Politicians split on how to make immigrants integrate

As politicians debate the right and wrong ways to get foreigners to integrate, one volunteer says part of the problem is government cuts to support for migrant associations.

File photo of young people / Credit: iStock

Politicians in Finland have been discussing strategies to improve integration by migrants, even as a prominent advocate for integration says the government has cut too much money from civil society integration programmes.

In parliament this week, MPs debated a new report about the state of integration efforts, which says the process is neither fast enough, nor effective enough.

Although anyone who moves to Finland to live or work – from the European Union; any country outside the EU; or arrives to claim asylum – could be considered a ‘migrant’, in this case politicians mean specifically people who have been granted asylum.

“Integration has not been successful in Finland. This is reflected, among other things, in the poor employment of certain immigrant groups, in poor language skills, and is also evident in crime rates too” says Finns Party MP Olli Immonen. Immonen sparked widespread controversy in summer 2015 with his comments there should be a fight against the “nightmare of multiculturalism” in Finland.

“The obligation to integrate must be increased, the responsibility of immigrants must be increased. Previously, our system has been very fragmented and bureaucratic. I hope that in the future we will get a change in this matter. Clear measurement tools are also needed for integration” says Oulu MP Immonen.

The new report highlights that migrants can spend several years on integration programmes, and recommends that this be cut to just one year in future. There are also recommendations to improve employment opportunities for women, and to bring in  compulsory language tests by the end of 2020.

Changing the speed of asylum 

One of the biggest issues holding back the integration efforts of new arrivals, the report finds, is the length of time it takes to go through the asylum process. A too-long asylum process slows down integration and may even weaken its effectiveness.

Although proposals to improve the integration process in general gathered cross-party support from MPs, ideas to shorten the time it takes to go through integration programmes were received with more caution by some politicians.

“Concerning the shortening of the integration period, I do not understand how one can come to the conclusion that if integration does not work well enough even today, the solution is to shorten integration instead of trying to improve it” says Li Andersson, Left Alliance Chairperson.

“We are here talking about the responsibility of immigrants who are about to integrate to society, and about the cultural reasons, and talks about ethnic groups. I’ll turn my eyes to the [coalition government]. What has this government done?” asked Ozan Yanar (Green).

File picture showing exterior of parliament building / Credit: News Now Finland

11 guidelines aiming to improve employment

The latest report from the parliamentary committee outlines 11 guidelines that would allow migrants to achieve sufficient social, working and language skills to let them access better employment opportunities.

One of the major conclusions of the report is that migrant women should be considered as a special target group for integration services.

According to Christian Democrat MP Päivi Räsänen, two out of five women with an immigrant background are not involved in the labour market. Labour Minister Jari Lindström (Blue) says if immigrant women are staying at home, it makes it more difficult for them to integrate.

“Immigrant women must be involved in Finnish society. It is not right that women who have lived here for years do not know the language because they have spent their time inside the home. How can you even integrate in this manner?” asks Lindström.

“We have an issue with family support systems built for Finnish families being counter-productive for some immigrants, especially women. Should this mean a revision (basically decreasing support) for the whole system? We don’t think that’d be fair to Finns” the Blue Reform party writes on Twitter.

“Immigrant mothers play a significant role in raising the next generation. Through mothers, child integration is either successful or unsuccessful. That’s the reason why the focus on this is particularly good” says Christian Democrat Chairperson Sari Essayah, whose father is from Morocco.

Some of the other guidelines that were discussed this week include devolving responsibility for integration to municipalities; improving the service and support structures for immigrant employment opportunities; speeding up processing of residence permit applications; and to revamp language learning services.

File picture of parliament chamber, September 2018 / Credit: News Now Finland

Debate about language testing 

The importance of language training in the integration process was brought up by many members of parliament during debates this week.

According to the new report, only 35% of immigrants achieve the required level of language proficiency in the current training programmes.

Despite those low numbers, MPs proposed compulsory language testing at the end of the integration programme.

But Interior Ministry office Sari Haavisto says there are many considerations when it comes to language skills.

“These tests must be planned carefully to really measure the right things and take into account the different starting points of the people” says Haavisto, adding that some people who lack formal education may take a longer time to acquire new language skills. The new parliament report also found that integration services should better take into account the needs and abilities of individual migrants.

Cuts to civil society work 

While politicians are trying to come up with ways to help migrants intergrate more into Finnish life, one non-governmental organisation says a specific problem is that the government has been cutting cash for groups like his.

Teuvo Ulander has been running no-profit groups for several decades, and received awards for his voluntary work to help newcomers integration through sports clubs.

In recent years the funding to employ people in the associations has been cut massively, Ulander told Ilta Sanomat newspaper this week.

Minister Lindström says he recognises how important membership of sports clubs and other associations is for migrants, but that the state cannot be the ones automatically giving money to pay salaries.

This spring there will be another review of this sort of funding, and Lindström says more money might be available.