to see the potential and opportunities, not the problems,” she says.

Beautiful surroundings

Laxsjön lies in Krokom municipality, and is also the name of the small town of Laxsjö. In 50 years, between 1960 and 2010, its population shrank from 244 to 78 people. Then the graph turned and by 2015 99 people lived in Laxsjö. Photo: Wikipedia

Krokom

Krokom municipality lies in Jämtland county and has some 14,500 citizens. It calls itself a hunting and fishing municipality, and stretches across 6,155 square kilometres, which means there are two people for every square kilometre. The municipal centre is the town of Krokom, other towns include Föllinge and Änge. Krokom is situated along the E14 road which runs between Sundsvall and Trondheim (Norway), and past the ski resorts of Åre, Duved and Storlien. Krokom is a growing municipality, but it also includes rural areas with dwindling and ageing populations, where the tax revenue is shrinking and labour is hard to find.

Krokom municipality counts 700 businesses and 320 voluntary organisations.

(Source: www.krokom.se)

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