Managing Migration in Denmark and Sweden

Europe and not least Sweden and Denmark is the destination of growing numbers of immigrants. Photo: Tomi Knuutila on flickrWhether forced or voluntary, people have migrated to, from, and within Europe for centuries. World War II and its aftermath brought huge displacements of people. Moreover, the economic boom in the second half of the 20th century and rise of the European welfare states led to an unprecedented rise in migration to Europe. In addition, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the subsequent dismantling of communism and the enlargement of the European Union have also led to a significant increase in migration – a phenomenon that the economic crisis and its outcomes are to intensify even further.

Denmark and Sweden have both recently had to incorporate a large number of newcomers within their nations and within their welfare states. Most importantly, both Denmark and Sweden are promoters of the Scandinavian welfare state model. While there is a convergence regarding this universalistic approach to welfare, a number of policies related to immigrant integration have been very different. After many years of a safe majority in the parliaments, both countries’ social democratic parties have faced continued defeat or have only recently returned to power. Until recently there was a liberal-conservative government in Denmark, and, in Sweden there is of course a center-right government. In both countries too, populist anti-immigration parties (Dansk Folkeparti and Sverige Demokraterna) have made headway as has political discourse critical of immigration.

In 2001, Denmark changed government and for the first time since 1924, the social-democrats did not win the most seats. The Liberal (Venstre) and Conservative (Konservative) parties took over instead, strongly supported by the right-wing Danish People’s party (DF). The Danish model of immigrant incorporation had been rather generous as it provided formal political, social and civic rights alongside a demand for—and expectation of—acculturation and, indirectly, assimilation. Danish integration policy was reshaped in 2005 by the implementation of the action plan En ny chance til alle’ (A new chance for everybody) based on the government strategy paper Noget for noget’ (quid pro quo) published in 2004. These programmes are the basis of the policy today, but have been amended in different—often more restrictive—ways. The main development is to place the integration discourse within a broader welfare discourse, not least due to perceived challenges to European welfare states from globalization and new immigration. The primary focus has been to keep people employed in order to be able to maintain welfare services. The main claim is that ‘we must integrate those who already reside in the country’. Integration is defined as ‘active participation in the labor market and contribution to the welfare state’. This discourse is likely to change now with the recent election of the social democrats. Steps to roll back anti-immigration legislation enacted by the previous government have been already been taken by the cabinet of Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

On the other hand, the Swedish model is threefold. It first encompasses a corporatist policy-making style with a social democratic universal welfare model; secondly, diversity has been a basis for policy-making for the past thirty years; thirdly, it has a unique (in Europe at least) political agenda committed to combating exclusion, which has resulted in a manifestly anti-racist integration policy.

A government proposition from the mid-nineties talks about different political and economic solutions to the increasing marginalisation of immigrants by proposing to move from an ‘immigration policy’ to an ‘integration policy’. This meant that the new policy was supposed to be based on citizenship, equality, pluralism and tolerance with equal rights, obligations and opportunities for all citizens regardless of their ethnic and cultural background. Although critics claimed that this policy did not change anything but the name, these perspectives have continued to be dominant themes in some government publications.

The policy ‘solution’ to integration now is embedded in a more neo-liberal discourse that aims to render immigrants more self-sufficient. The instruments include entrepreneurship, lifelong learning, deregulation, and using immigrants as a flexible resource for regional economic growth and diversity management. The Swedish system offers substantial economic, social and political rights. The population has established an understanding of its diversity as the only possible backdrop for modern Swedish society, but Sweden faces the problem of a persistent gap between natives and immigrants in the labor market. This has led to significant political attention on reducing the number of marginalised people whose family background is not Swedish.

The entire policy-making in the field of migration is going through deep changes, partly due to globalization, partly to other political and economic transformations. This is very much the case in Sweden and Denmark. Despite their geographical proximity, the two countries have developed very different integration policies and therefore provide an interesting comparison. Furthermore, the less friendly immigration policies Denmark have been so famous for, have or are about to change given the shift in the political preferences of the Danes from last year. The opposite trend can be seen in Swedish politics with the center-moderate coalition still going strong. But arguably a more immigration-critical Sweden is developing at a time when most Western societies are starting to put a higher stress on the importance of migration management. Sweden could benefit from the broad knowledge EU commissioner Cecilia Malmström has in the field of migration and human rights to try to overcome the pressures surrounding immigrants and their marginalisation in Europe, and to defuse them through a more widely planned management of the integration of both current and future migrants.


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