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"I think we are standing in a watershed period for both migration and refugee research" Thomas Gammeltoft, Raoul Wallenberg Institute

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Photo: Mikael Ohlsson

Professor Thomas Gammeltoft, Research Director at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute is one of the speakers at the second seminar in the Pufendorf IAS initiative on interdisciplinary migration research, Politics of Migration: Institutions and Political Movements in Scandinavia. In this interview he explains the concept of refugee policy as negative nation branding, and reflects on challenges and opportunities linked to migration.

You will talk on 'Refugee policy as ‘negative nation branding’ – how would you describe this concept?

My talk is based on a current research project focusing on ”Nordic Branding”.

When it makes sense to examine refugee policy from a branding perspective, it’s both because refugee policy plays an active role in how others perceive the Nordic countries – The Guardian, for instance, published a notorious cartoon of the Danish prime minister in Nazi uniform surrounded by other Danish brands, such as Lego and Carlsberg.

But Nordic countries also actively pursue nation branding of their new and more restrictive asylum and immigration policies, e.g. by running Facebook campaigns or taking out newspaper advertisements in Middle Eastern newspapers warning prospective refugees about choosing their country.

My initial findings show that Nordic countries are in fact highly dependent on this form of negative nation branding, since other options are limited due to legal and political contraints under both EU and human rights law.

What are the most pressing issues for researchers to explore in terms of migration?

I think we are standing in a watershed period for both migration and refugee research, where both fields are opening up to and exploring new methodological approaches and insights and a new generation of research is taking foothold. Both fields have been marked by certain ‘path dependencies’ in terms of the disciplines composing the fields of study. For example, I am now seeing serious interest among e.g. economists in taking on refugee research; a discipline virtually absent from refugee studies thus far.

As an interdisciplinary scholar myself, I find this development very inspiring, and I am always on the look-out for how advances in other fields and discplines  - not just the social sciences – can help push the boundaries of research on these issues. My most recent project, for instance, involves close cooperation with a professor at the Department of Engineering at Lund University.
 
What are the main challenges for Sweden today in terms of migration and integration?

The relatively large arrival numbers of refugees the last few years means that Sweden must show that it is capable of ensuring a proper integration, especially into the labour market, of these people. If that task fails, there will be much less public support for the next big refugee crisis – and that crisis will come, most likely sooner than we want it to. For that reason, I myself have started working in that field as well recently.
 
What are the main opportunities for Sweden today in terms of migration and integration?

Sweden has a unique opportunity to show that it is possible to turn around the negative spiral currently marring European countries, constantly looking for ways to implement national restrictions in order ‘push’ asylum-seekers to neighbouring countries. It is fairly simple that this is a zero-sum game, benefiting no-one in the long run, least of all the refugees, and seriously undercutting integration efforts. I would like Sweden to take a stand in this regard and actively encourage a joint ‘Nordic approach’ to overcome this negative dynamic.

If you cast your thoughts to the future, what society will Sweden be from the perspective of migration and integration?

Several other countries around the world have shown that it is indeed possible to integrate large number of refugees and even make refugees a force for positive economic development both in high- and in low-income countries. I also see many different pilot projects with great potential. What is needed, however, is a genuine paradigm change in terms of how this issue is approached. But I firmly believe that it is coming, so I am cautiously optimistic that in 2030 we will look back and say: “how on Earth could we be so short-sighted!”
 

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