Refugees’ integration in their host societies

As a part of the World Refugee Day on 20 June 2018, the Finnish Migration Institute organized in Turku an event with the title Enriching Integration. I gave there a speech on integration processes of immigrant in general and of refugees in particular. The speech went roughly as follows.

Some weeks ago there was a debate at the Finnish current affairs programme A-studio between the Finnish Minister of Interior Kai Mykkänen and the leader of the Perussuomalaiset, the nationalist Finns Party, Jussi Halla-aho. They talked about immigration to Finland now and in the future. The participants strongly disagreed on the desirability of further immigration, on the need for an active immigration policy and on the impact of immigration to Finnish society.

However, in the end of the programme they suddenly found remarkable consensus in finding problems in the integration of immigrants into Finnish society. They both considered national integration policy in Finland as failed and in need of a change. The TV journalist in the studio did not seem to have a divergent opinion either.

Based on available statistics, Finland does not belong to the top European countries when it comes to making immigrants smoothly enter the domestic labour market. The activity rate measuring labour force participation of the foreign-born work-age population is low, the unemployment rate of immigrants is high, and many immigrants work below their level of competence, less than what they would like to, and often in unsatisfactory conditions. In this sense, indeed, the situation looks sad.

Immigrants make a heterogeneous group, and there are big differences between groups defined by, for example, the country of origin, the reason for migration, or education level. There are also differences between men and women, between younger and older migrants and between those that have arrived recently and those that have been here already for some time. We should never take immigrants as one group. Instead, we should always be explicit about what and whom we are actually talking while discussing immigration and immigrants.

In terms of the reason for migrating and having a residence permit in Finland, those under international protection are often in a disadvantaged position in the labour market. However, also in this group, that I will here call refugees, there are big differences. Many individuals that have fled persecution, war or violence have succeeded in making a great career in their country of destination, including Finland. Lots of them are managing quite all right. However, the road to proper jobs is also often a long one.

At this point, let me also make one thing clear: integration into the host society is a much broader and a more complicated phenomenon than getting a job. We can define integration as a process of finding one’s place in the country one is living in and as participation in the society on equal terms. Integration means a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted individual development that takes place in areas such as education, employment, housing and politics. In addition, the processes of integration also include learning the local language and understanding culture, building social trust and relations. The psychological identification to and emotional attachment with the new hometown and society should not be forgotten, either.

People with a job can also have serious problems in their life and feel marginalized or alienated. Vice versa, it is completely possible that people live an active life and have a strong sense of belonging with the society without having a job. In fact, we should pay more attention to life outside the workplace irrespective of if we are talking about immigrants or the so-called native population. However, the integration processes of immigrants in general and of refugees in particular into the Finnish society often seems to be cumbersome even with this broader definition in mind.

Why is it that refugees have problems in their integration processes? What comes to employment issues, some things are self-evident. Firstly, it is in fact quite stupid to compare the activity rate or employment rate of  those that come to Finland because of a job with those that arrive because of other reasons. Naturally people who already have a place to work at the time of arrival are more frequently employed. But there are also other factors that should be taken into account. A recent OECD report (2016) mentions some reasons for the unprivileged position of refugees in the labour market:

  • Refugees often suffer from a lack of language skills, local networks, and knowledge of the local labour market.
  • Employers are uncertain about the value of the foreign credentials and experience of refugees.
  • Refugees usually have no educational institution to provide them with a programme of daily activities and link them to their host country.
  • There often are no family links and/or other social networks to provide them with much needed information.

Furthermore, some refugees also suffer from traumatic experiences from the past or from other health problems. Many of them have come from remote countries with a different local culture and value system. Learning the Finnish language is probably even more difficult for non-European immigrants than for people coming from closely located countries.

Immigrants themselves play an important role in the integration processes, of course, and this can be an asset but also an obstacle. If a person does not really want to settle in the host society, because of the idea of leaving the country again soon, for example, it is difficult for anybody to accelerate adaptation and integration. As a Swedish writer of Greek origin, Theodor Kallifatides, has put it, the immigrant is also required to meet the new country with curiosity and with benign interest in order to succeed in integration.

A well-known Norwegian researcher, Grete Brochmann, has written with her colleague that it has proven difficult to integrate newcomers in the Nordic labour market, characterised by high demands for skills and a compressed wage structure. Furthermore, the labour markets in these countries are highly regulated and knowledge-intensive. It is easy to imagine that these conditions can be especially difficult for many immigrants with a refugee background that often lack formal skills or that have difficulties in getting their competence recognized.

Furthermore, it is easy to understand that finding a job is easier when the economy is growing which means open vacancies and less competition whereas the times of economic downturn makes it difficult to get and to keep a job. It seems than immigrants in general and refugee migrants in particular tend to be more influenced than the native population by fluctuations in the economy. Finland has had bad luck in the sense that the two times that our country has received a larger influx of refugees, this has coincided with an economic recession.

In addition, there is the more general atmosphere in society with regard to immigration and to people with different backgrounds and identities. Discrimination in the labour market does not explain every injustice but it definitely exists, and there is both overt and covert racism as well. During the last decades, it has become more difficult to feel welcome in Western European societies if one is a refugee, a muslim, or belongs to visible minorities. Many immigrants in Finland are all that, therefore suffering from manifold prejudice or even hostility.

What does all this mean with regard to the critical judgments of our two top politicians I started with? The first conclusion is that even though we have to take seriously the messages from statistical sources that Finland is not succeeding too well in immigrant integration, we also need to avoid hasty and ungrounded conclusions. There is a need for more detailed analyses that also consider the general context of integration. According to an ancient Finnish wisdom, you should examine a person first before hitting him: ensin tutkitaan ja sitten vasta hutkitaan.

Secondly, we should understand that although public integration policy can have a positive impact in supporting integration processes, there are limits for what integration services, language courses etc., can achieve if the circumstances are against us. Sometimes it might be that integration policy is praised for an advance that would have taken place independently. Much more common, however, is that integration policy is blamed for failures it is in fact not responsible for.

In my opinion, we should also understand that it is unfair to criticize both integration policy-makers and immigrants if the bar, the goal of integration, has been set unrealistically high. At the time of the so-called refugee-crisis in 2015, representatives of the Finnish government soon starting talking about very fast, if not immediate entrance to the labour market. They did this without knowing, or without caring what they know, about the long asylum application processes and about how fast refugees in average can be expected to get a job in the Nordic countries.

To recapitulate, what does it need to promote refugee integration, individually and collectively? Firstly, it requires that those who come to stay feel motivated in starting a new active life in this country. Finding a comfortable place in Finland does not come for granted, it also needs efforts from immigrants such as learning language, understanding culture, respecting core values, getting an education if needed. An asylum should also be felt as a place to make a contribution.

Secondly, the Finnish society, both its institutions and individual members, should accept living together with immigration and immigrants, giving everyone a chance to be treated equally irrespective of origin, identity, or reason for being in this country. This means offering opportunities for newcomers to show they can have a positive impact. Our conception of normality should also be made more open, and the processes of recognition of less common skills and competences should be made faster.

The integration policy apparatus in Finland could probably also function better. Publicly funded action should be targeted to those needs and possibilities where most impact can be obtained. This is, however, easier said than done, and not only because of the fact that tailor-made solutions tend to be costly. Already now I believe that the resources allocated for immigration integration do not meet the factual needs.

Integration policy could be made more efficient and effective also if we knew better what to do. However, we are still badly lacking strong evidence about what are the most important factors enhancing and hampering integration. Furthermore, we do not have sufficient information about what integration services and other activities really make a difference. Producing this information is the job of my colleagues and mine, too. There is a lot of work to do for everyone.


Brochman, Grete & Anniken Hagelund (2011). Migrants in the Scandinavian Welfare State. The emergence of a social policy problem. Nordic Journal of Migration Research 1:1, 13-24.

Kallifatides, Theodor (2016). Ett nytt land utanför mitt fönster. Bonnier Pocket, Stockholm.

OECD (2016), Making Integration Work: Refugees and others in need of protection, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Saukkonen, Pasi (2016). Mitä on kotoutuminen? Kvartti 4.


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