Labour Market Integration in Denmark: Civil Society Barriers and Enablers


Somdeep Sen and Michelle Pace

The role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in the formulation and implementation of public policy on the Danish labour market is highly institutionalized – especially in the area of the labour market integration of refugee and non-refugee migrants. Ostensibly, this ensures that civil society, often considered an essential mechanism of checks and balances, monitors and challenges the state (when needed) as an integral stakeholder in policymaking and implementation. Furthermore, CSOs provide a wide range of integration-related services to refugee and non-refugee migrants. For one thing, they operate as consultative bodies that provide consultation services to governmental and non-governmental entities. Danish CSOs are also service providers that operate as a “stop gap”, hired by public authorities to provide (public) goods and services. To this end, they provide language services and are responsible for the everyday welfare of asylum seekers at Danish asylum centres. CSOs engage in lobbying activities in relation to existent and soon-to-be implemented labour market integration policies that draw on their experience as service providers as well as their familiarity with the socioeconomic and cultural challenges faced by refugee and non-refugee migrants. CSOs deliver essential voluntary services as well and provide pro bono legal assistance on matters related to asylum applications and appeals, asylum interview preparation, family reunification and translation services in relation to legal procedures. Finally, CSOs provide networking services that assist refugee and non-refugee migrants build their social and professional network in Denmark, with the hope that this would eventually help them secure employment.

Yet, despite their potential as possible enablers of migrants’ labour integration in Denmark, our fieldwork data reveals that several interviewed CSOs occupy a problematic positionality as they consider themselves to be facilitators of the Danish state’s policy focus on labour market integration. This cohort of organizations included those that are contracted by the Danish state to implement integration services, social partners who played a consultative role during important policy negotiations and smaller local/community-based CSOs contracted by municipalities to provide labour market integration services – all of whom considered migrants to be a potential burden on the resources of the Danish welfare state. Within this cohort of CSOs are also labour unions, confederations of Danish employers and labour market integration focused social partners who viewed migrants instrumentally, as a “pool of talent” that could be utilized for the benefit of the Danish economy. That said, a smaller cohort of interviewed CSOs nonetheless challenged the Danish state’s overwhelming focus on labour market integration. These largely included organizations that provide voluntary services as well as professional and diasporic networking organizations that, compared to the above-mentioned CSOs, are, to a lesser degree (financially) tied to the Danish state. Expectedly then, our refugee and non-refugee migrant interviewees displayed a positive outlook on networking organizations as they “matched” migrants with potential employers in accordance with a particular individual’s professional aspirations in Denmark while also giving them the agency in structuring the manner in which they are integrated into the Danish labour market in particular and Danish society in general.

In view of this assessment of CSOs’ role as enabling factors/barriers to the labour market integration of migrants, we propose two policy recommendations:

First, we consider a significant portion of Danish civil society active in the labour market integration of refugee and non-refugee migrants as having a “discursive problem”. For one thing, the conception of labour market integration as synonymous with integration in general and the conception of migrants as simply a burden/ “pool of talent” presents a fairly stringent understanding of integration. For one thing, such a perspective entirely ignores the particular aspirations of migrants in terms of how they hope to settle into Danish society. Furthermore, integration is presented as a highly bureaucratized procedure that is simply imposed on migrants. Here we recognize that the historically institutionalized role of CSOs as key stakeholders of public policy formulation and implementation – one that lends itself to a highly bureaucratized (civil society) understanding of integration – cannot be altered. What can be changed, however, is the way in which CSOs (discursively) position themselves whereby they consider integration to involve both host society and migrant communities as stakeholders. On the one hand, CSOs should position themselves as operating in the interest of the host society. Yet, migrant communities should also be regarded as equal partners and stakeholders who have the ability to shape the nature and outcome of integration processes. Such a discursive shift, we believe, will position CSOs as entities that are able/willing to address a wide range of issues related to integration that include “employment, housing, education, health…social bridges, social bonds, social links, language and cultural knowledge, safety and stability as well as rights and citizenship”. This in turn would encourage migrants to seek the services of CSOs and their involvement in civil society – a key facet of their socialization into the democratic fabric of Danish society.

Second, and in terms of the nature of the services provided by CSOs, we recommend a far broader and multifaceted understanding of integration. A significant aspect of this understanding can indeed remain focused on the labour market integration of migrants. This focus can include the development of “hard skills”, specifically driven to ensure the swift securement of employment. Yet, the development of these skills should be paired with far more informal (non-labour market-focused) integration initiatives that permit migrants greater “space and fluidity to adapt to the host culture” (Pace, 2018, p.18). These initiatives could include a wide variety of educational, cultural and/or artistic programs. Yet, their informality and fluidity would allow migrants some agency on the path towards integrating into Danish society in ways that allow them to incorporate their own specific social and professional aspirations while in Denmark. To this end, we argue that professional and diaspora networking organizations are best suited to provide such a brand of (multifaceted) integration services. As such organizations allow migrants themselves to dictate their path towards integration, the informality of their organizational set-up would allow members to both pursue the development of “hard skills” that they consider necessary for their labour market integration as well as develop “soft skills” focused on better understanding the socio-political, cultural and economic context of their host society.

You can read more on the role of CSOs involved in labour market integration in Denmark via our recently released SIRIUS report:  

Civil Society Enablers and Barriers