Language and integration in Finland and the Nordic countries

Focus North: Finnish integration policy ranks high internationally, but it is also criticised. By Linda Bäckman.

Integration services in Finland have a relatively short history yet may be seen as fairly comprehensive and to some extent successful. Challenges remain, for example, in recognising previous knowledge and realising the potential of people with immigrant backgrounds in the labour market, as well as truly taking into account the individual plans and desires of people who have immigrated. When it comes to employment rates, particularly among women with immigrant backgrounds, Finland fares  worse than the other Nordic countries, regardless of the women’s education level and language skills. Despite the international acclaim enjoyed by the Finnish school system, Finnish-born children of immigrants complete higher education degrees less often than their peers. This article outlines integration services in Finland and the Nordic countries and calls for a more holistic view of integration, and thus closer cooperation between different responsible institutions in society as well as more attention to racism and discrimination.

Immigration to Finland – brief background

Finland was long a country of emigration, with a million Finns moving abroad in the 20th century. However, its population has always represented many cultures and languages, not least due to the country’s geographical location between ‘East’ and ‘West’. International immigration for humanitarian reasons began again in the 1970s with refugees from Chile and Vietnam. With the arrival of larger numbers of refugees in the 1990s, integration policies began to take shape, particularly in the Helsinki region. An important phenomenon impacting the need for integration services was also the arrival of 30,000 people known as ‘return immigrants’, mainly Ingrians who were invited to move back to Finland from the former Soviet Union in 1990. The first piece of legislation on the promotion of immigrant integration in Finland came into force in 1999. The other Nordic countries (particularly Sweden) and the Netherlands acted as models when plans for integration services were drawn up. The basic goal was the equal participation of immigrants in society, particularly in the labour market, while protecting immigrantsright to uphold their own language and culture. In 2018, foreign-born residents made up approximately 7% of the Finnish population of 5.5 million. Foreign citizens represent 180 different nationalities, among which the main countries of origin are Estonia, Russia, Iraq, China, and Sweden. There are large regional differences regarding where immigrants live, with 58% of foreign-born residents living in the Helsinki region. In 2019 most new residence permits were granted on the basis of family ties (38.8%), followed by work (28.5%), study (19.9%), international protection (11.2%) and other (1.7%).

Integration services: a Nordic overview

Compared to its Nordic neighbors, the number of foreign-born inhabitants in Finland remains low (ca 387,000, i.e. 7%). In Sweden, almost 20% (approximately 2 million people) of the population was born abroad, while the figure in Norway is approximately 14 % and in Denmark 13 %. The goal of Nordic integration programmes is for participants to learn the national language and enter the labour market or engage in further studies as quickly as possible. The services are based on individual plans and are free-of-charge for the participants. Denmark differs from the other Nordic countries: in 2016, it introduced a programme based on short-term jobs and work training with apprentice-level salaries and 20 weeks of educational courses. The table above shows how integration services in the Nordic countries are structured.

As integration is a multifaceted phenomenon that ties into specific local contexts, it is difficult to draw simple conclusions about  the efficacy of the different systems. A study comparing refugee integration in the labour markets in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark found different outcomes depending on perspective. When it comes to women with a refugee background, Norway has the best outcomes. While refugees find work faster in Denmark than in Norway and Sweden, long-term employment rates are higher in Sweden. Denmark is known for having the strictest refugee policies of the Nordic countries and its integration services partly reflect these. The new model that emphasises work training has been criticised by researchers for putting refugees in a precarious position as they run the risk of being exploited as cheap labour.

Integration services in Finland: challenges and opportunities

The official provision of integration support in Finland is shared by several institutions, mainly municipalities and regional employment offices. The tertiary sector also plays an important role. When a person obtains residency in Finland, the employment office performs an initial mapping of existing skills. For those outside of the labour market, such as stay-at-home mothers, integration services are provided by the municipality. Next, an individual integration plan is drawn up, directing the person to the required services. These are based on the starting points of the individual, who is pointed to either a basic, slower, or faster track. The goal of the language training in Finnish or Swedish (in theory chosen by the person, in practice often determined by the local authorities) is level B1.1 on the CEFR, which is also required for Finnish citizenship. Skills in the official language are seen as the key to employment and hence to integration in all the Nordic countries, with high demands on professional and language skills correlating to wage structures. In integration policy, employment is often portrayed as detached from other areas of life, such as family and social relations. It is important to also note the integration work taking place in schools and in early childhood education, to which every resident child in Finland has a right. The lower rate of completion of higher education degrees among Finnish-born children of immigrants has been explained by factors relating to language skills and socio-economic position, which points to remaining challenges in the schools to ensure equal opportunities for every child.

Finnish integration policy ranks high internationally, but it is also criticised for both its heavy organisation and its fragmentation. This is partly due to local authorities being relatively free to decide how the services are organised. Insufficient funding and ‘projectization’ of integration services and training are longstanding challenges. Adult integration training is open to tender on the free market, which on the one hand has raised concerns about its quality and continuity, yet on the other hand provides flexibility as new courses can start independently of term timetables. Many projects have aimed to improve services and develop new methods, for example to combat regional differences (e.g. e-learning in Lapland), to cater for different groups (e.g. tailored courses for stay-at-home mothers, highly-skilled migrants), and to develop new pedagogical approaches (e.g. strengthening social networks). Information and orientation in the main languages spoken by recent immigrants has also been emphasised as part of learning about society. Scant research has been performed on the effectiveness of the language training: while it has been shown that between 2013–2016, only approximately 35% obtained the desired level of B1.1 during their integration course, and that unemployment levels are higher among migrants from a refugee background than in the rest of the population, the reasons behind these outcomes are unclear. Rather than measuring unemployment at a certain point in time, a longitudinal view might be more fruitful, as it takes longer for refugees to find employment than those who immigrate for work and per definition are already employed. Attitudes among employers also need to be taken into account and addressed. While recent indicators of integration include well-being, participation, and two-way integration, there is still a strong emphasis on employment as a measure of integration. Hence, there is a lack of knowledge about other aspects of integration, e.g. the effect of stricter policies on family reunification leading to extended periods of family separation.

A challenge and opportunity in integration is the heterogeneity of immigrants, who represent various ages, educational backgrounds, reasons for immigration etc. Integration courses have been criticised for the ‘immigrantisation’ of people, whose individual wishes and goals are ignored, and who are presented as passive and in need of development. The social climate – with the rise of the far-right and the success of the anti-immigration Finns Party since the 2011 elections, and their four years in government between 2015–2019 – not only influences recently arrived immigrants, but has had an impact on society as a whole. Although integration is often portrayed as a two-way path, the responsibility of ‘integrating’ still seems to lie heavily on people who have immigrated.

Recommendations for the future

If integration is to truly mean equal participation and a feeling of belonging and being accepted as a full member of society, the thinking around it in Finland and much of Europe needs to be reconsidered.

  • While it is clear that employment and financial independence is a central component of integration, it needs to consist of more than steering migrants towards working in jobs that are unwanted by the ‘native’ population. Furthermore, there needs to be a more holistic approach to integration, which takes into account all areas of life, not least family and social networks.
  • Migrants need to be heard systematically when it comes to designing integration services, and people’s individual wishes and choices should be supported by correct information. This requires proactive collaboration between public services, NGOs, and the private sector.
  • Combatting racism and discrimination should be made a political priority.
  • Good relations need to be supported by dialogue between NGOs, decision-makers, religious communities and institutions and more should be done to help overcome categorisations into ‘us’ and ‘them’.



Linda Bäckman holds a PhD in English language and literature (Åbo Akademi University, 2017). She is currently researching language and integration in Finland's Swedish-speaking areas in a project funded by the Society for Swedish Literature in Finland. 



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