Ensuring equal service provision and legal safeguards in integration programs
The Scandinavian central governments’ leeway for central steering of municipalities is somewhat restricted by the principle of proportionality. The principle states that policies that restrict local autonomy should be applied only if they are necessary to fulfill important national goals and that the least restrictive instruments should be preferred (Feltenius, 2015). However, in both Norway and Sweden, there has been a consistent employment gap between refugees and the majority population (Bratsberg et al., 2017, Hernes et al., 2020). In the Scandinavian countries, high employment levels are a precondition for the central government to finance and maintain an extensive welfare state. A continuous employment gap between the minority and majority population has negative consequences for state finances, and for other goals of maintaining social and financial equality in the population (NOU, 2017: 2). Thus, from a macroeconomic perspective, if local integration measures do not achieve results that are vital for individual migrants, local communities, and more holistic national goals and state finances, the national government may want to become more involved. Both Norway and Sweden have introduced centralizing instruments or centralized the responsibility for implementing integration programs for refugees in recent years, and increased employment and self-sufficiency for the target group have been the main aims of these efforts. However, the policy processes leading up to these changes also show that equal service provision and legal safeguards for refugees are emphasized as important justifications for these policy and organizational changes.
In Norway, the Introduction Act of 2003 gave municipalities the responsibility to provide integration programs for refugees (financed by the central government). The Act gave municipalities great autonomy in designing and locally adapting the program conditions, with few detailed regulations. Over the years, several evaluations have revealed large differences between both the results municipalities achieve concerning participants’ transition rate to employment after the program period, and the quality of the content of integration programs (Djuve et al., 2017, Riksrevisjonen, 2019). For example, while some municipalities had transition rates to employment up to 100%, other municipalities achieved only about 30–40% (Lillegård & Seiersted, 2013). Nilsen (2013) also problematizes the emphasis on local autonomy, because it provides local case workers with great power when deciding the program content for each individual. In her analysis of the legal safeguards for participants in the Norwegian integration programs, Nilsen writes that refugees’ legal safeguards are ensured through the legislation, which emphasizes the principle of user participation and the right to appeal the formal decision (e.g., which measures individuals should have in the program, e.g., employment or educational measures). She shows that there are very few cases of appeals, and that central inspection of the programs’ contents shows that several municipalities struggle to provide participants with fulltime programs. Consequently, even though participants formally have a legal safeguard in their right to appeal formal decisions, Nilsen (2013) emphasizes that participants are new to Norway, and often lack the knowledge and resources to understand the Norwegian system, making it more challenging for them to execute their right to appeal public decisions. Thus, she argues that national legislation (and inspection) could protect refugees’ rights (e.g., by more centralized steering of the program content to ensure minimum standards for the programs’ content and quality). From this perspective, stronger central steering could be justified as an argument to ensure refugees’ rights, and to provide a more equal service provision to refugees, irrespective of where they are settled in the country. If the program quality in some municipalities is particularly low, it is a severe intervention in participants’ lives because they are obliged to participate in the programs and could be refused financial aid if they do not participate (Tronstad & Hernes, 2017).
In October 2020, the Norwegian parliament passed a new Integration Act replacing the former 2003 Introduction Act. As a backdrop to the new legislation, the government’s proposition to parliament stresses that: “There is large municipal variation concerning the program content, quality and results in the integration programs ( …)” (Kunnskapsdepartementet, 2020: 15). They quote an evaluation report of the 2003 act (Djuve et al., 2017), which concludes that although many municipalities do find suitable local solutions for the integration process, (…) “the local variations in program measures are disturbingly large, and affect the individual participants’ chances to become employed.” One major change in the new Integration Act is a more detailed steering of the program content, with clear requirements concerning what specific measures municipalities are to include in different participant groups’ programs. Additionally, the new Act introduced a quality requirement (forsvarligehtskrav) for municipalities, meaning that the program should meet certain quality standards. In the public hearing, this latter requirement was both supported and opposed, but the main argument from supporters and eventually the government was that it would “reduce differences between municipalities and secure better services for participants” (Prop. 89 L (2019–2020), p. 41). Although the public consultation reveals that several municipal actors were critical of the Act’s proposals for increased detailed central steering, many municipal actors also supported these proposals, with the same justification as presented by the central government: that it could lead to a more equal service provision and increase participants’ rights. As Grong municipality writes in the public hearing: “the development towards more formalization and systematization may promote equal service provision and clearer steering and guidance for the municipalities in the development of the service provision for refugees” (Prop. 89 L (2019–2020), p. 38).
Similar arguments of equal service provision and legal safeguards were also prominent in the Swedish Establishment Act centralizing the responsibility for integration programs in 2010. Sweden took the first steps toward an integration program for refugees in 1994, whereby municipalities were given a fixed grant for each participating refugee. The legislation provided municipalities with great autonomy because the only requirement to receive this benefit was that the municipality – in cooperation with the participant – should prepare an individual integration plan. Municipalities could also choose the type of financial support they wanted to provide to program participants and if they wanted to include financial sanctions in case of non-participation. Consequently, program quality and benefit levels varied across Sweden, because municipalities were free to pay participants either an introduction benefit or social assistance (based on household income) (Andersson Joona et al., 2016). Most importantly, it was voluntary not only for refugees to participate, but also for the municipalities to offer such programs. National guidelines were few and vague, providing municipalities with great autonomy, but simultaneously resulting in wide variation across municipalities. Furthermore, studies revealed that few municipalities actually implemented these voluntary measures (Borevi, 2010).
The Swedish Establishment Act of 2010 centralized the overall responsibility for integration programs from the municipalities to a national agency, the Swedish Public Employment Service, including responsibility for work-related schemes and coordinating involved actors. The Swedish municipalities kept their responsibility to provide language training and civic studies. One of the main arguments for centralizing the responsibility was not only to facilitate and speed up integration into the labor market and society, but also to reduce the local variation of integration measures available, because the differences in how municipalities organized the programs were too great (Emilsson, 2015, Andersson Joona et al., 2016). In the political process, differences in how the municipalities chose to financially compensate participants and differences in whether participants were financially sanctioned for non-participation or not were highlighted because such differences challenged the principle of equal rights for the target group.
Territorial equalization is an important principle in welfare states (Hanssen & Helgesen, 2011, b), and the examples above show how Swedish and Norwegian actors justify increased centralization of integration programs to promote principles of equal service provision and legal safeguards for program participants. The principles of equal service provision and legal safeguards could be argued to be particularly relevant for refugees, because in many countries (including Norway), refugees do not decide where to live themselves, but are settled by public authorities, and are restricted from moving the initial years after settlement (Hernes, 2017). Additionally, participation in integration programs is obligatory in many countries, implying that refugees are obliged to participate in the program to receive financial assistance, and in some countries, participation in the integration program may be a (indirect) precondition for obtaining permanent residence (Gebhardt, 2016). Thus, the quality and content of the integration programs, and the integration results participants achieve after the program period, have direct and severe consequences for participants. If the quality of the programs is low, it is a severe interference and restriction for the individuals that are obliged to participate (Hagelund & Kavli, 2009).
Increased centralization in refugee settlement policies
The argument concerning equalization as an important principle in welfare states could also entail the goal of equal distribution of responsibilities between municipalities. Normally in discussions of central–local governance, this consideration concerns questions of redistributing resources between wealthy and less wealthy municipalities. However, this argument for equal distribution of responsibilities between municipalities has also been highly relevant for increased centralization of the Danish and Swedish settlement models. In these cases, the question is not about a distribution of resources, but rather about a redistribution of responsibilities for newly arrived refugees among the municipalities. In an in-depth analysis of several policy processes leading to increased centralization in Scandinavian settlement models, Hernes, (2017) shows that the Danish and Swedish steps toward centralized settlement models – whereby a central agency allocates refugees to the municipalities – were argued to be necessary to ensure that all municipalities took their share of the responsibility for newly arrived refugees, and to unburden municipalities that had taken disproportionately large shares in the years leading up to the new legislative changes. Municipalities that had taken a larger share than others actively supported the introduction of central steering to ensure a fairer distribution of responsibilities between municipalities.
In her analysis, Hernes (2017) also shows how Norway did not introduce a centralized settlement model, partly explained by how local autonomy has a particularly strong political standing in Norway. However, the analysis of the policy processes leading up to a decline of increased centralization illustrates how increased centralization may be promoted by different actors with the aim of protecting immigrants against negative consequences of too much emphasis on local autonomy. The Norwegian refugee settlement model has, despite several attempts of increased centralization over the years, kept the main principle of local autonomy, implying that the central government sends a petition each year to municipalities requesting that they settle a number of refugees that have been granted asylum and received a residence permit. Municipalities are free to accept the requested number of refugees, accept a lower number, or refuse to settle any at all (and they could even not answer the petition). Because accepting to settle refugee involves obligations for municipalities to provide refugees with housing and extensive integration programs the initial years, the main argument for this voluntary municipal model is that municipalities are the ones best suited to evaluate how many refugees they have the capacity to receive. However, before the refugee crisis in 2015, Norway experienced a substantial gap between how many refugees had obtained a residence permit and how many the municipalities accepted to settle, implying that many refugees that had their asylum applications approved sat waiting for months in asylum centers even after they obtained a residence permit (Askim & Hernes, 2017). In a public hearing of a proposition that suggested to introduce central allocation in 2011, all ten organizations working for refugees’ rights supported central allocation. Although many of them emphasized local autonomy as an important principle, they argued that local autonomy should not be kept as a principle if it delayed the refugees’ rights to start their new lives in a municipality. The organization the Norwegian Centre Against Racism (2011) argued in their response in the public hearing that:
(… it is a form of coercion irrespective of which [settlement] model one chooses, irrespective of whether it is the municipalities that are forced to settle more refugees, or if the refugees are forced to live even longer in asylum reception centers. We consider it far more preferable for the system to be forced to deal with the problem, rather than for the consequences of the system’s failure to affect individuals who already have a very difficult background.
This response shows how increased centralization could be argued as a measure to protect refugees’ rights against negative consequences that may follow from a strong focus on local autonomy.