Since the early 2010's, the municipality of Punkalaidun has assumed a more strategic approach towards integration, emphasising the role of foreign refugees and immigrants for the development and well-being of this rural town and its economy. Through targeted efforts and strategies, the number of immigrants residing and working in Punklalaidun has increased from 24 immigrants to over 100. Simultaneously, the vitality of the local society and economy has improved, according to the villagers. Through their integration efforts, the municipal actors have expressed both their solidarity with refugees and counteracted the trend of ageing and out-migrating local population.
Tackling negative trends in rural development through integration
The municipal work around immigration and integration in Punkalaidun runs on two parallel tracks. On one front, the municipality is actively counteracting its demographic challenges and the 'dying countryside' phenomenon by welcoming quote refugees from international refugee camps. In Finland, the allocation of refugees across the country is based on the willingness of each individual municipality to welcome and integrate refugees – the state cannot impose any numbers on the municipalities.
On the other front, the municipality has facilitated an asylum centre since 1992 by renting out a municipally owned building complex to the Red Cross. The refugee centre has accommodated thousands of asylum seekers over the years in different periods. In 2008, the centre was re-opened as a facility for unaccompanied minor asylum seekers, and following the increased refugee flows, the centre now hosts around 200 asylum seekers, both adults and minors. The centre in itself provides employment opportunities in the rural setting and the locals are keen to demonstrate the positive impact that the centre brings to the local economy.
Providing assistance to refugees and investing in the integration of immigrants is today an important part of the municipal strategies in Punkalaidun – and has remained so insignificant of the political situation in the municipal council and leadership. Punkalaidun has seen both a former mayor with professional background in UN tasks and humanitarian aid work as well the immigration-criticla True Finns as the major party in the municipality. This consensus among the resident and decision-makers regarding the positive impacts of immigration is undoubtedly an important precondition for the positive integration outcomes locally.
Good integration is a joint effort and a shared responsibility
Helping the refugees and immigrants to start a new life in Punkalaidun has been a joint effort by the local community, involving the public sector, companies and NGOs. Besides solidarity, there are additional good reasons for these efforts also from the local development perspective: local agricultural businesses and SMEs require seasonal labour, and the local population in Punkalaidun is at the same time decreasing as well as ageing. In January 2017, the unemployment rate in Punkalaidun was 10,3% which is the second lowest rate in the surrounding region of Pirkanmaa, where the average rate is 14,6%. The Finnish national average is around 13%. It is also worth to note that unlike many packed urban cities, Punkalaidun is able to offer suitable housing and a smooth access to public services for the asylum seekers and immigrants.
Since 2011, Punkalaidun has implemented two projects to support integration and employment among immigrants in the village. The projects are so-called LEADER projects, LEADER being a local development method under EU's Rural Development Programme. The integration projects have been assisted and supported by the Local Action Group (LAG), which is the main channel for the implementation of the LEADER approach locally. Under the European Network for Rural Development, the LAG for Punkalaidun and surrounding region has encouraged experiments in rural development and brought in knowledge and networks from elsewhere in rural Europe.
The LEADER projects in Punkalaidun have been running as non-profit development projects. Besides the funding from EU's rural and regional development funds as well as national funds, private funding was needed to cover the financing of the plan by 15-20%, which indicates the commitment by the local actors to the integration of immigrants in Punkalaidun.
Integration coordinator makes the change possible
The first integration project in Punkalaidun kicked off by hiring an immigration coordinator in 2011 to tackle the many practical challenges related to integration, stretching from paper work to helping the newcomers getting acquainted with Finnish society and customs. Importantly, the projects have promoted employment opportunities for immigrants on farms, in small businesses and in the third sector. Therefore, another crucial task of the coordinator is to build bridges between the newcomers and Punkalaidun residents and employers and to match the immigrants and their skills with relevant jobs.
The work of the integration coordinator is very hands-on, meaning that the coordinator liaises and mediates between the immigrants and local citizens, public services (like childcare, schools and health care) and employers, such as local farmers. A good understanding of the local labour market and its seasonal labour needs as well as personal contacts with the local businesses and individuals has been an important asset for the local integration coordinator.
Already in the selection of quota refugees from refugee camps abroad, the Punkalaidun coordinator puts an emphasis on the matching of the migrants' competence and background with the local labour market and the rural setting of Punkalaidun. The Punkalaidun approach underlines that this early matching contributes to effective integration of immigrants, which further creates better future possibilities for the immigrants to stay permanently in the community and for the local society to benefit from their skills. Competences related to manufacturing, health care, agriculture and machinery are welcomed in Punkalaidun, which hosts one of the largest coffin factories in Finland, as well as many farms and some tourism and services.
In order to speed up the integration process and to prepare immigrants and asylum seekers for life and work in Finland, the country is putting emphasis on Finnish language training and mapping the newcomers' competences during the very early stage of asylum seeking and integration processes. In accordance with these guidelines, the municipality of Punkalaidun has organised education for pre-school- and school-aged children, while the Western Finland Sastamala College and the Education Centre in Satakunta nearby Punkalaidun provide educational services for adult asylum seekers and immigrants.
The social aspect of integration has been an important part of Punkalaidun's approach. New comers have been able to experience some Finnish traits from skiing to barn dances while the local Finns have learned about foreign cultures and for instance their cuisines. Voluntary work has played an important part in this regard, and volunteers have organised different joint events, football coaching as well as provided homework support for immigrant children.
At the same time, the sustainability of the current integration approach in Punkalaidun remains as a pressing issue, as the outcomes of the integration efforts seem to heavily depend on the personality and individual efforts of the integration coordinator as well as short-term project budgets.
However, the results so far are promising and indicate an ongoing municipal investment in integration: since 2011, the coordinator has been able to find a job or school place for 80 refugees selected from foreign refugee camps.
The 'Punkalaidun model' raises international interest
The refugees have had a positive impact on the local economy of Punkalaidun. The Finnish state pays for most of their service needs and living subsistence, and even though the daily allowance is not high, refugees have brought a new financial input into Punkalaidun's economy, increasing the sales of local shops, cafes and restaurants.
Prior to the municipal integration projects, many refugees placed in Punkalaidun and its asylum centre moved away from the rural area towards larger cities after gaining the asylum. Today, many more stay in the municipality which has employment opportunities and services to provide.
The 'Punkalaidun approach' has also received awards for integration, most recently the ETNO award from the Finnish Ministry of Justice for the advancement of good ethnic relations in Finland.
Today, Punkalaidun's integration projects are widely recognised across Finland, as other regions and municipalities are in search of good integration practices amidst the record-high refugee volumes to Finland. The example of Punkalaidun has also been sought after at the European level, where the need for examples and transferrable models has increased. At the same time the relation between rural development and integration of immigrants has become more and more salient regional development issue both nationally and internationally. Exchanging good practices more actively through interregional and transnational