“Migration is this century’s most important issue”

29.03.2017
Would it be of relevance for the Nordic countries to launch research cooperation relating to migration? Yes, thinks Tuomas Martikainen of the Migration Institute of Finland. He has led the work with NordForsk's most recent policy paper, an overview of existing knowledge in the area of migration and integration.

“Basically, migration brings about a change in the population base,” says Director Tuomas Martikainen, in response to the question of what type of challenge migration represents for the Nordic welfare states.

“This relates to differences in educational, cultural and employment-related backgrounds, and it is something that the receiving society has to address. That being said, however, it is difficult to isolate a single overall question relating to migration. The challenges change as the migrant population changes.”

Dr. Martikainen, Director of Migration Institute of Finland, has been leading the work with the report on migration and integration research in the Nordic countries that NordForsk has prepared on behalf of the Nordic Council of Ministers. The report comes in the wake of the decision taken by the Nordic Ministers for Cooperation in April 2016 to launch a new Nordic cooperation programme on the integration of refugees and immigrants.

Forside migrationsrapport

The report presents the current status of Nordic migration research based on a comprehensive review of existing literature and focus group interviews with key researchers in all the Nordic countries. But how can research help the Nordic countries to deal with the current influx of refugees and asylum seekers into the region?

“Research is generally best at telling us what not to do. Research is a systematic means of figuring out what is taking place, because that is actually not always entirely clear. This enables us to spot those things which will lead to undesirable outcomes for a large number of groups.”

An exceptional, natural experiment

From a research perspective, comparative studies of the Nordic countries are especially interesting. The latest wave of refugees and asylum seekers arriving in the Nordic countries comprises what Tuomas Martikainen calls an “exceptional, natural experiment”. “We have a group of people with somewhat similar backgrounds who ended up in different countries with different asylum and integration policies. If we can get sufficiently good data from these, then we could actually see how different policies work in different contexts,” he explains.

The comparative Nordic studies can be particularly interesting if migration research can draw on the Nordic registries to a greater extent. Research projects investigating the possibilities of linking registry data to migration research are already underway, such as the NordForsk project Coming of Age in Exile (CAGE). However, this is an area with the potential for a wide range of innovative research activity.

“Registry sources are underutilised in migration research,” Dr. Martikainen says. “There is quite a large number of Nordic citizens living in other Nordic countries. If we could combine data about the same individual in different countries, we would have an exceptional opportunity to address all kinds of research questions. A lot of these data will be essentially “nationalistic” to start with. But if you could actually track down the same individual across borders, it would provide unique possibilities in a global perspective.”

Nordic differences and similarities

As part of the preparation for the report, NordForsk has appointed a working committee comprised of experts from the various Nordic countries to serve as a reference group. The committee has already held its first discussions on what Nordic cooperation on migration should involve.

“During our first meeting the relative similarity of the Nordic welfare states emerged again and again. Our general approaches are much the same. Then again, there are some historical and contemporary differences between our migration policies, which, from a researcher’s perspective, make it very interesting to carry out comparative studies,” Tuomas Martikainen says. “Another challenge within the field is that we need good interdisciplinary cooperation in order to study different problems. When we look at the different Nordic countries, we can see that there are differences regarding how people with different academic backgrounds work together.”

Differences such as these are among the issues to be identified in the overview of existing knowledge. There are many ways in which the Nordic countries can learn from one another.

Migration of decisive importance

“It is always the case that when researchers meet, they think that what we need is more research, especially within their own field,” states Martikainen with a smile. “Nevertheless, migration is not a marginal topic. Human mobility in one form or another may be of decisive importance in the coming century. According to the UN, the world population will continue to grow until the end of this century, and if you combine that with climate change and political upheaval, it is quite clear that we will only see an increase in mobility.”

“Think about Syria.” he continues. “Before the Arab Spring it was considered to be one of the more stable, well-functioning, middle income countries with a well-educated population and a relatively good infrastructure. Now, five to six years later, large parts of the country are in chaos, leading to the relocation of several million people.”

“The lesson to be learned from the refugee flow of last winter is that under certain circumstances migration can take place very rapidly. What we can do is to be ready for these changes, because that may help us deal better with the increasingly complex question of human mobility,” Martikainen concludes.

Download the report "Nordic migration and integration research: Overview and future prospects"

Read the entire NordForsk magazine 2016

An earlier version of this article appeared in the NordForsk magazine 2016

Text: Anne Munk Christiansen

Photo: Terje Heiestad/NordForsk

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