What scared Europeans most about the 2015 refugee and migrant crisis? Opinion polls taken around the height of the crisis show deep levels of unease with what was happening, and many of the political shocks that have occurred in the aftermath (such as Brexit) have been blamed on the early handling of the crisis. Was it anxieties about security, safety, and public order? Was it fears about cultures changing? Was it worries about competition for jobs, hospital beds, and school places?
We want to dig into some of the concerns of ordinary Europeans when it comes to the refugee and migrant crisis, and get responses both from experts and policymakers, and from people working with the issue on the ground at the local and municipal level. We’re going to start by looking at the “bread and butter” issue of jobs.
That’s why, in order to take a closer look at the local impact of the refugee crisis, we launched our ‘Cities & Refugees‘ project – aimed at fostering a Europe-wide dialogue between citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, NGOs, politicians, and European leaders. The emphasis is on connecting local, everyday life at the city level to decisions made in Brussels and national capitals.
Today, we are looking at Lahti, Finland. In a 2016 poll, unemployment and refugees topped the list of issues that ordinary Finns were most concerned about. As a city, Lahti certainly knows about unemployment. Despite once playing host to a thriving industrial economy, Lahti was hit hard in the early 1990s when its most significant export market, the neighbouring Soviet Union, collapsed. Over 8,000 factory jobs were lost in just 5 years, devastating the region.
Unemployment has been falling in Lahti in recent years. In 2014, the jobless rate was almost 19%. Today it’s 16.5%. It’s still the highest in Finland, but it’s also a far cry from the period in 1994 when unemployment in the city reached almost 27%.
Friction between locals and refugees in Lahti made headlines at the height of the crisis in 2015, when a protester dressed as a member of the KKK was photographed near a bus full of asylum seekers. Yet, today, there are only about 1,000 refugees in the city, representing less than 1% of a population of roughly 119,000 people.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Julia arguing that, when it comes to the refugee and migrant crisis, “the EU needs to publicly accept the reality that there are not enough jobs for everybody”. Is she right? Do refugees really take away jobs? Or is the labour market more complicated than just a zero-sum game?
To get a response, we put Julia’s comment to Jyrki Myllyvirta, the Mayor of Lahti. As mayor of a city that has struggled with high levels of unemployment for years, what would he say to Julia?
The refugees in Lahti are a rather small group. We do have unemployed people in Lahti. We also have vacant jobs in Lahti. Unemployment is a problem, but refugees contribute to city life as a whole, and one cannot say they take jobs from other people. I would not say so.
To get another perspective, we also put the same comment to Sanna Saksela-Bergholm, a researcher at the Swedish School of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki. What would she say to Julia’s point?
Your concern is completely understandable. Several states in Europe are still looking for the way out of the economic crisis of 2008. Actually, at the same time, the labour market is changing because of an ageing population and technological changes. So, in the future, new kinds of knowledge service-driven jobs will replace manufacturing jobs.
In other words, people have to be prepared to make changes in their lives to adapt to these challenges. So, actually, the question here is if we are ready to make the change in our life to better face the future challenges of the labour market. Here, actually, migrants – including refugees – only play a small role. We should keep in mind that migrants can also improve the labour market by bringing new kinds of jobs and skills.
Next up, we had a comment from Jenni, who believes that refugees are “taking over” the health system in her country. Is she right? Do refugees take away hospital beds, school places, social housing, etc., from locals?
How would Mayor Jyrki Myllyvirta respond?
What would Dr. Sanna Saksela-Bergholm say to the same comment?
Actually, there have not been any signs of crises related to loss of hospital beds and housing because of refugees explicitly. But, we have to keep in mind that the proportion of refugees is only – more or less – one percentage of the total population of Europe. Those refugees who arrive are in their twenties and thirties. So they’re fairly young and they’re willing to take part in the labour market. They are quite seldom in need of any long-term hospitalisation.
But, however, it is of course important that municipalities of receiving countries pay attention to the general housing policy of cities to avoid segregation of ethnic minorities (also, including refugees). So I would say that successful integration requires bridge-building between the newly arrived refugees and the local population.
Do refugees take away jobs? Or are things more complicated than that? Are there really only a limited number of jobs for people to compete for? Or does the health of the overall economy (and the sort of skills available in the labour market) have a greater impact? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!