Integration is about equality

Focus North: What it takes for integration to work well. By Lisa Pelling.

Integration is about making sure that people who have moved to a new country can, over time, attain the same levels of income and living standards as the native population. Integration is about equality. 

Factors that contribute to increased equality also facilitate integration: well-functioning schools and universities, access to lifelong learning, high employment rates, and active labour market policies that make it possible to change jobs and occupations during your working life.

Increasing equality remains the most important challenge for progressive forces, both in the Nordics and elsewhere. 

There are a number of equality-enhancing strategies that are also crucial for the successful integration of migrants. 

1. Strengthen the Nordic model  

At the core of the Nordic model there is a well-functioning economy with high employment rates and low unemployment, public investment in infrastructure such as housing so that people can move when jobs and opportunities move, a school and educational system that provides everyone with equal opportunities for lifelong learning, and which equips people with the skills needed to take on the jobs that are created in a dynamic economy. The core of the Nordic model is also the core of successful integration policy. What works for the integration of migrants also works for other members of society who are on the move: young people leaving school or university and seeking to enter the labour market, people who need to re-enter the labour market after periods of sick leave, parental leave, or unemployment, people who need to change their workplace or profession because of structural changes in the economy. The core of the Nordic model is vital to handle migration, in the same way that it has in the past successfully handled rural-urban migration and the structural changes brought about by globalisation and digitalisation. The Nordic model has created progressive and prosperous societies. It should be strengthened, not dismantled. 

2. Everything starts with school  

Above all else, the integration challenge is a challenge for schools. The OECD warns that levels of equity in education are deteriorating, not least in Sweden where the current neo-liberal school voucher and ‘free choice’ experiment is increasing social and ethnic segregation, and where for-profit schools are draining the educational system of badly needed resources. Rising inequality in access to education is worrying, and indeed detrimental to integration.

3. The challenge of discrimination  

Discrimination is real. It happens in the classroom, in the lecture hall, during the job interview, in the workplace, at the hospital – and it has tangible effects on integration. Discriminatory practices range from ethnic profiling measures employed by the police, to algorithms used by the public employment service that categories people according to their origin and gender rather than their individual capabilities and aspirations. Good intentions are not enough. Discrimination must be challenged with concrete measures. 

4. Prepare recent migrants for the right job instead of creating new, low-productivity Jobs 

If we want to be able to afford an ambitious welfare state, we need to be ambitious about productivity in the economy. The Nordic countries do not need more ‘simple’ jobs for people with low qualifications, but rather simple ways of enabling people to find productive jobs in a modern, dynamic economy. ‘Any job’ is also not the solution for migrants if we want to create equality with integration. As many people as possible should be employed at a level that corresponds to their education, skills and experience. From this perspective, ‘any job’ is not necessarily better than ‘no job’.

5. Lower the cost of hiring newcomers instead of lowering wages  

Allowing lower minimum wages for newcomers is often put forward by the liberal side as a solution to help integrate migrants. The lowering of minimum or entry wages would put downward pressure on everyone's wages. It is better to invest in internships and trainee schemes, and to subsidize employers who are willing to invest in hiring migrants. 

6. Equality is gender equality  

Women and men integrate under different conditions. Today, women not only shoulder the lion’s share of care work, they also tend to receive less support from civil servants such as job coaches, and have less access to language courses and are more seldom offered advanced educational measures such as subsidized employment or internships. This means they are less likely to be able to get a job and less likely to find employment that corresponds with their talents and aspirations. With an awareness of the different starting points of migrant women and men comes a possibility to change the range of offers directed towards women and make a real and lasting difference. 

7. When migration is permanent, resident permits should be permanent, too  

In all Nordic countries, refugees are granted only temporary residency permits, and there are severe restrictions on their ability to live with their families. This has dire consequences for integration. People with precarious, temporary residency permits who are forced to live separated from their families will have difficulties to focus on learning the language, studying, or working. In addition, when family reunification comes with the condition of having a job, it forces newly arrived refugees to take any job, instead of preparing themselves for a good job. 

8. Create paths for legal migrationboth globally and to the Nordic Countries 

Integration will only be successful if we are willing to invest in the people who move to our countries: provide them with decent housing, a good education, opportunities for lifelong learning, and productive jobs. This is at odds with current integration politics, which are instead often used as a means to try to regulate migration. The idea is that the more difficult life is for migrants in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, or Finland, the less people will move to the Nordic region. The idea that we can prevent people from trying to seek protection in the Nordics by making our societies as unfriendly as possible is destructive. For migrants, for our societies, for all of us. And futile. In comparison to other regions, the Nordics will remain one of the most livable and likeable places on earth. And that’s good. 

Though open borders is not an option, increasing openness should be our guiding star. Because being able to move is ultimately about equality, too: as progressives, we oppose the idea that people’s life prospects should be dependent on their race, gender, or place of birth. Our long-term goal must be a world in which people are given equal opportunities to prosper, at home or abroad. 

Increasing equality remains our most important challenge. What works for the integration of migrants works for other members of society. When we invest in people, the return is great. 

Managing migration requires the best of pragmatic, progressive policies. When it comes to labour migration, the strategy must be to make sure that there are legal avenues for the labour migration that our economies need. When employers are given access to undocumented workers, it undermines wages and working conditions, and threatens the Nordic Model. When it comes to asylum migration, managing migration starts with conflict prevention and peace building. It goes on with support to the UNHCR and its efforts to protect refugees in conflict countries or in neighboring states, and it continues with enforcing mechanisms for sharing responsibility within the EU. 

Managing migration is complex and challenging. But necessary. For progressives, it is a matter of defending our core value: equality.  



Lisa Pelling is head of research at the Stockholm-based think tank Arena Idé. She writes for the daily digital newspaper Dagens Arena and has a background as a political advisor and speech writer at e.g. the Swedish Foreign Ministry.

This text builds on the report “Equality building integration” (Jämlikhetsskapande integration) co-authored with Marcus Strinäs and published by Arena Idé in 2016. However, Pelling's text has not lost any of its relevance. Measures for integration must create equality and are therefore not only good for migrants, but for all members of society. Read the full article  here (in Swedish).

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