The Danish labour market is renowned for the unique combination of labour market flexibility and social security, strong collective bargaining and economic competitiveness. However, labour market integration of refugees has not been particularly successful in the past. After the “refugee crisis” in 2014 and 2015, labour market integration of refugees nonetheless improved, but now the major political parties have decided to implement new migration laws under the banner “from integration to repatriation”. The objective is to discourage refugees from seeking asylum in Denmark, but the new laws also create a permanent state of insecurity and uncertainty for refugees living in Denmark that may obstruct their labour market integration.
In September 2015, the European refugee crisis became apparent to everyone in Denmark as large groups of refugees crossed the Danish border from Germany and walked along Danish highways. Most of the refugees did not want to register as asylum seekers in Denmark and passed through on their way to Sweden. Even if the number of asylum seekers was much lower than in Germany and Sweden, asylum applications in Denmark doubled from 2013 to 2014 and peaked in 2015 with 21,316 applications. Since 2016, the number decreased again, reaching an almost historically low level with less than 3,500 asylum applicants each year.
The refugee crisis opened a window of political opportunity for major restrictions in asylum regulations as well as reform of immigration and integration policies. With regards to labour market policies, the dominant political narrative was that previous integration and employment policies had been largely unsuccessful and had to be overhauled. In the spring of 2016, a tripartite agreement between the former (liberal-conservative) government and the social partners (Danish Employers Association and the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions) was reached. The proposals requiring a new legislative framework were subsequently enacted by the parliament in June 2016. A new and ambitious target for the labour market integration of refugees was laid down. The official government target was set at a 50 per cent employment rate, meaning that half of all refugees and migrants in reunified families should be in employment within three years of obtaining residency in Denmark. The target was 10-20 percentage points above previous levels. The main idea of the new labour market integration programmes was to facilitate faster integration of refugees on the ordinary labour market by (1) earlier and more intense active labour market programmes, (2) combined with on-the-job language training, (3) work experience training in local workplaces, and (4) lower benefits to encourage participation.
On the surface, the new labour market integration programmes for refugees and migrants in reunited families have worked. Since the tripartite agreement in 2016, there has been a significant increase in employment rates for refugees and migrants in reunified families, especially among male refugees who currently exceed the government target (see figure below).
Employment rates for refugees and migrants in reunified families after three years of residency in Denmark (aged 21-64), 2015-2019.
The improving business cycle and labour shortages on the Danish labour market during this period is an important explanation, but evaluations show that the tripartite agreement and new integration and employment policies since 2016 have had an independent and significant impact on the employment rates of refugees and migrants in reunified families.
Despite this nascent success, the right-wing populist and anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) pushed the liberal-conservative government hard on changing the paradigm in migration policies from integration towards repatriation. In early 2019, the government – with the support of the Social Democratic Party – decided to change the paradigm in asylum regulations and integration policies. The new immigration laws fundamentally shift the policy objective from integration in Danish society to repatriation to the migrants’ countries of origin. This paradigm shift means that immigration authorities will only issue temporary residence permits. Previously, migrants applying for permanent residency would benefit if they had been in ordinary employment, if they participated in volunteer associations, or mastered the Danish language. All these indicators of integration do not count any longer. Even the names of the programmes and income benefits have been changed to signal the shift from integration to repatriation. The former integration programme has been re-labelled as the “self-support and repatriation programme” while the integration benefit is now called the “self-support and repatriation benefit”.
Of course, this “paradigm shift” sparked extensive debate and criticism. The social partners criticised the repatriation laws for undermining the achievements of the tripartite agreement and labour market integration of refugees and migrants in reunified families. Humanitarian organisations argued that refugees were placed in a permanent state of uncertainty that could potentially have severe negative social and psychological consequences.
The Social Democratic government that came into office after the June 2019 general election supported the “paradigm shift” in immigration policies and was not inclined to concede to the critics. However, being a minority government, they only gained a majority in the parliament with the support of the Socialist Party, the Socialist People’s Party and the Radical Left Party. All three parties were strong opponents of the paradigm shift in immigration law. Therefore, a minor exception was introduced to the repatriation policies. If refugees have been in ordinary full-time employment for more than two years, they can be granted a permanent residency permit. This exception, however, only includes a minority of refugees and migrants in reunified families. Nonetheless, the Social Democrats reaped swift criticism from the opposition parties for breaching their electoral promises.
The new Danish repatriation laws transmit conflicting signals to refugees, the public authorities, as well as employers. On the one hand, the immigration authorities cannot issue permanent residence permits and instead must repatriate refugees to their countries of origin as soon as their grounds for humanitarian protection cease. On the other hand, the municipalities, employment services, and employers are supposed to continue their efforts to integrate refugees in Danish society and the labour market. Refugees and migrants in reunified families are caught in the middle, in a state of uncertainty and insecurity.
Thomas Bredgaard is Professor MSO (PhD) at the Department of Politics and Society at Aalborg University.
This commentary is a shortened and revised version of Bredgaard, T., & Ravn, R. L. (forthcoming): “Labour market integration of refugees in Denmark”, chapter in B. Galgoczi (ed.), Labour market integration of asylum seekers and refugees in main EU receiving countries, Bruxelles: ETUI-REHS Research Department.
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