Migration, integration and development the Swedish way

Migration is as natural a component of our increasingly globalized societies and economies as increased flows of goods and capital. The scale and scope of international migration, as well as the complexity of migration issues, has grown substantially in recent years. We can now see some positive indicators after a time with difficulties in the financial and economic sectors, thus the need to develop innovative ways to maximize the positive effects of migration for the benefit of all is therefore more important than ever. It is only through a truly comprehensive and coherent approach towards migration, development and integration issues that all stakeholders can benefit from migration in the long term.

This was the core of Tobias Billström’s intervention at  the symposium Migration and integration: the new challenge of globalization held in Paris yesterday, 14 September 2009.

Minister for Migration and Asylum Policy for the European Presidency, Mr. Billström said it is his “firm belief that even in times of economic crises should we continue to manage migration in a way that is sustainable in the long-term and that we continue to deepen our cooperation on migration and development issues”.

As for the recent uprising and harsh debates on the topics of migration and openness of the European Union to the grwoing flows of migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the representative of the EU Presidency called for cooler heads to prevail, and “we must make sure that our labour markets remain dynamic when we are confronted with the reality of demographic ageing of our populations and shrinking workforces. Just as calls for increased protectionism are not the answer to our common economic challenges, I believe that efforts to stifle migration are both unwise and short-sighted. We can compensate part of our declining labour force with increased productivity, however, we can neither maintain sustainable economic growth nor retain public welfare on an acceptable level without a constant influx of migrants. Thus, political efforts to reduce barriers for mobility must continue, even in times of low demand for labour”.

The need to create labour migration regimes that can handle the demand for both high and lesser skilled labour are of crucial importance. Mr. Billström recalled the Swedish experience: in December last year, new rules for labour immigration to Sweden entered into force, designed to create a demand-driven, effective and flexible system which will make it easier for people to come to Sweden to work, and for Swedish companies to recruit labour from outside the EU. The reform is also designed in a way that workers of all skill levels can migrate to Sweden under a general framework.

The main driving-force for the Swedish reform is the recognition that there are labour shortages in Sweden that will not be filled by people living in Sweden or in other EU countries. Another motive is the fact that this Nordic counry’s population is rapidly getting older, and that fewer and fewer people of working age will have to support an increasing percentage of the population in the near future. This might threaten economic growth and the sustainability of the welfare system in the long term. Of course, labour migration is only one of several instruments needed to prevent labour shortages. But it is certainly an important complement along with an optimal utilization of labour already residing in the country.

The Swedish system is completely demand driven. It is now the Swedish employers themselves, and not the Swedish Public Employment Agency, who decide whether or not they have a need to recruit someone from outside Sweden or the EU to fill a particular vacancy. Such a system stresses the employers’ demand for labour and there are no special caps or quotas to determine how many labour migrants that can enter the Swedish labour market. Past experiences have shown that the labour market tests previously performed by Swedish government agencies have not always been optimal for realizing the changing needs of individual employers.

A relatively small country like Sweden needs to stay competitive in the global competition for labour. One way of doing this is to offer a simple and transparent admission procedure for third country nationals whose skills are sought after on the labour market. The new system recognizes the need for foreign workers of all skills levels and in many different branches and sectors, everything from engineering and communications technology to seasonal workers. In this new system the same rules and conditions apply, regardless of your position.

One important lesson learned from previous closed systems for labour migration is that temporary labour programs can only work if the need for labour truly is only temporary. Thus, if employers’ needs for labour extend beyond the short term, as is the case in Sweden, then we must have a flexible system in place that allows for temporary migration to become more long-term, or even permanent.

Of course, one cannot effectively address migration without addressing the issue of integration. The two are inseparably linked, and policies to address them should reinforce one another. All migrants that are admitted to Sweden are given basically the same rights as Swedish citizens and are allowed to bring their family with them from day one. The spouses of labour migrants are also granted full access to the labour market.


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