As MATILDE with 25 project partners in 10 European countries, we wanted to ask our stakeholders about the impact of the ‘new normal’ brought by COVID-19 on the lives of immigrants and what it means in terms of local development.
County Council, who is responsable from regional development, has also migration, integration and inclusion as a responsibility since 2020. County Council develop plans for the qualification of immigrants and recommend the number of refugees to be resettled in each municipality, where refugees are to be resettled in areas with education and work opportunities.
Signe-Lise Dahl, advisor on integration in Innlandet County Council answered our questions.
1- Could you please update us about the latest situation in Norway regarding the COVID-19 pandemic?
Norway has not been as badly hit compared to other countries. The cumulative numbers for Norway are 168.464 reported cases, 4940 admitted to hospital, 935 admitted to ICU and 823 deaths by 7 September 2021*. There are still some restrictions in public space, but society as such has been gradually opened up. However, we are currently experiencing an increased number of reported cases, especially among youth.
2- As County Council of İnnlandet, how has your work with migrants changed after the spread of COVID-19 and the following emergency measures?
Due to COVID-19, many services such as education centers, schools, social services are closed or offered only a limited number of services. The county council adopted various strategies like crises package for local businesses, facilitated information dissemination in various languages etc. Both at regional and national level, we had some difficulties on reaching out to inform the immigrant population, despite the efforts in providing written and visual information in various languages.
3- What are the common challenges faced by migrants and refugees living in İnnlandet (or more generally in Norway) in times of pandemic? How do they differ from the ones of the local population?
Businesses were badly affected, and many had to suspend their employees temporarily. Business that employ many immigrants, were particularly badly affected. Our labour market generally puts high demands when it comes to productivity and competencies, which means it is difficult to enter the labour market without formal qualifications. Researches show us that immigrants have a “looser” connection to the labour market and are more at risk for losing their jobs as businesses have to scale down, suspend employees etc. COVID-19 led to a sharp increase in unemployment, particularly among immigrants and youth.
On the other hand, many municipalities faced challenges in terms of following up on home studies for newly arrived immigrants in the introduction program**. Limited skills in Norwegian and limited knowledge of Norwegian society added to these challenges. Participants who were not used to digital platforms, had particular difficulties. Work training, which is a part of the introduction program, was also put to a hold.
4- What about the migrants who are living in urban areas? Do you recognize any positive or negative aspect of living in a rural and mountainous region?
The situation led to isolation, especially municipalities with disperse settlement. People were encouraged to stay at home, travel less; transportation services were reduced, social gatherings were restricted etc. These restrictions especially affected single headed households negatively. However, We also observed that the pandemic spread more easily in cities. This was particularly the case for immigrants, who live in more densely populated areas of the cities and in smaller spaces, many have more exposed jobs (like taxi drivers, cleaners.), and may have more social contact than many natives.
5- Looking to the future, what long-term impact do you think the situation triggered by COVID-19 will have on the migrant population of Innlandet?
Many immigrants have been suspended or lost their jobs during pandemic, especially in the sectors where immigrants work. For example, Innlandet has a big tourism sector which employs many immigrants, but now these immigrants are jobless.
It is documented that immigrants have lower levels of employment and income than the rest of the population. Many immigrant communities’ employment rates are significantly lower than the national averages. Research shows that employment is key for preventing people (including immigrants) from migrating to urban areas with more employment opportunities. Therefore, the situation may lead to a demographic decline in our regions, that are already strongly challenged by this. In fact, in our MATILDE region, immigrants have been the major factor preventing this during the past few years. This may change now.
** The Act on an introduction programme and Norwegian language training for newly arrived immigrants (the introduction Act) obliges the municipalities to offer an introduction programme. The aim of the Introduction Programme is to provide each participant with fundamental skills in the Norwegian language and some insight into Norwegian society, as well as to prepare him/her for employment or further education as well as participation in the Norwegian society. Refugees and their families who have been granted a residence permit in Norway both have the right and obligation to complete this programme.