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The government, civil society and the media are all working on programmes to better integrate refugees. But one refugee argues there are deeper prejudices at play that are keeping resourceful refugees out of the labour market.
When Julien Kalimira Mzee Murhula lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) his family expected him to become a politician. But after receiving a bachelor’s degree in development studies at the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rural in Bukavu city in the late 1990s, he was forced to flee the civil war that broke out in 1996. In 2003 he was resettled in Denmark by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, but had to put his career ambitions on hold when he discovered that his degree wasn’t recognised by the Danish labour market.
“I was so frustrated. I had struggled for my education and my parents sacrificed my siblings to educate me. But when I got here they said I am not educated.”
Despite going on to earn a master’s degree in public administration from Roskilde University in 2009, and learning Danish, he still felt locked out of the labour market. This year, aged 42 and now a Danish citizen, was the first time in 13 years that he held a job for six consecutive months, when he was employed as an integration consultant in Tårnby Council.
“The Danish labour market is very closed. There are only jobs for Danes. They would prefer to give a job to a stupid or under qualified Dane than a clever foreigner. Denmark is a strange society – they give you a free education, but then there are no jobs afterwards.”
Murhula, a freelance translator who speaks six languages, has a long list of clients ranging from the Danish Refugee Board and the Danish Refugee Service to the International Criminal Court. Despite these positions, his resourcefulness and education, his inability to find long-term employment demonstrates a central issue in the integration debate. In 2013, only 47.7% of non-Western immigrants were employed, compared to 73.8 % of ethnic Danes.
With record numbers of refugees arriving this year, the question is whether Denmark can avoid continuing to waste the potential of these new arrivals.
It’s an issue PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen appears to be taking seriously. In late September he announced a new integration initiative to help refugees into employment or apprenticeships with Danish companies. The initiative, “Sammen om integration” (Integrating together) is a partnership between councils, job centres, public institutions and businesses, and provides recruitment, training, subsidised salaries, language courses and mentorships.
So far 30 different businesses have signed up, including facility management company ISS (Integrated Service Solutions). The company, which currently employs roughly 8,000 in Denmark alone, has agreed to take on at least 100 refugees. The jobs on offer are both skilled and unskilled, ranging from cleaning services, maintenance, catering, to security and office support.
Business Development Manager, Lotte Andersen, says ISS involvement in the scheme should not come as a surprise, as the company has a long tradition of facilitating inclusion of unemployed residents into the labour market. According to Andersen, ISS has already worked with 32 different councils and helped over 1,600 people find employment, and she says extending their scope to refugees makes both economic and social sense.
“There is nothing extraordinarily new about this procedure,” she explains. “The only difference this time around, is the fact that we’re offering these positions to refugees.”
One of the councils working together with ISS is Brønderselv, where 75 refugees have been enrolled in apprenticeship programs with a view to get them into full time employment. The structure of the apprenticeships vary according to the needs and qualification of the refugee in question. Some work for three days and go to language school the rest of the week, others work during the day and attend classes at night for example. Including Danish language courses, provides a simultaneous development of both the refugees’ language skills as well as their familiarisation with the Danish workplace.
When asked why ISS wants to take part in the integration effort and take responsibility, Group Chief Operating Officer, Martin Gaarn Thomsen explains the advantages it provides for the company.
“It increases diversity, improves efficiency in the company, and it should ultimately result in a bigger profit for the shareholders,” he argues.
Despite these promising signs, there still remain challenges. The job programme is only available to those who have been granted refugee status. For those still in systematic limbo, with applications pending, volunteers and independent organisations try to fill the gap.
Deep in Copenhagen’s Nordvest district, amongst halal butchers and candy shops, is the Trampoline House, a community centre for refugees and asylum seekers. Managing director Morten Goll explains that the idea for the centre came after visiting asylum centres and speaking with residents about the problems they faced. He identified three main issues: poverty, isolation and the inability to take action.
This struck a chord with Morten Goll, an artist turned humanitarian entrepreneur, who wanted these asylum-seekers to have a physical space where they could feel useful and heard.
“My aspiration was never to rescue some ‘poor’ asylum-seekers,” says Goll.
He decided that a community centre for asylum seekers would tackle both the sense of isolation and disempowerment. In 2009 he received three million kroner from the British OAK Foundation and opened the first Trampoline House in Copenhagen’s Nørrebro district.
Trampoline House project manager Morten Goll speaking at a debate about the possibilities of finding work for refugees. Photo: Peter Stanners
Goll argues that the central problems facing the integration of refugees lies both in the asylum centres where they live while their applications are being processed, as well as the compulsory three-year integration programmes, which distributes successful applicants across the country. While the former centre-left government allowed refugees to live and work outside centres six months after filing an application, the current Liberal Party (Venstre) government has rolled back these changes in an attempt to make Denmark a less attractive country to refugees.
As a result, asylum seekers are disconnected from mainstream society, says Goll. His ambition with The Trampoline House is to offer refugees a community and a sense of belonging in a democratic space. It also, at any one time, provides over 60 internships to asylum seekers while their applications are being processed. In order to provide successful applicants with a smoother transition into the labour market, he now wants to help facilitate better relationships with councils and big businesses so that Trampoline House users can start internships already while their applications are being processed.
“We spent six years building this psycho-social environment that is based on democracy. The current integration process fosters anger, frustration and alienation. People feel herded like cattle. We need to stop this and replace it with a space where people are accepted, and give them the sense they are needed as individuals. This creates a healing of the trauma they have experienced in war zones and asylum centres, where some people end up living for years.”
The alienation from mainstream society many refugees experience means few are able to share their stories in the media. It’s a situation that Information newspaper recognised, leading them to establish a media school for refugees in 2015, which refugees with the tools for participating in the media debate in a two-month programme. They learn how newsrooms work, what sorts of questions to expect when being interviewed, their rights for reviewing their quotes, and so on. The only condition being that they read and speak Danish.
“We wanted to show that the reason they aren’t being included in the debate, isn’t because they are being ignored, but because journalists don’t know they exist,” explains Information’s head of events, Maja Hechmann Find. “Journalists are lazy, they’ll just use the same sources over and over again.”
Murhula attended the media school this year after noticing that voices like his were few and far between.
“When I came to Denmark I was frustrated because I realized that the Danish media is just for Danes. We pay taxes and media licenses that pay the salaries of journalists, but they don’t come to us and listen to us and share our stories – they only want Danish stories. I don’t think that’s right,” says Murhula.
“We want to show that we aren’t here for welfare, we came here because our countries were on fire. We didn’t move for fun. Politicians are ruining our image in the media. So when I discovered that Information was organizing the course I saw it as a good opportunity to participate and hope that I might get more access to the media to explain our situation.”
Go to Sweden
Despite the new initiatives, Murhula is not optimistic that new arrivals will have an easier time finding work than he did. Embedded within Danish society is an unwillingness to give a chance to people who don’t belong to the majority culture, he argues, pointing to Sweden where the situation is very different. A friend of his, who moved there two years after Murhula arrived in Denmark, is now the director of a local council and has 40 employees. They had the same education and skills, so why did his friend succeed when he didn’t? For a start, the Swedish labour market accepted his qualifications.
“Danish people are not ready to live with foreigners. Even when refugees receive residency they suffer. The reduction in welfare for refugees will make it more difficult to get by, and in the long term finding a job will be hard. There is no integration in Denmark,” he says.
As chairman of the Congolese diaspora in Denmark, he has witnessed many of his countrymen receive residency before moving on to the US, UK or Canada where it is easier to integrate into the labour market.
“I would recommend Syrians to leave Denmark. What are they going to do here? I would continue to Sweden, it’s a paradise for foreigners.” M
– The Murmur