This research is financially supported by an MERSA research grant. It investigates linkages between the current programs and activities to foster the integration of refugee immigrants primarily from Syria into labour markets and the experiences in the two countries with refugees from Bosnia after 1992. The basic research questions refer to the relevance of institutional learning within the field of labour market integration and instruments and processes to stimulate these learning processes. Furthermore, insights on regional specificities of integration policies to intensify the labour market impact and differences between refugee immigration and other forms of immigration to Sweden and Germany are expected.


Since 2012, Sweden and Germany were continuously the two OECD countries with highest share of population inflows from Syria with particular high numbers in 2015. Most of the immigrants were refugees from the Syrian civil war with high risks of traumatisation. Similarly, the two countries became important destinations for refugees from Bosnia during the civil war in former Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1995 (see table 1). At that time, both countries represented completely different positions of integration policies (see among many others Barslund et al., 2017; Beyer, 2015). While Sweden offered the fastest track towards permanent residency, language and educational courses as well as subsidies for employers hiring refugee migrants, Germany’s policy was completely dedicated to avoid any long-term perspective for the migrants (no language courses, barriers to labour markets and apprenticeships and fast repatriation schemes after the termination of the civil war in former Yugoslavia). Yet, despite these differences the effects on integration and long-term labour market success were not as clear-cut. In Sweden, integration took relatively long with good integration of the follow-up generation but severe regional differences according to labour market performance and ethnic concentration. In Germany, regional engagement by civil society caused many Bosnians to return after repatriation emphasising the strong role of civil societies and regional specificities for the integration of refugees.

Table 1: Inflows from Bosnia and Hercegovina and Syria to Sweden and Germany

Number of registered refugees from Bosnia and Hercegovina 1992-95 Number of registered refugees from B & H as share of host country’ s population Number of immigrants from Syria 2012-2015 Number of immigrants from Syria as share of host country’s population
Sweden   58,700 0.7%   66,164 0.7%
Germany 320,000 0.4% 406,290 0.5%

Sources: Barslund et al. (2017); OECD (2017)

Despite many differences between Bosnian and Syrian refugee immigrants regarding qualification patterns, language difficulties, ethnic networks and migration routes, the research strives to look at the relevance of lessons learnt in public administration, regional policies, civil society initiatives and associations to cope with challenges of sudden and short-term inflows of high numbers of refugee immigrants and to build bridges towards regional labour markets.

Theoretical context and empirical method

The research questions are investigated by using the framework of evolutionary adaptive regional economic resilience as theoretical anchor. This theoretical context looks at regions as complex adaptive systems under continuous positive and negative stress by turbulent changes and being able to maintain their functionality by securing a high level of emergence. While many empirical studies in economic geography focused on structural determinants to explain differences between regions in terms of resilience, our research primarily looks at the role of agency and its impact on policies, institutional practises and emergence to improve the conditions for resilience. Previous research revealed the importance of considering the interplay of different scales and time for changes between different levels (micro level: firms and private households; meso level: inter-organisational linkages; macro level: multilevel governance setting along region, state and supra-national administrations) to understand the emergence of new structures within regions (for more detail Wink et al., 2017).

Due to the complexity of linkages between past experiences, institutional learning, adjustments of institutional practises and implementation in current integration activities, the research is based on a qualitative empirical research design based on qualitative content analysis of interviews and elaboration of secondary sources from desk research. Four urban regions in Sweden (Landskrona and Malmö) and Germany (Berlin; Offenbach) will be analysed. Within each of the region, 10-15 interviews are planned with representatives from municipalities, labour administration, civil society groups and initiatives, firms, media and science to gain insights on experiences with integration policies in the 1990ies and nowadays and instruments to stimulate and facilitate institutional learning. Additionally, one workshop with practitioners in each country shall help to discuss and disseminate results of the research.

Preliminary findings

As the empirical research just started, results are still primarily fuelled by desk research. Three main observations can be emphasised so far:

  • Integration policies are dominated by overall political and media discourses, which particularly reflect economic and demographical conditions in host countries and regions. While economic conditions were not favourable in Sweden and Germany in the 1990ies, current immigration to Germany is embedded into framing processes of economic prosperity and future scarcity of highly-qualified workforce.
  • As many post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms were diagnosed (if at all) years after the civil war experiences in the 1990ies, linkages between programs to facilitate labour market integration and refugee care still are no priority in both countries. Our interviews will look at potential regional differences to react to these challenges.
  • Swedish experiences with ubiquitous allocation of refugees regardless of economic and social conditions between 1985 and 1994 caused a reorientation in location decisions. Immigrants tended and still tend to move to urban regions. Accordingly, immigration patterns of Syrian refugees also follow ethnic networks. Within our interviews, we will look at potential linkages between different ethnic networks with refuge experiences.


The preliminary findings emphasise the importance of regional case studies to understand specificities within institutional learning processes and potentials to build up regional integration resources along path developments. Furthermore, we expect a better understanding of the interplay between public programs and instruments within a multilevel governance setting and activities within the civil society (in particular when investigating the impact of opposite objectives in Germany during the 1990s). Finally, our research shall contribute to closer linkages between different political objectives when dealing with refugees (labour market integration, psychological care, education, social integration, housing etc.) and to closer theoretical linkages between resilience research approaches in economic geography, sociology and psychology.

Prof. Dr. Ruediger Wink


Barslund, M.; Busse, M.; Lenaerts, K.; Ludolph, L.; Renman, V. (2017): Labour Market Integration of Refugees. A comparative study of Bosnians in five EU countries. Mercator Dialogue on Asylum and Migration. CEPS. Brussels.

Beyer, B.S. (2015): A Refugee Paradox? Processes of inclusion and exclusion of Bosnian refugees in Germany and Sweden. Syracuse University Honors Program Capstone Projects. Paper 840.

OECD – Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (2017): International Migration Database. Paris: OECD.

Wink, R.; Kirchner, L.; Koch, F.; Speda, D. (2017): Agency and forms of path development along transformation processes in German cities. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, forthcoming.


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