Integration review for Denmark

Seven years ago, the Danish state changed the course of its integration policy – more focus is put on directing immigrants to the labour market. Peter Svane, Adviser to the International Recruitment and Integration Board explains why this current strategy was introduced and how it will be implemented.

The guiding principle of the Danish integration policy is ‘Work first’. What does this mean?

The roots of this approach lie in the values of Danish society – in our society, work is an important part of our lifestyle, and the government believe that the same attitude must be reflected in our integration policy, so that people integrate into society. It is important to emphasise that many services, such as education and medicine, are ‘free’ in Denmark. To ensure this, it is important to contribute collectively to the national treasury and this contribution is significantly high for all residents of the country. Therefore, it is assumed that all people using these services, including refugees who are able to work, contribute. In reality, this approach is favoured by the fact that there is a huge job demand in Denmark that local residents cannot fulfil. So, Denmark, society need helping hands, and this is not only limited to hard physical labour or menial labour that we do not want to do ourselves. We have a labour shortage in various fields, including in education. A good example is the Ukrainians who arrived here, among whom around 80 percent are able to work, and who are currently actively participating in the labour market.

A large number of refugees arrive from war zones, and they are not able to look for a job immediately, or work after a traumatic experience.

The Danish strategy envisions beginning to work as quickly as possible, but, of course, we assess all refugees individually. For example, if someone arrives from a war zone, the focus is still on their mental health. This does not mean that everyone must work full-time, either. If someone can only contribute five hours a day or in a week, then that is how much they will work.

Denmark is not a large country and, similarly to Estonia, Danes are rather few compared to other nationalities. In Estonia, and generally elsewhere, language and culture education are first and foremost in the integration policy. Are you not afraid that by constantly putting work first, you might pay too little attention to other important things?

Language learning continues to be of high importance to us. We believe that language learning and work should not inhibit but support one another. Often, the workplace offers an opportunity to practice the language. In addition to that, we offer very flexible language courses, enabling the employee to find a suitable language group to participate in once or twice a week, which actually allows them to work at the same time.

If I understand correctly, such an integration policy has been in talks before? When did you begin to implement the new policy?

Actually, this has been discussed for years. Before that, our integration policy was similar to that of Estonia: a person arrives, begins to learn the language, and gains theoretical knowledge of the society. Our experience was, though, that only 15 to 20 percent of those who came here went on to work here after completing the programme designed for integration. Closer to 80 percent of the population in Denmark working full-time, it was clear that we needed a new approach. The new strategy was adopted in 2015, during the refugee crisis, when a large number of Syrian refugees arrived here. There was an urgent need to take action and since there was a right-wing government at the time, the long-planned idea was quickly implemented.

Despite the difficult economic situation in Europe, it can be said that there is a labour shortage in Denmark. Then again, nobody can predict the future. Have you thought about what would happen if the tables turned?

Actually, for example, during the COVID-19 crisis, we did not observe that the unemployment rate of immigrants was higher than that of Danes. Then again, people of different linguistic and cultural backgrounds everywhere become more vulnerable during economic downturns. Interestingly, we have increasingly observed that it is not whether a person is an immigrant that plays a role, but rather how hard they work. I would wager that even in Estonia there might be examples of companies where a Ukrainian handles their tasks better or is easier to communicate with than some Estonians. Refugees are often more motivated, do not make as many demands, and are more stable at work than locals.

You have been operating according to this new strategy for some years now. Are you seeing any results?

As for the current strategy, it is still too early to talk about clear results. Still, there have been studies conducted that demonstrate the efficiency of our policy, especially due to the fact that we are able to integrate people into the labour market quickly. We do see, though, that the number of employed people will start to decrease after 8 or 9 years. This is interesting, because the projected situation is the exact opposite in, for example, our neighbouring countries Sweden and Norway. The causes of the decline are not yet known. It is, of course, possible that this is related to the fact that refugees focus on finding a job quickly, but neglect other important aspects, and are now dealing with them. As I said, there is currently no exact data on this.

You also recently met the employees of the Estonian Integration Foundation. What are your thoughts on this meeting?

Estonia currently follows the same policy we implemented in the past. However, it is interesting to notice a change in the position of Estonia on immigration due to the war in Ukraine. Of course, I understand that the reason behind this is that Ukraine is culturally closer to you, but it is interesting for me as a specialist to observe that, in the past, the position was to only receive a minimal number of refugees or none, but this rhetoric has since changed – Estonia is a great example to others in aiding Ukrainians.

What is the biggest goal of your strategy? Where do you want to go with your integration policy?

Like everyone else – our dream is an integrated society!

BACKGROUND INFORMATION (Source: Eurostat 2021)

According to the revised integration strategy, a tripartite agreement between the Danish government, employers, and trade unions was concluded in March 2016 to implement the new integration policy. The goal was to get the refugees arriving in the country to the labour market even faster. As part of this, a new training model (Integrationsgrunduddannelse, or IGU) was launched in 2016. Although it is still true that the opportunities for refugees and migrants to return to the labour market are smaller than those of others, the project can still be considered successful:

The main statistics show that:

42% of the refugees who arrived in Denmark in 2015 are now working after five years of living there.

68% of all adults participating in the integration programme have passed the Danish language exam after less than five years of living in the country.

64% of all 20–24-year-olds have completed the youth education requirements in 2019 (in comparison with 74% of Danes).

SIDEBAR FOR INFORMATION (Source: Eurostat 2021) -


According to Katrin Maiste, the Head of Labour Market Services of the Estonian Integration Foundation, a unified approach, and a clear message from all parties to all target groups emerged in the Danish integration policy. Those arriving from abroad are offered a job or another way to apply themselves at the first opportunity, so that they can manage independently in the Danish society as soon as possible. The same view was expressed by representatives of the state, local government, and employers, each of whom has the duty and right to contribute to society.

The Danes recognise that those who have arrived from abroad must learn Danish, but previous education, knowledge of other languages, and literacy of people must be taken into account when forming study groups, and goals must be set accordingly. When filling some positions, concessions have been made regarding required language skills, but it is likely that no foreigner thinks they will be able to live in Denmark for a longer period without speaking the local language. More and more efforts are being made to connect language learning with practical work, i.e., support persons and mentors are emerging in organisations, who help the newly arrived person cope with both the work tasks and the accompanying vocabulary.

We heard from several organisations that Denmark will be threatened by a labour shortage in the coming decades, firstly, due to the fact that Danish youth do not tend to take up regular jobs in the service and industrial sectors, or do not stay there very long. Secondly, the vocational education system does not support the training of the next generation in the necessary professions. Thirdly, problems were seen in the fact that it is difficult or downright impossible for a person who has arrived outside the EU, including refugees, to shape their career path, because acquiring a professional education usually requires a high level of Danish, which is not, however, expected when seeking a job. Also, going to school in Denmark may change the status of the stay in the country of a foreigner, so they may face deportation. Unfortunately, there are already examples of a good and necessary employee being caught in the cogs of the system if they want to advance in their field.

Therefore, when considering the labour market, all target groups, needs and opportunities for employee development, as well as obstacles must be taken into account at the same time. Employers also need support and training when they employ people who have arrived from war zones and have fewer language skills.


 Peter Svane
Peter Svane