Refugee support and inclusion policies

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Authors: Mette Louise Berg (University College London, UCL), Line Gruner (Aarhus University), Anders Neergaard (Linkoping University), Andrea Verdasco (UCL and Aarhus University), Silke Zschomler (UCL)

Project: Migrants and solidarities: Negotiating deservingness in welfare micropublics (SOLIDARITIES)

Event: At the time of writing, more than 3 million people have fled Ukraine, and 6.5 million have been internally displaced since Russia’s invasion, which began on 24 February. Many more are expected to flee in the coming weeks and months. This is a situation that is unprecedented in Europe since the end of WWII. The policy response as well as responses from ordinary citizens have, so far, been one of welcoming Ukrainians.

In this context, it is important to note that the vast majority (86%) of the world’s 82.4 million forcibly displaced people, including internally displaced people, are hosted in developing countries, most often neighbouring countries. Turkey hosts 3.7 million refugees, more than any other country.

This briefing outlines the policy context and addresses key questions about how best to support newly arrived refugees, taking an inclusion and rights-based approach. It addresses: 1) The temporal dimensions of refugee status; 2) Language acquisition and tuition; 3) Representations of refugees; 4) Welcoming and hosting refugees; and 5) Gender and family issues.

Knowledge base: This paper draws on insights and lessons from ongoing qualitative research, which examines questions of deservingness and solidarity with respect to migrants, refugees, and people seeking asylum in Denmark, Sweden, and the UK, in the context of the Nordforsk-funded Migrants and solidarities: Negotiating deservingness in welfare micropublics project.

Context and policy response: Since the war in Ukraine broke out, Ukrainians have been met with public and political support and sympathy in neighbouring countries. At the policy level, the EU has granted those fleeing the war Temporary Protection for at least one year, extendable up to three years. It is as yet unclear what will happen after the end of the temporary protection period. This is a remarkable policy U-turn, including from governments that are otherwise hostile to refugees. Commentators have noted the stark contrast between the hostility directed towards refugees from Africa and the Middle East and the welcome extended to Ukrainian refugees. As recently as in January 2022, Iraqis seeking to enter Poland, Latvia and Lithuania were met with soldiers and push-backs. Push-backs are a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights; both the the EU and UNHCR have expressed concern at the practice.

In Nordic countries, Denmark has recently shifted its policy focus from integration to repatriation. The requirements for protection in Denmark are so strict that most people fleeing from Ukraine would not meet asylum criteria. As a consequence, in order to accommodate Ukrainians, a special ‘Ukrainian law’ was passed in parliament to provide Ukrainians the right to residency and access to the labour market for a two-year period. This has led to public discussions about discrimination and whether some refugees are more deserving of protection and solidarity than others.

Sweden pursued a comparatively generous refugee policy towards Syrians, but later introduced restrictive legislation. In response to the Ukrainian crisis, the government has emphasised a shared responsibility among EU countries and in the West more generally. The decision that Ukrainians fleeing the war will be treated in accordance with the EU directive on Temporary Protection, allows for swift processing without individual vetting. However, a number of questions concerning the future for Ukrainians in Sweden have been raised. For instance, while children can access schooling, adults granted temporary protection will not have access to free language courses (Swedish for immigrants) nor full health services. Furthermore, in order to receive financial support for housing and daily living costs those given temporary protection must either live in housing provided by the board of migration or in municipal areas in Sweden that are not deemed as socio-economically vulnerable. Yet, it can be difficult to find housing in such areas, especially for recent arrivals with limited financial resources. The implementation of the Temporary Directive therefore does not provide the same rights as those otherwise extended to asylum seekers.

In the UK, the government has launched a limited scheme for family members of Ukrainians already living in the UK, and Ukrainians who have named host families or sponsor organisations in the UK. The scheme requires Ukrainians to obtain a UK visa before arrival in the country; it includes residence for up to three years. The scheme falls short of granting refugee status and goes against the 1951 Convention which enables people to seek protection without having to ask permission first. Critics have noted the UK government’s slow, complex and bureaucratic response, and the human cost of its rigid visa bureaucracy. The scheme has been introduced as a new Nationality and Borders Bill is going through its final stages in UK Parliament, which is set to have far-reaching negative consequences for people seeking asylum, and about which the UNHCR has raised serious concerns.

In the coming weeks and months, as priorities shift from emergency humanitarian aid to a focus on inclusion and integration, a major challenge will be to ensure that public goodwill does not run out and that the policy-based intentions to support and include Ukrainians and provide access to employment are translated into reality.

Refugee inclusion policies: evidence and recommendations

1. The temporal dimension

A central issue in refugee inclusion or integration is precariousness and the temporal horizon. Research shows that precarious and temporary statuses are associated with poor socio-economic outcomes linked to education, labour market participation, and health status, including for children of refugees. People are able to build new lives if they have security of status. For example, evidence from Switzerland suggests that an additional year of waiting time reduces the subsequent employment rate of refugees by 4 to 5 percentage points; research on Ukrainian labour migrants in the Czech Republic has shown that those with permanent residence permits were twice as likely to have skilled jobs compared to those with temporary residence permits, and were half as likely to end up on the bottom rungs of the labour market; and research in the rural north of Sweden on highly skilled refugees with temporary residence permits, found evidence of active de-skilling as a coping strategy with the purpose of signalling deservingness for permanent residence applications.

2. Language acquisition and tuition

Language plays a fundamental part in settlement and the processes of inclusion and integration. Evidence from France suggests that an additional 100 hours of language training significantly increases the likelihood of participating in the labour market. An accessible and comprehensive system of language education for migrants, refugees, and those seeking asylum in the Nordic Region is therefore of prime importance. This should be underpinned by a clear commitment to sustained funding and a statutory entitlement to appropriate language tuition, regardless of immigration status, including for those who are newly arrived or those who are waiting for a decision on their asylum claim. There is also an argument to be made for evenly extending the official bilingualism of countries or regions to language education provided for migrants, refugees and those seeking asylum, and to provide access to both majority and minority language tuition to counteract the exacerbation of inequalities and exclusion that can occur when the choice of language tuition is restricted. By way of illustration, research in Finland has shown how precariousness increased when people seeking asylum, who were settled in a Swedish-speaking rural area, only had access to language learning in Finnish and not Swedish.

Access to the common language(s) of the country and communities where people are settling, setting up a new life and seeking to integrate themselves is a prerequisite for full and equal participation in society. Furthermore, the opportunity to learn those languages is a human right. A rights-based approach shifts the focus away from emphasising the obligation to learn (which can easily turn into the scapegoating of those who are deemed ‘unwilling’ to do so) towards creating suitable pathways to learn for all. A right-based approach includes removing financial and other barriers to accessing these opportunities and centring decision-making around meeting the needs and aspirations of those in need of acquiring new languages and language-related skills, tackling the challenges they face, and the right of individuals to access the kind of provision that is best suited to their circumstances. This is not achieved through a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, rather it is vital that the diversity of refugee backgrounds is taken into account, including different levels of formal education. Language tuition should also be designed to take into account the different language needs of learners including, for example, negotiating everyday life, socialising, continuing education, accessing higher education, re-training or seeking re-qualification, finding work, and participating in civil society and political life.

Language education is a public good, which has the potential to contribute towards making the Nordic Region the most sustainable and integrated region in the world; the value of sharing common languages in the region is undeniable. However, the issue of language proficiency should neither be a precondition for citizenship, being able to claim the right to belong, or for social acceptance, nor should it draw attention away from other factors that cause divisions and animate exclusionary mechanisms, such as wider inequalities or discrimination.

3. Representations of refugees

Public and political debate about migration and refugees has become increasingly shrill and hostile across Europe in recent years. It is vitally important that the voices and experiences of refugees and people seeking asylum are heard in debates, and that their claims to dignity and humanity are included in policy-making. In UK-based research for the Migrants and Solidarities project, we have worked with people in the asylum system to foreground their voices and perspectives. They have told us of the pernicious impact of categories and labelling.

Our research suggests that we need to create more room for refugee voices in the public and political debate to challenge and nuance simplistic representations of refugees. It is important to make room for different people with different flight experiences in order to acknowledge the complexities of refugee backgrounds and encounters with national asylum systems.

4. Hosting and welcoming refugees

Welcoming refugees relate to age-old questions of hospitality. Listening to refugees as well as people living in ‘host’ communities can facilitate space for dialogue and empathy rather than confrontation. Categories like refugee/host or guest/host organise relations between new neighbours in asymmetric power relations. Instead, it can be fruitful to establish spaces and places where people who are part of local communities can meet each other in alternative ways as humans and fellow citizens around questions of how solidarity, friendship, responsibility, and community take form. In this relation, theatre, arts, filmmaking, games, performance and other kinds of creative methods and interventions can prompt reflection and dialogue, and open up imaginative possibilities for empathy, solidarity, and political action.

5. Gender and family reunification issues

Approximately 90 percent of Ukrainians who have fled the country are women and children according to UNHCR. The IOM, the UN’s migration agency, has pointed to initial reports of traffickers exploiting the large-scale human displacement, including instances of sexual violence. As signalled by both aid workers and academic experts, it is crucial to run background checks in order to avoid exploitation and sexual violence.

Given the demographic profile, providing access to schooling and affordable childcare needs to be prioritised for the wellbeing of children and to enable mothers and carers to access the labour market.

Refugees fleeing war, conflict or persecution will, in many cases, flee separately from their families, or they may become separated during the migration journey. For most refugees, reuniting with their families is a key concern and aspiration, both during their flight as well as during the asylum and settlement process. Family reunification is one potentially safe legal pathway for families to be reunited. Despite the recognition of the importance of the right to family life in human rights legislation, rights to family reunification in Europe have become increasingly conditional and regulated.

Family reunification across the EU has strict limitations on which family members can be reunited, mostly being limited to married spouses and children under the age of 18. Considering the events unfolding in Ukraine and in other conflict areas, the sponsor refugee should be able to bring other family members, including other children who are over 18 or their parents who may be dependent upon them to avoid separating families. Importantly, children who arrive unaccompanied are especially vulnerable and should have their reunification processes prioritised. The case of the UK is specially concerning since currently unaccompanied minors are denied the right to apply for family reunification, condemning them to live apart from their families for the rest of their lives, thereby contravening international law.

The overarching principle should be that all refugees have the right to a family life and family reunification, avoiding long bureaucratic procedures.


The current situation calls for a coordinated, holistic, and comprehensive policy approach to support the social inclusion of refugees in local communities. It is to be hoped that the policy response to Ukrainian refugees will lead to permanent positive changes in the UK’s and EU’s refugee reception policies and practices such that the support and empathy extended to Ukrainians is expanded to include all refugees fleeing war and conflict. The crisis in Ukraine presents an opportunity for the Nordic countries to re-affirm the principles of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.