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Cochran Bech, Borevi & Mouritsen, 2017 🔗

A ’civic turn’ in Scandinavian family migration policies? Comparing Denmark, Norway and Sweden

Year: 2017

Type of text: Article

Published by:  Comparative Migration Studies 5:7

Language: English

Author: Emily Cochran Bech, Karin Borevi, Per Mouritsen

Pages: 24

Available at:

Short description of text

The article discusses family reunification policies comparing Denmark, Sweden and Norway. It discusses the development of family reunification policies since 1990s but there is a focus on changes of law post 2015 or in connection to the so called refugee crisis. Family migration policies are discussed in connection to the ideological roots that are used to justify the form of family reunification regime: focusing on the so called ‘civic turn’.

The article first discusses the trajectories of family reunification in the three countries since 1990s. By doing this it identifies a broader ideological ‘civic turn’, which refers to the growing importance of ‘good citizenship’. The article further argues that family reunification should be studied as a key field of civic integration but that studying family reunification also allows us to better understand and analyse Scandinavian civic integration philosophies in general. However, the article emphasises that these philosophies remain diverse even between the three (quite similar) countries studied. 

Most important results

The article notes that on the one hand in Denmark and increasingly in Norway more strict and expansive requirements for family reunification have been justified on the need to protect the welfare state and a Nordic liberal way of life. On the other hand in Sweden more minimal requirements continue to be dominant, and have been argued for in the name of increasing immigrants’ labor market integration but also rights-based reasoning is prevalent. However, in all three countries, new restrictions have been introduced in the wake of the refugee crisis.

“The Scandinavian countries may stand out in the Western world, but each country implements particular policies, each with its own conception of the functionality of civic integration – with the biggest contrast between Sweden and Denmark. Besides demonstrating this geographic variation in policy and discourse, and highlighting the countries’ contrasting integration philosophies, the article’s analysis of these developments over time suggests the usefulness of distinguishing between a series of stages in the rise and possibly fall (or crowding out) of civic integration concerns in family reunification policies” (p. 18).

“Welfare state civic integration in the Scandinavian countries occurs within a field of significant ideological tension, particularly evident in family reunification policy, between a neo-liberal discourse about individual duty to be self-supporting and autonomous, and a more traditional social democratic ideal emphasizing the equal right and material opportunity to do so. Sweden, despite a track record of welfare state deregulation and slimming larger than Denmark’s, leans more towards the latter than its small ‘brother country’ when it comes to immigrants, as Norway adopts its traditional position in the middle. Another way to describe this contrast is to see the philosophy of integration of the three countries, in functional terms, as somewhat distinct, although the aims of integration are largely similar. In Denmark, with its 24-year-rule, contracts, declarations, and tough conditionalities, the civic integration of incoming family members is steered, engineered and indeed forced, while in Norway, with this country’s emphasis on economic self-sufficiency, it could rather be described as incentivized. In Sweden, by contrast, it remains state-facilitated” (p. 20).

They conclude that “there may be a specifically Nordic version of the good citizen. Civic integration in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway is about inculcating the importance, indeed the moral requirement, of work, productivity and economic contribution to the welfare state. It is also about developing an egalitarian, autonomy enhancing way of life, particularly in relation to gender relations and ideals of the good work life. This comprehensive (and intrusive, state-promoted) ‘liberalism’ may even be about childrearing and where and how you live. And it emerges, not least, in the area of family reunification policy and discourse” (p. 18).

These cases show how prioritizations of the right to family life vis-Ă -vis welfare-state sustainability have produced different rules for family entry, and how family migration policies are used to different extents to push civic integration of both new and already settled immigrants.

 Theoretical perspective/framework

‘Civic turn’ refers to increased importance of civic integration requirements in many immigrant-receiving societies regarding various policies not limited to family reunification. It refers to increased emphasis not in assimilation tactics of integration, but rather on tactics that try to mold the civic competencies, values and outlooks of newcomers. From this perspective immigrants are allowed express religious and cultural minority identities but must also become good citizens: they must be self-supporting, affirm liberal-democratic values, have good command of the host-society language and civic knowledge, and be loyal and inclined to participate in civic life. This rationale is used to both selection of immigrants (who is allowed to enter) and integration of immigrants.

Family reunification policies are seen to stand in a special relation to civic integration requirements as they engage not only in migrant selection but also in evaluating the “deservingness” of the sponsor, who already is a resident in the country. “Family reunification became a special arena of civic integration policies. It highlighted not only a more general linkage between immigrant integration and immigrant selection, but also a double conditionality imposed in this policy area – where both the civic deservingness of the sponsor and the civic integration potential of the incoming family members were evaluated. What was previously a basic human right to family life now had to be earned. And this logic is extending to a growing number of national settings” (p. 3).

In the context of family reunification in the countries studied the article discusses welfare state civic universalism: “Welfare state understood as regulation of family reunification has been increasingly fitted into a broader ideological concern with what might be called welfare state civic universalism. By this we mean a set of normative and functional notions about how the welfare state should and can integrate newcomers in a way that promotes social welfare, gender equality and ‘thick’ ideals of individual autonomy, yet about how that welfare state is also fiscally and ‘culturally’ vulnerable.” (p. 2).


Comparative analysis of legislative changes in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and the frames of argument used to justify them in public and political debate.

A comparative study that analyses cross-country variation in the argumentative structures – the justifications, arguments and ideological rationales – that surround these policy measures. “Civic integration marks a shift ‘from rights to duties’ – rights are used less to enable integration of individuals, and more to incentivize, positively or negatively, or force them to be ‘good citizens.’ The way in which this rationale is adopted is likely to differ, however, depending on country-specific ideas about what good citizenship actually is, and about how societal integration and national cohesion comes about” (p. 5,10,12,19,20,21). 

Summarized by: Hammam Skaik