Storm of support for refugee children

NEWS ANALYSIS: They’re called “asylbarn” in Norwegian, children of refugees whose applications for asylum in Norway have been rejected by immigration authorities. Debate over their fate has flared for years and now the Labour Party is under more pressure than ever to let both them and their families remain in Norway on humanitarian grounds.

The fate of many would-be immigrants and refugees in Norway is decided here, in the offices of immigration agency UDI (Utlendingsdirektoratet) in Oslo. The agency handling appeals of UDI decisions is called "Utlendingsnemnda" (UNE). PHOTO: Views and News

Around 450 children in Norway have lived more than three years in asylum centers while their parents’ asylum applications were evaluated. Some were born in Norway, or have lived in the country most of their lives. They’ve gone to Norwegian day care centers and started school in Norway, and most are considered well-integrated and fluent in Norwegian.

Questions have arisen over why the asylum evaluation process takes so long that some children end up spending most of their lives in an asylum center. Terje Sjeggestad, director of state agency UNE that handles complaints over asylum decisions, told newspaper Aftenposten that it’s almost always because rejected refugees launch lengthy appeal processes or simply don’t leave Norway when their appeals run out, opting to stay in the country illegally. In many cases, it’s difficult for Norwegian police to forcibly send them home.

Debate over the fate of children caught in such situations reached a boiling point this week because as of Thursday (March 15, 2012), a new agreement between Norway and Ethiopia takes effect that allows for the deportation of rejected refugees from Ethiopia. It can mean that Ethiopian children who have never been in their parents’ homeland either can see their parents sent out of the country or be deported as well themselves.

Audun Lysbakken, shown here posing with Somalian children when he still headed the government ministry in charge of family and equality issues, has now taken up the fate of refugee children as a major campaign issue after be became head of the government party SV. His views aren't entirely in line with the government's boss, Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. PHOTO; Barne-, likestillings og inkluderings departement

Norwegian newspapers and broadcast outlets have been full of appeals on behalf of the children, mostly directed at Norway’s Labour-led government. Church leaders, local artists, trade union officials, authors, entertainers, human rights activists and opposition politicians are among those demanding that the children and their parents be allowed to stay in Norway. Even Norway’s most conservative party, the Progress Party, which generally takes a hard line on immigration and wants to limit it, has joined all the non-socialist parties in Parliament in calling for the government to re-evaluate the asylum cases involving the 450 children.

Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Justice Minister Grete Faremo, also of Labour, are accused of being everything from “ice cold” to “heartless” and insensitive. Stoltenberg is also facing strong opposition to his attempts to enforce current asylum regulations from within his own coalition, with government partner SV (Sosialistisk Venstrepartiet, the Socialist Left) adopting amnesty for asylbarn as the new campaign issue it needs to attract more voter support.

Newspaper Dagsavisen reported Thursday that Labour also faces growing grassroots opposition within its own party. “These children haven’t chosen the situation they’re in,” Labour MP Stine Renate Håheim told NRK. “So I think we must take responsibility to take care of their needs.”

One little boy who parents are from Ethiopia, six-year-old Nathan Eshete, won a reprieve on Wednesday when authorities backed down and postponed their deportation. Nathan was born while his parents awaited an asylum decision and he has never been outside Norway borders. Nathan told NRK that his classmates in Arna, outside Bergen, “were so glad that they carried me around” the school where teachers, students and their parents have actively supported Nathan, and fought efforts to send him out of Norway.

Justice Minister Grete Faremo is being called everything from "ice cold" to "heartless" for her efforts to uphold "predictable and consistent" asylum policies. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/Views and News

Faremo, the justice minister, has maintained that being born and reared in Norway is irrelevant as long as a child’s parents have been rejected for permanent residence. “Efficient and consistent asylum policies also demand consistent deportation policies,” Faremo told TV2 earlier this week. “If refugees have children while waiting in an asylum center, that shouldn’t matter, if the grounds for their asylum application result in rejection. Then we expect them to go home.” The authorities want to prevent asylum seekers from using their children as a means of obtaining asylum.

The debate thus revolves around what’s best for the children, in keeping with a United Nations’ convention that Norway has adopted. Faremo says that predictable, consistent asylum criteria are what’s best for the children. Many others think it’s best that children be allowed to grow up in Norway, instead of in the troubled countries their parents fled.

As newspaper Aftenposten editorialized on Thursday, there’s generally support for the “predictable and consistent” asylum policies Faremo champions, until the discussion centers on actual people whom are affected, especially when children are involved. Then all the theoretical defense for tough asylum policies is cast aside, and many want exceptions to the rules. Ironically enough, the heated debate over asylbarn comes in the same week when many Norwegians were otherwise expressing alarm over new figures showing that nearly half of Oslo’s population will consist of immigrants or their first-generation children by 2040. Not everyone welcomes the trend in Norway’s demographics.

In this case concerning the fate of asylbarn, the majority seems to want Faremo and Stoltenberg to ignore implementation of Norway’s new “return” agreement with Ethiopia and postpone any deportation of persons where children are involved. Nathan has already prevailed. Other exceptions may be made before the government presents a new proposal to the Parliament, due in June, for how to handle underaged and undocumented refugees. Labour MP Martin Kolberg, a former party secretary, has already said that “it’s possible we will see some adjustments, in the children’s favour.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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  • bjorn14

    So let me get this straight…if I come to Norway with small children I can gety asylum quicker? Great! Broadcast that to the world and our schools will be more burdened than they are now.

    BTW, it’s the same people who call UDI ‘heartless’ and ‘cold-blooded’ that don’t want any of these asylbarn families living anywhere near them. The neighborhood of Grorud being just one example.