Billed as the “most radical change to Swedish integration policy in 25 years” when it was announced in December 2010, the government’s reform package gave Sweden’s Public Employment Service (Arbetsförmedlingen) the main responsibility for coordinating the establishment of new arrivals in Sweden, rather than municipality social service offices.
Instead, remuneration would be dependent on participation in various establishment programmes, which would include a course in society orientation.
Refugees would also receive an establishment guide form the employment agency that would help them draw up a plan for securing employment.
The reform “breaks the handholding mentality and is clearly focused on ensuring that the newly arrived find jobs and learn Swedish quickly” integration minister Erik Ullenhag said at the time.
But a recent study by the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SALAR), has found that betweeen 80 and 90 percent of the refugees arriving in several municipalities nevertheless received economic support from social service offices in the first six months of 2011.
The organisation also found the new system remained overly complicated, resulting in confusion on the part of refugees and civil servants alike.
In carrying out the study, SALAR contacted 17 municipalities which account for roughly a quarter of the refugees that arrived in Sweden between December 2010 and May 2011.
The study also found that in ten of the seventeen municipalities, funds provided by the government were insufficient to cover the social benefits paid to new arrivals.
“The association finds it worrying that state handouts don’t cover the costs and are in a relatively large percentage of the municipalities [followed in the study],” SALAR wrote in its report.
“In the future, it risks affecting municipalities’ offerings and quality when it comes to accepting refugees.”
The results also raise concerns that interaction with social services has remained a major focus of newly arrived refugees’ initial time in Sweden, something that the government’s “sweeping” integration reform was supposed to counteract.
According to SALAR, the current system is “hard to understand and unpredictable” which “makes it harder for new arrivals’ ability to plan their finances”.
Among the stumbling blocks identified by SALAR are delays from the Swedish Tax Agency (Skatteverket) in issuing personal identity numbers (personnummer), which is a prerequisite for dealings with other public agenices.
In addition, employment agency officials are often slow to draw up establishment plans for new arrivals.
Speaking with the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper after the release of the report, Ullenhag said his ministry was aware of problems and that the reform needed to be adjusted.
“We’re putting a lot of effort into pushing state agencies so that jobs remain the focus,” he told the newspaper.
“You have to remember that with the old system, it could take a year before a new arrival come near the employment agency.”
Ullenhag reiterated that the reforms are only six months old and that his ministry was “following it closely and have been humbled by the difficulties” it has presented.