Why Greenland needs to plan for future climate-driven immigration now

A history of colonialism means the nation will need to carefully integrating newcomers in ways that preserve its cultural heritage.

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A pedestrian street in Greenland’s capital Nuuk, is seen in an October 2019 file photo. (Krestia DeGeorge)

As the climate changes, patterns of human migration will change with it. As discussed in the recent book “Migration in The Arctic: The Past, Present, and Future” edited by Satu Uusiautti and Nafisa Yeasmin, the Arctic has already seen and will see an influx of people moving in as space and economic opportunities open over the next several years. This is a result of increased economic opportunities due to climate change. Greenland’s melting ice sheet is exposing previously inaccessible natural resources, and it is likely to receive a significant portion of this migration. As a country with an 89 percent Indigenous population and a history of colonialism, Greenland must anticipate the challenges and opportunities migration will bring and proactively protect its cultural agency through implementation of a robust immigration policy.

Immigration brings potential for new ideas, innovation, and economic growth. Along with these benefits can come the real or perceived perception that the immigrants are taking jobs away from locals and are taking over the locals’ space. When new groups come into an area, there are inevitable shifts in the culture of the area. Often, this can be a benefit to everyone in the community. However, when Indigenous communities have experienced permanent influxes of outsiders, inclusion policies have often failed to respect traditional culture and avoid injustices against existing Indigenous. There are precious few examples of countries where there has been nationwide respect for Indigenous cultures.

Greenland must develop a comprehensive plan for how it will integrate people who will come looking for jobs — either by choice or necessity — as their old homes become uninhabitable. In other countries with large immigrant populations, there are sometimes problems integrating immigrants into communities linguistically and in spreading out the immigration to smaller towns as well as bigger cities.

Luckily, there are examples of programs that attempt to address similar issues from which Greenland can learn. In Canada, immigrants who move to rural communities with the intention of staying are fast tracked to permanent residence status. Germany, Sweden, and the U.S. all have language programs focused on integrating immigrants into their communities. Small towns in the U.S. with larger immigrant populations have seen more economic growth than neighboring towns without immigrant populations.

Integrating newly arrived immigrants from different cultures into an existing community takes intentionality and political buy-in from locals. Issues include migrants’ short-term job plans, significant language barriers, and economic inequalities. As climate change make the need for this type of economic-based migration more permanent, countries and communities need to implement longer-lasting programs which ease the transition for both migrants and local communities. This includes implementing programs, such as jobs programs, which are seen to benefit both the newly arrived and the local community.

To address these challenges, a multifaceted approach should be pursued to incorporate communities, foundations, and all levels of governments. Three planks will help to support this approach.

The first plank is to encourage people to move to Greenland with their families. When migrants view their move to Greenland as permanent, they will invest more in their new community. If someone moves to a new country leaving their family behind, it will be harder for them to view their move a permanent and much of the money that they make will be sent back to their origin country. Incentives such as tax breaks are a component of this effort, but the effort needs to support integration across Greenlandic and migrant children from an early age to increase cultural exchanges and solidify newly integrated communities.

To reduce local aversion to new arrivals — and given the high unemployment levels in Greenland — these efforts need to be paired with a jobs program for both Greenlanders and immigrants. This program would echo a policy which already exists requiring companies to hire a certain percentage of their workforces from Greenlanders and encourage knowledge sharing between the newly arrived migrants and Greenlanders. This ensures that Greenlanders benefit from increased access to jobs and job skills and are not simply replaced by a potentially more educated workforce.

The second plank is language classes for adults to aid in their community integration. Language courses provide a structure to help new language learners build a foundation while increasing cultural awareness.

The final plank is community-level programs which pair local volunteers with incoming immigrants, both families and individuals, to foster cultural exchanges and build relationships. This could look like programs in schools or community centers pairing Greenlandic families with immigrant families. Such an approach has seen some success at the local level in Iceland. By providing both Greenlanders and immigrants a touchstone for understanding and sharing their cultures with each other, this will give all parties a stronger sense of community.

Through the early implementation of a comprehensive immigration plan, Greenland can better manage the integration of immigrants into its country while taking strides to protect its Indigenous culture and to encourage a cohesive society.

This migration plan for Greenland builds on a collection of policy and academic research which examines how joint economic and social integration of immigrants provides for economically stronger cities and economic integration reduces resistance to immigrants. It promotes sustainable economic growth and cultural sensitivity by relying on local communities, and local and national governments to develop a plan that aids a smoother transition for — and inclusion of — immigrants.

Given the unique concerns of Greenlanders, economic integration will need to take a different approach to be more inclusive of raising employment levels and opportunities for Greenlanders as well as immigrants. Given Greenland’s history of cultural suppression, policies which promote cultural integration must be done in a way that is strengthens Greenlandic culture.

Planning for immigration will allow Greenland to shape how it wants its immigration story to unfold. By being intentional about engaging immigrants, Greenland will be able to protect its cultural heritage while celebrating the cultural heritage of new Greenlanders.

Elizabeth Vincent is a Master of Law and Diplomacy candidate at the Fletcher School at Tufts University where she studies international environmental policy and development economics.

This piece is one of a series of op-eds written by the student-scholars of the Arctic Innovators Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Arctic Initiative. You can read the full series on this site.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Arctic Initiative or ArcticToday, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.