Immigration tests the welfare state

Norway has not succeeded in ushering refugees and many other immigrants into the workforce, notes the leader of a commission that’s been studying the consequences of immigration. In the long run, immigration can thus challenge the country’s carefully crafted welfare state, according to Professor Grete Brochmann, who handed her commission’s latest report to the government this week.

Immigration Minister Sylvi Listhaug (left) thanked Professor Grete Brochmann (right) for delivering a “thorough” report that can provide a new basis for the immigration and integration debate in Norway. PHOTO: Justis- og beredskapsdepartementet

Brochmann said that immigration can test the very foundation and legitimacy of the welfare state through two important mechanisms: If the system functions poorly in terms of not meeting its goals, and if support for the solidarity behind the welfare state weakens because of rising economic and social differences within the population.

The challenge now, Brochmann wrote in a commentary in newspaper Aftenposten on Thursday, is to preserve Norway’s welfare model and the high levels of confidence that most Norwegians have in it. That may become difficult unless refugees and all immigrants can be integrated into the work force.

Even though immigration and refugee arrivals declined dramatically last year, to their lowest level in nearly two decades, Brochmann stressed that the challenge remains. Her commission was thus asked to examine long-term consequences of immigration, Norway’s capacity for integration and how confidence and solidarity in Norwegian society can be preserved.

High threshold for entering the workforce
She called the welfare state both “a resource and a problem” because Norway’s welfare model is vulnerable. It depends on residents paying taxes into the system in order to fund its welfare benefits, and that requires them to be welcome and active participants in the job market. The commission noted that it can still be very difficult for immigrants and especially refugees to break into the job market in Norway, however, because of demands for high levels of skills and fluency in Norwegian.

It’s not always easy and takes time for adult immigrants to adapt to life in Norway and become functional in the Norwegian language. Another report issued this week showed that a majority of new immigrants who now have to take a written test to prove their Norwegian skills did not pass. Critics of the test claim the threshold for entering the workforce in Norway is too high.

Not only is it difficult for immigrants and refugees with low levels of education and qualifications to break ito the workforce, it’s also difficult for highly educated immigrants. Their education and university degrees must be certified, and that can take time and also involve seemingly unreasonable demands. Even Norwegian students returning with education and training from abroad have to meet Norwegian standards and sometimes don’t.

Integration critical
Brochmann noted how the Norwegian welfare state is already facing challenges because of the need for economic restructuring at a time of lower oil industry revenue. That will force politicians to set tougher priorities, while the arrival of people with weak opportunities for self-sufficiency will put pressure on public funds. Refugees and immigrants from low-income countries have generally cost the state treasury, while “the opposite applies to immigrants with relevant competence,” Brochmann wrote.

Professor Grete Brochmann presenting her commission’s latest report on immigration and integration this week. PHOTO: Justis- og beredskapsdepartementet

It remains critical that all immigrants, including refugees, are integrated into the job market and society in general. “New members of society should to the highest possible degree be given the opportunity to perform, to become part of the important foundation that the Norwegian welfare state is built upon,” according to Brochmann.

That’s where Norway has not yet succeeded. “Our analyses show there’s a lot of potential for improvement in integration policy,” Brochmann wrote. Norwegian officials and employers have not been good enough at recognizing and authorizing the competence many immigrants bring with them.

The commission highlighted several factors to help speed integration: education to even out differences within the population, qualifying and activating immigrants for the job market, fighting discrimination and developing common ground in civilian society. While immigrants must learn Norwegian and adapt to life in Norway, intergration goes both ways: Employers and those assessing immigrants’ education and work experience abroad must help speed newcomers’ entry into the workforce, not hinder it.

Schools and workplace important for integration
Brochmann described the schools and the workplace as the most important arenas for integration, also because they are central in spreading fundamental values within Norwegian society. The commission also recommends the creation of national guidelines for what the authorities should do when cultural or religious practices get in the way of good integration.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported Thursday that the commission itself was divided, with at least one of its members refusing to go along with its assessment that education programs and other efforts to qualify immigrants for jobs are most important. Asle Toje, a commission member who works as a researcher at the Nobel Institute, believes such educational and qualifying programs will be too expensive and unrealistic, telling DN that many “of these people” coming to Norway are “extremely costly new citizens.” He favours a system in which Norway can “hand-pick” the refugees and immigrants it will accept, based on who’s most likely to succeed.

Toje also warned that Norway must brace for another influx of refugees, probably several. He pointed to 7.5 billion people in the world and “no signs that peace will settle over” it. That suggests millions more people will need to escape war, violence and poverty, suggesting that asylum policies based on asylum seekers’ needs instead of Norwegian society’s needs means that the sort of influx Norway experienced in 2015 will become normal. That in turn can mean there eventually can be more immigrants and refugees in Norway than “ethnic Norwegians.”

Controlling the scope of immigration
The rest of the commission maintained that it’s fully possible to maintain Norwegians’ confidence in and support for the welfare state, but important to understand that it can be demanding. Two factors are critical: The scope of immigration must be in line with Norway’s capacity to absorb them, and immigrants must be included in the central arenas of society.

“The point of this study,” Brochmann wrote, “is to contribute analyses and evaluations that can help that absorption capacity to increase.” In order for high levels of immigration to be accepted by a majority of Norwegians, they must be assured that it will continue within a stable, predictable framework based on public confidence, the commission stressed.

Brochmann handed her commission’s report to Immigration Minister Sylvi Listhaug of the Progress Party, which has long been skeptical of immigration. Listhaug, however, accepted the report with a smile and claimed the commission “had done a good and thorough job that will contribute to a good base of facts in the immigration and integration debate.” For the government, Listhaug said, “it’s important to carry out policies with a long-term outlook on behalf of the country.” That in turn means that Norwegian politicians must, according to Listhaug, “secure control of the refugee stream, preserve the Norwegian welfare system and succeed with integration.”

In yet another study, conducted in Great Britain, researchers found that immigrants don’t take jobs away from the natives. Professor Alan Manning of the London School of Economics, told newspaper Aftenposten in January that the Migration Advisory Committee he leads showed that national economies have “a remarkable ability” to increase their numbers of jobs in line with population increase. “The reason is simple,” Manning said. “Immigrants gain access to the job market, but they also buy things. When they buy things, that creates more demand.” High rates of immigration in Canada and New Zealand, he noted, have not led to economic chaos or sky-high unemployment. Instead, New Zealand has recently replaced Norway as being the best country on the planet in which to live.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund