Silence on racism and structural inequalities affects society as a whole

The pervasive failure to address racism within the framework of integration for people labelled as refugees and immigrants serves as a barrier to achieving genuine inclusivity.

In general, Finland is portrayed as a model country in its inclusive and equal policies. Officially, the Finnish integration system is built on the premise of equality and inclusive measures, promoting social justice, diversity, and preventing exclusion. In relation to integration policy, Finland’s integration policy is ranked one of the best in international indexes. Such portrayal can conceal and normalize inequalities that occur in practice.

As  shown in my dissertation, there is a big disjuncture between what policies claim and promise and what happens in practice, and what are the lived experiences of people involved in integration. The overarching goal of integration policies and practices in Finland, and other EU countries, is to enhance refugees’ and immigrants’ participation in various facets of society, but the primary emphasis is placed on improving their access to the labour market. Consequently, without securing employment, integration is somehow deemed to be unsuccessful, and the person is considered to be un-integrateable.

Who is considered successfully integrateable remains unclear 

Even though integration policies and practices focus on employment as a successful measure of integration, unemployment rates among refugees and immigrants remain high even after integration training. This was also the case with my research participants. Also, when compared to other EU countries, the Nordic countries (including Finland) exhibit high unemployment rates among refugees and immigrants.

As my research shows, even when employment is secured, it rarely matches their skills and educational backgrounds. In fact, mostly people end up in precarious employment positions or in a vicious cycle of education and training.

The problem revolves around the ambiguity surrounding who is deemed to be the successfully integrateable. For instance, is it solely based on securing employment, even if it was a precarious job? Is fluency in Finnish the defining factor? Or the ability to demonstrate resilience in the face of discrimination and adversity, thus requiring constant ability to manage instances of racism? In reality, it encompasses all of these factors and more. As a result, people participating in integration remain in a constant state of being and becoming integrateable.

Three paradoxes of the Finnish integration system

The Finnish integration system is filled with paradoxes. The first one being the contrast between the ideal portrayal of Finland as a country of equality, and the reality that Finland is also proven to be among the most racist countries, when compared to other EU member states.

Each year brings forth a growing body of research showing how people of colour, Black people, and those of non-Western origins experience racism in every facet of their daily lives in Finland – be it in education, employment, integration, and beyond. Racism was also one of the main challenges encountered by the participants in my research as they navigate through various integration practices. However, addressing racism through concrete anti-racist solutions is still overlooked in relation to integration. 

Finding a decent job is still a challenging reality for many

A second paradox in integration is that despite the continuous calls for work-based immigration and the need to attract more workers to Finland, finding a decent job is still a challenging reality for many who already reside in Finland, and are unemployed.

A recent news headline in the national public broadcasting (YLE) highlighted the struggles faced by foreign graduates in finding jobs in Finland. This news, while not surprising, is consistent with previous years’ headlines and research results, this dissertation included, indicating the same problem, and indicating a lack of substantial changes to ease the access to the labour market.

Moreover, the immigration policy set by the current government consists of even more restrictions, which will carry more exclusion and hinder access to the labour-market, especially for people labelled as refugees and immigrants. For instance, those who are on a work-based residence permit would be forced to depart Finland if they do not find a job within three months of unemployment.

Despite the claim to enhance integration, the current government is offering contradictory policy restrictions that have implications for integration, making it harder to establish a decent and equal life in Finland. This involves shortening the period of residence permits and prolonging the process of obtaining citizenship.

Non-Western refugees and immigrants perceived as deserving less support

A third paradox that came to light, is in relation to how people categorized as refugees and immigrants are perceived as deserving or less deserving of support and integration. For example, since the war on Ukraine has started, a distinct narrative has re-emerged, portraying non-Western refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants, as markedly different in their culture and values, and in some instances, perceived as threats to “European values”. These portrayals have been fuelled by racialized assumptions, painting a challenging picture of their integration process. This perception continues to shape the policies and practices surrounding integration, having a significant impact on the ongoing discourse. It is essential to recognise the consequences of these racialized depictions and threat narratives as we navigate the complexities of integration policies and practices.

Racism is ignored within integration processes 

There are drastic implications of remaining silent about racism and the reluctance to recognise it as one of the main barriers towards inclusive integration. This tendency hinders addressing racism systematically, rendering it an overlooked aspect.

Despite the official promotion of equality and equity within Finnish and EU integration policies, coupled with an emerging emphasis on anti-racism, integration practices perpetuate racialized practices. The policies persist in framing refugees and immigrants as individuals responsible for navigating inherent inequities.

Racism has been asserted as something that is temporary, implying that it will eventually fade away on its own. By asserting that racism is temporary and not systematic, professionals silence refugees’ and immigrants’ experiences of racism. This perspective fails to acknowledge the entrenched systematic nature of racism and the ongoing need for sustained efforts to address it.

My analysis reveals the importance of examining integration from an anti-racist perspective. It is also essential to set practical anti-racist interventions to shift and dismantle the unequal power relations embedded in integration processes. Such a focus is still missing.

Rethinking integration requires an examination of inequalities

In conclusion, my research challenges the prevailing narratives and practices surrounding integration. It urges rethinking integration, and the re-evaluation of the promises made by policies, and it advocates for an anti-racist perspective in examining integration. The success of integration is not just a policy matter; it resonates deeply with our collective responsibility to create inclusive societies, in every aspect, element, structure, and institution. The current reforms emphasising employability must be approached with caution, ensuring that issues related to fear of cultural difference and racism are adequately addressed.

Background information about the research

The empirical data of my research consisted of ethnographic fieldwork in vocational institutions in Finland, institutions that offer integration training for people categorized refugees and immigrants. My focus was on labour market integration, given that employment and employability remain the main factors that determine “successful” integration – even though integration policies claim the opposite. For that reason, I started my research with policy analysis to understand how the policies construct the integrateable refugee and immigrant. Also, in order to understand what happens in practice, I conducted interviews with people participating in integration training. Most of my interviewees were Arabic speaking young adults who had moved to Finland. In addition, I conducted interviews with teachers, project managers and other professionals involved in integration, as well as policy makers. Producing data from various sources allowed for a thorough examination on integration as a policy, practice and lived experience.