New arrivals need more than a ‘pat on the head’

New arrivals need more than a 'pat on the head'
With Sweden just days away from enacting the most sweeping reform of its integration policy in 25 years, newly installed Integration Minister Erik Ullenhag of the Liberal Party explains how the new policies will help confront Sweden's integration challenge.

Every morning around 600,000 people who were born in another country go to work. They pay tax and to a great extent sustain the welfare state. Sweden has throughout history been open for people and for cooperation with other countries.

It has made our country richer and I am proud that we have taken our responsibility and shown solidarity, providing a safe haven for people who have fled persecution. But at the same time as many who have come to our country have been successful, we should be clear in the fact that we have significant challenges for integration.

Successful and efficient integration is one of the greatest challenges of our time. Therefore, on December 1st, the government is implementing one of the largest overhauls of Swedish integration policy in 25 years.

People who flee war or serious societal shortcomings do so to seek a better and safer future for themselves and their families. They expect to contribute to society – not to live on welfare.

Today, it takes seven years for the average refugee to find work after they’ve received a residence permit. After three years in the country, only 30 percent of refugees have work. Foreign-born have a 20 percent lower employment rate than the general population, results in school are worse, and there are entire neighborhoods that are in a downward spiral.

It’s a waste of resources and indicative of serious problems in how their initial time in Sweden is organised. The model for receiving newcomers that we’ve had for a long time has not worked; that’s why we are now reworking the reception of new arrivals.

It’s the system that has had the clear shortcomings, not the individuals who have come to Sweden.

Swedish integration policy has struggled with two main problems.

First, the policy has been characterized by too much handholding. Refugees and immigrants have been treated as weak individuals, although it is often the most driven people who leave their homelands. This is most clearly demonstrated by the fact that, until a few years ago, there was a work ban for those who were asylum seekers in our country.

Second, the policy failed to take into account that those who have come here are different and have different qualifications, backgrounds, dreams and motivations. The policy has not been sufficiently individualised but instead was created on the basis that all immigrants have been in need of the same support. We have had Swedish language classes for immigrants with standards that are too low and that in many cases haven’t taken into account people’s different circumstances and backgrounds.

The establishment reform, which comes into force on December 1st this year, breaks the handholding mentality and is clearly focused on ensuring that the newly arrived find jobs and learn Swedish quickly. It is therefore very surprising that the Social Democrats have shown themselves willing to try to stop the funding of key elements of the reform.

Freedom of choice, individually tailored initiatives, and more stakeholders are important elements of the new reform. But we also need to change the perception people have of those who leave their country to seek protection and refuge in Sweden. They do not need a pat on the head; rather, they need professional support so that they can, as quickly as possible, learn Swedish, establish themselves in the labour market, and take advantage of the opportunities, rights and obligations that apply in Sweden. Thus, the reform is based on the individual’s needs, but also underlines clearly the individual’s own responsibility for their future.

The reform’s main parts are:

*From day one, new arrivals will be met by efforts to find them work, instead of being taken in by social services. As a result, Sweden’s Public Employment Service (Arbetsförmedlingen) will take over responsibility from municipalities for coordinating these efforts that will lead to jobs and self sufficiency.

*Individualised efforts from day one. Shortly after a new arrival is granted a residence permit, he or she will meet a representative from the Public Employment Service for a conversation about their establishment in Sweden. Questions about where in the country the new arrival’s skills are needed and what the pathway to work looks like will be discussed early on in order to find a match in both the housing and job markets. The conversation will serve as the basis for a customised establishment plan consisting of individualized efforts.

*Establishment compensation is general and equal for everyone regardless of where in the country the new arrivals live. The compensation is individual and is paid when newcomers actively participate in establishment initiatives – to get the full compensation, the new arrivals must participate in Swedish language classes and other programmes described in their establishment plans. The individualised compensation can lead to greater gender equality through the compensation not being affected by other household income. Pro-work policies are also evident in the system – it is possible to work alongside the establishment reform inititiatives without compensation being reduced.

*New arrivals will be assigned an establishment guide to support them during their early time in Sweden. Compensation for the guide is performance-based, which means that the guide also has an interest in seeing the new arrivals find work and support themselves as quickly as possible. New arrivals will be able to choose a guide themselves.

*Societal orientation classes will be introduced as a compulsory part of new arrivals’ establishment. The purpose of the course is to provide a basic understanding of Swedish society, how it works and what it means to live and reside in Sweden.

Erik Ullenhag

Sweden’s Minister for Integration

This article was first published in Swedish in the opinion section of the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper on November 17th, 2010. Translation by The Local.

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