UPDATED: Prime Minister Erna Solberg was warning the Norwegian Parliament on Tuesday that the influx of refugees arriving in Norway will be a drain on the state budget for many years to come, costing as much as NOK 50 billion (USD 6 billion) just over the next five years. She also rolled out several measures, to help cut costs and handle the refugee crisis, that were left out of last week’s state budget presentation.
“We have to get the costs down,” Solberg said in her address to Parliament. “Norway must have adequate and proper programs for those who seek asylum. At the same time, we should not have programs that are so good that more refugees than what’s natural choose Norway as their destination.”
Norway, like all other countries where refugees from the Middle East and Africa are crossing the borders in record numbers, is obligated to offer refuge to displaced persons needing protection. Around 25,000 refugees are now expected to have arrived in Norway this year alone, and another 30,000 next year.
Many view the arriving refugees as a resource, especially in areas of the country faced with depopulation over the years, but in an interview with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Tuesday, just before her scheduled address to Parliament on the refugee issue, Solberg offered a “refugee reality check” of sorts, and outlined the price Norway will also need to pay.
“The stream of refugees will put its mark on all state budgets over the next several years,” Solberg told DN. “We must recognize that (Norway’s) welfare system can contribute to us attracting another type of refugees from other countries, because our benefits are attractive. In Norway, participation in the labour market is high. If many people with low rates of participation in the labour market arrive over time, it will be a challenge, because then we’ll need to care for more who contribute less.”
Fewer benefits and more oil money needed
Her government already has proposed cutting benefits to immigrant families who are allowed to bring other elderly family members to Norway, for so-called familiegjenforening (literally, family reunion). The initial premise was that their family in Norway should support them and Solberg intends to reinforce that: “If we are going to allow family renions involving people who depend on being supported, then the condition must be that their families support them, not the state.”
More immediate costs involve those associated with the urgent need for care and shelter of the scores of refugees arriving every day, now also reportedly via smuggler routes through Russia that have led to hundreds of refugees entering Norway over its far northern border to Russia. Solberg told DN and the Parliament on Tuesday that her government will put forth a proposed addition to the state budget in a few weeks, and some sources say it may amount to several billion kroner. The money will need to come from Norway’s oil revenue reserves, and Solberg confirmed that Norwegian governments will need to spend more of its oil money to cover refugee costs, beyond the record amount already in this year’s budget in sheer krone terms. The total amount, though, which so far makes up 2.8 percent of the size of Norway’s oil fund, remains well within the 4 percent limit that has applied for years.
Lowering accommodation standards, quicker deportations
Solberg told DN that she also feels forced to lower the standards of the accommodation offered to refugees. “The challenge is that the stream of refugees coming here costs so much and demands so much,” she said. Even though she earlier has resisted lowering standards to the level of merely providing tents for refugees, she now sees little choice. “We need to find a system that will work, but which will be scaled down compared to what we have had,” she said. “It has to do with capacity, access to housing and our reception situation.” She also urged more Norwegians to become foster parents for refugee children arriving alone in Norway.
Solberg also said that to control costs, immigration officials will also be charged with more quickly determining those refugees who qualify for asylum and who don’t. Those in the latter category will more quickly be sent out of the country, Solberg told DN. Around half of those now arriving are from Syria, she said, and nearly all of them are granted asylum. Others coming from elsewhere will undergo stricter scrutiny, even though forced deportations always spark lots of public criticism of any government in power. “The most important thing is to be very clear that those who can’t demand protection are quickly returned,” Solberg told DN. “They cost time and money. We’ve been good at (quicker deportations) the past few years, and there’s also been a lot of noise around them.”
Solberg, who heads a minority coalition government with the immigration-skeptical Progress Party, said she does not believe there is an economic advantage for Norway to take in far more refugees than the numbers arriving today. “We will conduct a well-managed, systematic reception of those needing protection, based on our humanitarian obligations,” she said. “And if people come here to seek work and are qualified, it enriches our society. But it’s a bit naive to think that immigrants in general are a plus in the overall accounts, because if you arrive with poor skills, it will take a long time to find your place.”