Asylum centers can breed unrest

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The tens of thousands of asylum seekers arriving in Norway create not only huge challenges for officials scrambling to house them but also for those trying to maintain order, security and, eventually, help integrate new arrivals into Norwegian society. Most asylum seekers now face long delays in getting their asylum applications processed as well, raising concerns about boredom, frustration and unrest at asylum centers around the county that can be prevented.

Immigration officials have scrambled to set up emergency shelters for arriving refugees, but the asylum centers are already packed and can breed frustration and unrest. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Immigration officials have scrambled to set up emergency shelters for arriving refugees, like this one at Råde in Østfold County, but the asylum centers are already packed and can quickly breed frustration and unrest. New calls are going out to make asylum seekers’ waiting time there as productive as possible, and then to also make integration into Norwegian society easier. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

fatal stabbing at an asylum center in Sunndalsøra Thursday night highlighted the potential for unrest at refugee facilities now packed with often-traumatized people who have fled war zones and chaos in their homelands. While many asylum seekers have said they’re grateful for the help they’ve received in Norway, others have already expressed frustration with being housed in remote locations in the Norwegian mountains or in hastily set-up barracks-like accommodation.

Immigration officials struggling to meet the sudden demands posed by the arrival of nearly 30,000 refugees this year have said their first priority is to provide “a roof over their heads, and food.” The most recent predictions that as many as 100,000 more beds for refugees will be needed by the end of next year have prompted the boss of immigration agency UDI, Frode Forfang, to call for construction of more barracks-like emergency shelters, the equivalent of refugee camps within Norway.

Strained resources
Fears are rising that such facilities will breed boredom and discontent. Forfang confirmed a report on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Thursday that asylum seekers now face lengthy delays, possibly up to two years, in getting their applications processed. That’s because UDI (Utlendingsdirektoratet) is putting a priority on weeding out applications from those who don’t qualify for asylum, and sending them out of the country. Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Friday that early 7,000 migrants, mostly from Russia and Afghanistan, have been deported so far this year, with 930 of them leaving voluntarily. That process also demands time and resources, but Forfang said it was most “efficient” because it opens up accommodation space in Norway for those with a legitimate need for protection.

It also means, however, that those with legitimate claims for asylum must wait a long time to receive formal asylum approval and start new lives in Norway. The goal, not least among politicians, is to quickly turn successful asylum seekers into productive members of Norwegian society but again, the challenges are daunting. It’s never been easy for foreigners to break into the Norwegian labour force and now the government, faced with the huge costs  of the refugee influx, intends to cut back on language training and other integration measures until asylum is actually secured. Right now, asylum seekers can receive 250 hours of Norwegian language classes while their applications are being processed. That’s likely to be cut to 175 hours, with priority for language training (seen as the best means for integrating into Norwegian society and getting a job) given to those who already have been granted asylum.

Youthful initiative
While critics rage against the proposed cuts, one young man in Oslo has taken matters into his own hands, voluntarily offering informal Norwegian language training to newly arrived asylum seekers. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported this week that 21-year-old Fahad Abby, who grew up in Oslo’s Hovseter district and just completed his obligatory Norwegian military service, simply tapped his own fluency in Norwegian to help new arrivals at Tøyen in Oslo. One of his young students, a 14-year-old boy from Syria, managed to become conversational in just 20 days. Abby had, for example, guided him around the Norwegian capital and insisted that all communication had to be conducted in Norwegian.

Abby has since launched recruiting efforts for more voluntary Norwegian teachers via social media and received 163 responses in just a few days. “Lots of Norwegians claim that refugees don’t manage to integrate themselves, and I just wanted to test whether that was true,” Abby told Dagsavisen. It wasn’t, judging by the response and eagerness he experienced among refugees at Tøyen. “They (the asylum seekers) made incredible progress (in picking up the language) every day,” Abby said.

“We need to exploit the desire for learning they have while waiting for their applications to be processed,” Abby said. “We can’t let them sit in asylum centers for years, without learning anything about the Norwegian system, the culture, our values and traditions, and then expect them to contribute. They must be allowed to learn and be able to work as quickly as possible.”

Make integration easier
Calls are also going out for Norwegian bureaucrats to drop or at least ease tough regulations for getting foreign education and degrees approved in Norway, so that highly educated and skilled refugees can more easily get to work. One labour union, Norsk Tjenestemannslag (NTL), is also urging more companies to drop any insistence they may have that all new employees must have a command of Norwegian.

“In lots of companies (not least in the oil sector) with highly educated engineers, for example, the working language can be English or French, and that works fine,” John Leirvaag of NTL told Dagsavisen. “I can think of lots of other branches that could become more multi-lingual.” He also called the lengthy process for getting foreign education approved in Norway an “unnecessary clog” in a system that needs to get new immigrants off welfare and into the labour force. Given the problems often faced by Norwegians themselves in getting education abroad approved in Norway, that won’t be easy, but the refugee crisis may force a change in today’s rigid rules.  NTL claims it must become easier to find jobs in Norway, also for those who can’t speak fluent Norwegian when they start work.

Abby’s 14-year-old star student, meanwhile, has since been transferred from Tøyen to the new asylum center set up at Stokke in Vestfold. “He’s bored, no one is teaching him Norwegian or challenging him in any way,” Abby said. “I’m going to head down there soon, with a computer, some books and what he might need to get a good start. He wants to be a doctor, and deserves to thrive in Norway.” Berglund

  • John Palmer

    If I were an asylum seeker, I’d be thankful for whatever help I received. It’s not a perfect world.

  • frenk