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What is integration?
The Norwegian political debate about immigration and the increasing presence of diverse communities in every sphere of life always ends up with the issue of integration. In the integration debate, the Norwegian language is considered to be the key concept. It is often assumed that if immigrants learn the Norwegian language, they would rapidly be integrated into society.
The other assumption is that if immigrant women send their children to kindergarten, learn the language and join the labour market, they will be considered integrated. The concept of integration is sometimes used to maintain the dominance of Norwegian language, culture, way of life and it ultimately establishes conformity to the Norwegian norms and values. This way of thinking often assumes that minority communities’ own language, or their attachment to their cultures of origin, is the hindrance to integration of minorities into Norwegian society.
At the same time, there are many who suggest that immigrant cultures are enriching the Norwegian society and it is important for immigrant children to learn their own language. It is thus implied that the political and economical integration of immigrants into the Norwegian society is possible without them giving up their cultural heritage.
In most of these debates, the concept of integration is often defined by the dominant political atmosphere which varies between the promotion of liberal immigration and restrictive immigration. We observe that all major political parties have their own policies of integration which at times can be in contradiction to other parties, although, at times, there can be a consensus between some of the parties. For example, all political parties agree that learning the Norwegian language is the most important tool to integrate minority communities within Norwegian society. But how to organize the effective teaching programs which can embrace the needs of the different groups is a debatable issue.
When it comes to the welfare benefits which are common for the general Norwegian population, such as cash support for mothers who have children less than two years of age, it is viewed by most political parties as a hindrance to integration for minority women. They believe the welfare benefits cause women to stay at home to look after the children instead of going out, learning the language and joining the labor market. It is also considered to be a disadvantage for the children because if they do not go to kindergarten, they will not learn the language. Here again, different parties have different solutions. The present government has decided to abolish the cash support within three years, for mothers whose children are two years and older, starting from 2012. Their hope is that more women will join the labour market.
During the recent local elections, there was great focus on the voting percentage and participation of immigrant communities within the democratic political process. The result of the elections showed that a large number of immigrants did use their voting rights and brought into the communal bodies many politicians with minority backgrounds. According to some people, this was a sign of less integration because the minorities voted for minorities. Many people were concerned that a large number of politicians with ethnic minority backgrounds in the local bodies might change the local politics. We mean that the purpose of the democratic elections is to vote for the candidates who speak and promote your rights regardless of their ethnicity. If the minority communities feel that the candidates with ethnic minority backgrounds promote their rights better, it is natural for them to use their vote to bring politicians with minority background into power. Who can be better suited than the minority politicians, using their party platforms, to promote a more including and diverse political agenda?
The debates around integration are not comprehensive and there will always be political differences. There is no single answer to what integration is, but we hope that many would agree on a minimum, common denote; that economical integration is the key to an integrated life within a society, not only for most of the minorities, but also for the native population. It is therefore important that all forms of discrimination against minority communities, and particularly against women, within the labor market are taken seriously.