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A lost year for integration?
In focus

A lost year for integration?

| Text: Björn Lindahl, photo: Cata Portin

Will 2020 and perhaps even 2021 be lost years for integration of immigrants who have recently arrived in the Nordics? Will the consequences of the corona pandemic turn everything on its head?

These issues were on the agenda during the Nordic Council of Ministers’ conference on integration in early November, called Sustainable integration in the Nordic countries in the face of Covid-19. The conference was held online and focused on how the newly-arrived have been impacted by the pandemic across three areas: work, accommodation and health.  

Vilde Hernes, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research at Oslo Metropolitan University, opened up the plenary session by asking how many Norwegian citizens will include immigrants in their circle of friends when, like in Norway, authorities are limiting people’s contacts to five people?

“Will they get jobs when society closes down? Will any employees take on foreign-born trainees?” she asked rhetorically. 

Reinforces differences

Research made before the pandemic hit shows how a national crisis often reinforces existing differences in a society. Several of the conference speakers therefore said this is not a totally new situation but rather the amplification of existing tendencies.

Immigrants, and in particular the newly-arrived:

  • Work in sectors that are harder hit than most
  • Face greater infection risks due to cramped living conditions
  • Have faced harder challenges during the pandemic when it comes to learning a language, getting work training and establishing social contacts 

Those who want to look for a silver lining could take note of the fact that the need for cleaning services have increased, pointed out Astrid Vin Løntoft at the Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration (SIRI). This has created more jobs in the cleaning sector. 

“We have started a course in how to disinfect and clean a workplace since there is an increasing need for this. More assistant nurses and home carers are also needed,” she said.

But it is hard to find examples of how the situation for newly-arrived immigrants has improved. The consequences of this situation will be felt for a long time since in most Nordic countries you now need to prove you are self-sufficient and can speak the country’s language before getting permanent residence. 

There are some differences in how the corona pandemic has influenced immigrants in the different Nordic countries, however.

Finland’s immigrants not so hard hit

In Finland, for instance, unemployment among immigrants did not increase more than among the native labour force, said Anttio Kaihovaara, Senior Specialist in the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment in Finland.

“On the contrary, the numbers form September shows unemployment increasing by 40% both among immigrants and the native labour force. In May, unemployment had risen by 95% for native workers, while it rose by 63% for immigrants.

Before the pandemic hit Iceland, the employment rate among immigrants was a full 94%, and only 79% for native Icelanders, explained Ásdís Guðmundsdóttir, from the Directorate of Labour in Iceland. The starting point as the pandemic hit was therefore different compared to the rest of the Nordics, where employment among immigrants is now lower than among the native labour force. 

Increase in housing costs

There are changes across the Nordics too, including rising housing costs. 

“At the beginning as the pandemic hit, it was not unusual to hear “we’re all in this together”. But it was not true. The poorest households are facing the worst consequences,” said Martin Grander, a researcher at the Malmö University who has studied Sweden’s housing market.  

“The crisis is not so much about living quarters as it is about people’s homes,” he pointed out.

“The authorities’ answer to the crisis has first and foremost been to keep our distance. The home has become particularly important during this crisis since we are also expected to work from home. Cramped conditions have become a bigger problem, and the segregation of the housing market will deepen even faster,” said Martin Gander.

Numbers for the Swedish housing market are clear:

Source: Malmö University

“We have not seen a boom like this for a long time. People who have money invest in property and holiday homes.”

So far, not much research has been done, but Hanne Kavli from the Norwegian Fafo Foundation, presented a survey of how municipalities have adapted to the pandemic. The online survey was sent to “the person responsible for the introduction programme” in all Norwegian municipalities and districts housing at least five refugees – a total of 228 municipalities or city districts. The survey covered the period from lockdown in Norway on 12 March until 1 June.

“Few were prepared, but many stepped up. New digital solutions were brought in to try to maintain training and contact with the refugees,” said Hanne Kavli.

According to the survey, 89% of municipalities used digital tools in their language training of immigrants, while only 32% used digital tools in work training – the part of the integration effort which has been worst hit. 

Language courses provide a social network

Language courses for newly-arrived immigrants are also important for establishing social contacts. Herbert Brücker, who is head of the department for International Comparisons and European Integration at the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) in Nuremberg, Germany, pointed out that the ethnic networks are very important to get a job as an immigrant. 

“Companies run by immigrants who share the same ethnicity have no language problems. Research also shows that immigrants’ wages are higher and their jobs more stable when they find them through that type of network.”

Morten Sodeman, Clinical Professor at the University of Southern Denmark, also provided examples of how the language can be an obstacle to accessing healthcare.

‘We are better patients when we can speak our own language. 

“When contact during the pandemic became more dependent on phone calls, those who prefer not to talk over the telephone in a different language were hit.

“Even people who normally speak fluent Danish could benefit from having an interpreter because they are not used to talking about feelings.”

Information about a pandemic must be issued in many languages across many channels, it must be adjusted to make sure the target audience understands it and it must be repeated, repeated, repeated, underlined Morten Sodeman. 

Trust is key

Rina Mariann Hansen, Vice Mayor of the Department of Employment, Integration and Social Services in Oslo also pointed out that trust is key – both between people and for authorities.

“The fact that we benefit from a high level of trust explains why there have been fewer protests against the anti-corona measures in the Nordics compared to other countries,” she believed. 

“But trust must go both ways. Authorities must also be able to trust the citizens. When we started our dialogue meetings with Somalis, a group that was hit by corona early on, we gained valuable information. By daring to give Somali “ambassadors” the responsibility, we noticed that the information they provided reached far more people in that group of immigrants than the City of Oslo’s own information.”

Just what the consequences of the corona pandemic will be for integration in the Nordics will also depend on how we handle the second wave which we are facing right now. The conference participants were asked to provide some rays of hope.

“We are witnessing a digital revolution. But this cannot be our only tool, since social contact is so important,” pointed out Vilde Hernes.

“It is not necessary for all municipalities to reinvent the wheel. Digital tools put in place by larger municipalities can be spread to smaller municipalities,” said Hanne Kavli.

“We should not focus too much on getting immigrants into work as fast as possible. The most important thing is that it happens in the best and most efficient manner. Focus more on education,” said Antti Kaihovara.

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