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Speech by Ambassador Jørn E. Gjelstad on Integration

Speech by Ambassador Jørn E. Gjelstad at Policy Lab on integration. The Policy Lab took Place 15 December 2017 in Athens.


Distinguished guests, friends,

Unpacking integration, what a challenge! However, I am very pleased to see that this Policy Lab is focusing on the one of the most important issues in Europe both now and for the coming years.

The Symbiosis and its LAB initiatives is highly relevant and important as a facilitator for the public discourse. Moreover, Norway is a proud supporter. The LAB concept is providing us with a most useful arena for required exchanges between stakeholders and experts on topical issues of importance for everyone. But it also signifies the strong bilateral cooperation between Norway and Greece.  

Today the subject is integration. However, please let me start up on this issue by looking at the broader picture.

As the American author and journalist Thomas Friedman has so pertinently stated, our modern world is experiencing a host of “accelerations” – things are changing at an ever-faster pace. And those forces currently interacting with each other seem to cause even further acceleration. The expansion of digital power, economic globalization and climate change are primary drivers held out buy many. These forces are inexorably transforming our workplace, domestic policies, geopolitics, ethics and values as well as our communities. However, there is at least one more driver that also should be mentioned: large-scale migration.

Our “age of acceleration” makes most of us rather dizzy or confused; not only from increased pressure on governance capacity, management capabilities or social cohesion, but also because these forces severely challenges the credibility, trust and predictability – the very foundation of any society. When it comes to migration, I think it is fair to state the following: Even if the numbers have drastically dropped since the peak of the crisis, much seems to suggest that the migration pressure against Europe will continue. Even with a political solution of the Syrian crisis and a stabilization of the Middle East, we should not tend to believe that challenges from migration would finally be over. I believe that the Syrian crises has profoundly changed the mindset and calculations of people not only fleeing from war and terror, but living under extreme difficult conditions as well. For the future, we have to prepare ourselves for migrants that have made rational choices based on calculations connected to a variety of reasons: local conflicts, the negative impact from climate change, increasing economic deprivation, systemic discrimination, harassment and persecution as well as other forms of marginalization. Lack of work and inequality is a push factor, and Europe is for many the Promised Land. We have to acknowledge that. Therefore, I think it is fair to say that migration should be looked at as an integrated and permanent part of the present and future reality of Europe, and the decision-making processes in each single capital.

And when speaking about migration, the discourse could easily include all three operative components of its triad, namely the reception-part, the asylum management procedures and the integration measures. 

I will in the following limit myself to the latter. As far as I have experienced, the issue of integration is rarely discussed in Greece even though it is about to become a challenge to the social fabric and social cohesion. It is therefore of great importance that we highlight the issue from several angles. I will first present some observation from the Norwegian debate concerning integration challenges related to high immigration. 

First of all, as a state party to the UN Refugee Convention Norway has a long- standing tradition of recognizing the rights of the refugees. Their potential contribution to economic growth has never been, or will not be, a factor in whether they are granted permit or not.

Second, The Norwegian welfare model is vulnerable to immigration of a high number of adults with low qualifications and marginal contributory capacities to the society. The financing of the welfare state in Norway is strongly based on revenues that are generated through work via direct and indirect taxation. The model is dependent on high employment and relatively equal wage distribution to maintain our present welfare services. The extent to which refugees succeed in the labour market and become a source of contribution is dependent on age, qualifications and demand. Integration policy can also significantly influence the outcome.

Three, the Norwegian welfare society is facing a period of structural stress. An increased dependency burden related to the demographic change (significant increase in the number of retirees while the workforce is gradually shrinking), and second, an increased uncertainty related to future economic returns from the Sovereign Wealth Fund. These factors will most likely require a reprioritisation of economic and welfare policies in the future. High levels of immigration, entailing an influx of people with less ability to provide for themselves, will represent an additional challenge and increase the pressure on public finances.

Fourth, the well-functioning Norwegian labour market and welfare institutions provide a good framework for the integration of refugees. Our low economic inequality and solid educational institutions have traditionally contributed to opportunities and mobility among descendants of immigrants. However, given existing circumstances, it is pertinent to ask whether our welfare apparatus has the capacity and ability to integrate disproportionately large groups within a short period of time. The pace and impact on the receiving society’s capacity to absorb newcomers – socially, culturally and economically – is a key issue for discussion. 

Fifth,  the high number of asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Norway in 2015, came during an economic downturn with lower oil prices, weak demand, reduced flexibility in terms of economic policy, increased unemployment and a significant increase in job losses among earlier migrants. Not surprisingly, this raised the threshold for including newcomers in ordinary work.

Sixth, there is a cross-cutting political agreement in Norway that improvements in our society’s ability to integrate migrants is important for combatting increased inequality and segregation. There is a broad consensus on removing conditions that contributes to a systematic disadvantage for this group compared with the rest of the population.  In a recent Governmental study (2017) on long-term consequences of high immigration, the report concludes:

If the Norwegian society does not improve its ability to integrate immigrants and refugees from countries outside of Europe, there is a risk that increasing economic inequality combined with cultural differences could weaken the foundation of unity and trust, thus undermining the legitimacy of the Norwegian social model. Employment and social mobility among all groups are important, not just for welfare and equality reasons, but also with regard to building trust and preserving social stability.

So, what should we do? How can we handle the challenges associated with cultural diversity and sustain social loyalty, participation and solidarity under new conditions?  This is the demanding part.

Experiences from previous and ongoing discussions in my own country induces me to set out at least five points of action. These should be made inter-connected and mutually reinforcing, and included in a comprehensive strategy on integration. These elements are Trust-building, social benefits provision, education, participation and social/cultural adaptation. I will comment briefly on each of them:

First, building trust on both individual and institutional level is key. An effective and functional society is dependent on mutual trust between citizens as well as between the citizens and the society’s institutions. The majority population has a considerable responsibility for successfully building trust in the immigrant population. Immigrants have to be recognized by the majority as a legitimate part of the national community. This requires a strategy for inclusion and anti-discriminatory measures.

At the same time, measures must be taken at the governmental level to ensure impartiality, accountability and efficiency. Trust in the police and judiciary, a non-discriminatory education system, key social institutions as well as a clear perception of equal treatment is vital for creating social trust. And social trust is the very baseline for participating in a society. This will reduce the potential for conflict and polarisation, and instead foster social cohesion and stability.

Second, social/ welfare benefits are necessary, but should after a certain period be conditioned on the recipient’s willingness to acquire skills, and to participate in and adapt to the host society. Participation and adaption stand out as a prerequisite for a successful inclusion of a newcomer into a diverse and unknown social context.

Three, education and skills training promotes socialisation and creates opportunities. This should be the cornerstone for any integration program. The biggest challenge is always to move marginalised groups from welfare benefits to work. Relevant skills and necessary competence, however, is the inroad to the labour market and the social arenas. Educational programmes should be adapted to the immigrant’s existing professional qualifications. It is of particular importance that new members of the society and their descendants are given this opportunity, in order to gain an economic, social and democratic co-citizenship. Encouraging observation through the last decade from our own society is that children of the immigrants perform increasingly better within our educational system and labour market. Such a development can reduce cultural and value-related tensions over time and sustain the trust once it has been created.

Four, participation in the society is much about participating in the labour market and within the social arenas. To ease the transition from welfare benefits to active participation in the labour market, specific measures has to been taken. Arrangements can be made to encourage employers to hire people with low qualifications and uncertain productivity capacity. This has become even more important after the large influx of refugees to Norway in 2015. Wage subsidies can be a measure for mitigating employment risks, while different forms of professional training-programmes could be offered as part of the job contract. It is important that the employer and the newcomer together set out clear goals for qualification and skills development.

In addition, coordinating efforts between different public sector authorities should be stepped up, in particular the coordination between the educational and labour marked authorities.

Fifth, cultural adaption to a new social context makes integration a two-way process. Integration requires a great deal from the immigrants themselves. Their willingness to take on a pro-active attitude and adopt to new circumstances by learning language and the social codes is key. Scandinavian researchers argue that it is not ethnic diversity in itself that is the main challenge, but a combination of social inequality and ethnic segmentation. By reaching out in a new society and by using the opportunities that might be offered, immigrants can counteract tendencies that can complicate their possibilities to become an integrated part of a larger community.  

By closing, I would limit myself to the following: Continued high immigration has a potential for increasing inequality and create value conflicts and cultural clashes. This could easily tear apart social cohesion and undermine social stability. Marginalized people are not in a position to contribute effectively to the society they live in. And sustained inequality structures of a certain level will undermines the very foundation for economic growth and prosperity.

We cannot allow this to happen. A comprehensive integration strategy, tailor-made for the situation in question, should be developed. Politicians on both central and local level must recognize their responsibility and make concerted efforts to move this process forward. Norway stands ready to support in this process by sharing our experiences if this is considered useful.

Thank you for the attention, and good luck with a most important debate!