Authors: Ian Percy and Brita Nielsen
Norway’s integration model is based on the premise that counties (kommuner) are the best judges of their ability to settle and integrate refugees. While in principle this free choice makes sense, the practice is unsustainable. I 2013 11,570 people sought asylum in Norway, and of those 5330 received asylum, thus becoming refugees. In 2013 the Integration and Diversity Department (IMDi) was able to settle 6551 refugees, however at the beginning of 2014, 5700 refugees were still waiting in asylum centers (mottak) in order to be settled in a county. How to settle and integrate these people has gained an increasing political focus both in Oslo and in counties throughout the country. Several questions have been raised, such as whether the asylum seekers should decide where to move to, and how many people from a very different cultural background and educational level an area can “sustain.”
Based on experience as a refugee consultant in Austrheim kommune, together with open interviews with stakeholders in the kommune, the corresponding author has observed and had first-hand experience with systemic challenges worth investigating. Experiences suggest that the top down approach implemented by the central decision makers (IMDI) affects the relationship between the decision makers and implementers within the county receiving refugees. This again affects the chances of “integrating” refugees in the local community, and the willingness to choose to receive refugees in the future. Key factors that the leadership of a county see as relevant when deciding to settle refuges are that the reception of refugees also fits within the political objectives of the county, fills gaps in the local employment market, and increases the population and therefore sustainability of small counties. In their haste to get as many people out of the reception centers as possible, IMDi emphasizes the benefits and downplays the challenges all county, but especially small county face. Further, the word “integration” is not a defined concept and refugee consultants in the counties are not comfortable with the term. The term is however used by national and local media, which have rated the counties ability to “integrate” their newcomers in addition to highlighting many cases of “failed” “integration”. While the general public and the media focus on integration, the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Service (NAV) and implementers in the county are focused on finding settled refugees employment. This creates a disconnect, which is not addressed in either public or governmental discourses. IMDi’s current role as “refugee salesmen” will have to be explained into a more holistic coaching role. There is a precedent for this, before the creation of IMDi, the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) had a more involved role in the counties that settled refugees.