Integrating immigrants into working life

As many European countries debate the criteria for granting asylum and accepting immigrants, Finland too is grappling with the moral questions connected to accepting foreigners. In one recent contribution, an experienced researcher criticises the Finnish debate for being lopsided.

In an interview with the news weekly Suomen Kuvalehti (30 March 2001), Annika Forsander, who works for a population research institute, detects some impatience in attitudes towards immigrants.

"People in Finland rush into big issues like work place racism and difficulties in integration into society. Immigrants who have been in the country less than ten years are described as newcomers."

Forsander is troubled by the fact that everyone — including the immigrants who have arrived as refugees — "are expected to contribute brilliantly to society and are blamed for not finding a place in the labour market". She points out that nowhere have immigrants immediately become tax paying citizens. It normally takes years.

Finnish immigration policy, according to Forsander, has not been based on receiving labour. It has reacted to the pressures set by international commitments and kinship considerations — the latter referring to the Ingrians from Russia. Finland has also received refugees who have not been accepted by other countries because of disability, old age or lack of education. This has been a way to compensate for Finland's "ridiculously small numbers" of refugees.

"One should not demand too much if the starting point has been an immigration policy which has emphasised everything but integration into working life", Forsander says in the interview.

She has also noticed a tendency to avoid risks. Refugees who have been politically active are not welcomed. The fact is, however, that these people are also active in working life and are educated. Forsander does not believe in solely humanitiarian criteria for refugee policy. Many countries have realised that in refugee camps one can find a lot of knowhow which is in demand in the labour market.

However, to get a job suitable for one's training is often difficult. It is easier to get a job in an ethnic restaurant or a cleaning job. To overcome this, some immigrants have been able to use their wits. Forsander tells the story of an African IT programmer who created a network of contacts by doing a cleaning job in a company in his own field. A Latin American refugee, who was an engineer by education and spoke several languages, finally found an IT job through an acquaintance, having been doing odd jobs for seven years.

Forsander thinks the authorities should do more to help re-educate immigrants and offer them useful contacts. This is important in order to avoid the fate of many immigrants in countries with large immigrant populations. There they have often got stuck with jobs which are sneered at by the local population.

The service industry in Finland will be needing a lot of new labour force in the next few years, Forsander points out. She says that these are jobs where language skills and knowledge of other cultures are useful.

There are now over 91,000 people of foreign origin in Finland. Ten years earlier, the figure was only 21,000.

From the archive:

The unbearable lightness of xenophobia

1 February 2001

Promoting an international working environment

19 January 2001

Somalis find home in Finland

18 February 2000

Xenophobia triggers racist attacks

27 September 1999

Somali refugees trigger debate on racism in Finland

August 1998

Celebrating diversity or equality?

June 1997


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