Language lacking in integration plans

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Immigration Minister Sylvi Listhaug could enjoy some support even among opposition politicians on Thursday after rolling out her 69 proposals for better integration of asylum seekers in Norway. Her plans for language training, however, were widely branded as inadequate even though she has stressed the need for newcomers to learn to speak and understand Norwegian quickly.

Immigration Minister Sylvi Listhaug won support for many of her 69 proposals for better integration of refugees in Norway, but critics aren't happy with her programs for language training. They were branded as surprisingly weak, and may need to be beefed up. PHOTO: Justisdepartementet

Immigration Minister Sylvi Listhaug won support for many of her 69 proposals for better integration of refugees in Norway, but critics aren’t happy with her programs for language training. They were branded as surprisingly weak, and may need to be beefed up. PHOTO: Justisdepartementet

With the numbers of new arrivals down dramatically from the record levels of last year, the emphasis has shifted from restricting immigration to improving integration of those already in the country. Listhaug and her government colleagues are now ready to hand over nearly NOK 320 million in additional funding for local communities to boost their settlement and integration of refugees.

The state, meanwhile, will spend NOK 5.4 million developing new “integration centers” where residents will attend classes about Norwegian life and society, ethics and norms and the language. They’ll have to work hard to qualify for and remain in the program, otherwise they’ll lose their place.

“It’s important to remember that integration is no ‘quick fix,'” Listhaug said in her opening remarks when presenting her proposals this week. “It’s hard work. We must make demands, not to be tough,” she added, but to motivate people to succeed and be able to join the work force.

The goal is to turn asylum seekers supported by the state into self-sufficient taxpayers. Local governments are getting NOK 2.5 billion from the state to take in asylum seekers and prepare them for lives in Norway. Refugee parents with small children aged two to three will receive free day care, for example, so that they can study Norwegian and look for work.

Alleged reduction in actual language classes
Among Listhaug’s many proposals, backed by state funding, are 50 hours of classes in Norwegian culture and society for asylum seekers living in asylum centers. The idea is to ground them in Norwegian customs, traditions, laws and regulations, with the hope of avoiding future culture clashes. It’s illegal in Norway, for example, for parents to hit or otherwise physically punish their children, and women play important and powerful roles in society with equal rights as men. Listhaug believes such aspects of life in Norway must be stressed to people coming from different cultures. She wants newcomers to realize that they’ll be expected to follow local customs.

Critics support the idea but fear it’s coming at the expense of important language training. “I miss some major and comprehensive programs to secure language training, along with early introduction to the language at the asylum centers,” Helga Pedersen, immigration spokesperson for the Labour Party, told newspaper Aftenposten.

Critics like Pedersen stressed that language classes for refugees were cut from 250 hours to 175 last fall, when thousands of new asylum seekers were arriving every week. Now Listhaug proposes using the first 50 hours of the remaining 175 for the obligatory classes on Norwegian life and society, taught in a language the refugees understand. Opposition parties contend that means acutal language training has been cut in half.

All talk, no action?
“Sylvi Listhaug is good at speaking, but poor at acting,” Audun Lysbakken, leader of the Socialist Party (SV), told Aftenposten. He claimed her conservative Progress Party is tough in its often anti-immigrant rhetoric, but lacks the ability to follow through on solutions. “I think this integration report shows that,” Lysbakken said, pointing to a lack of extensive language programs in all asylum centers, along with measures for helping refugees find jobs.

Pedersen of Labour also criticized a lack of actual job training programs. Listhaug responded that there will be streamlined efforts to verify individual refugees’ education and job experience and get them into similar work in Norway. There’s great demand for nurses in Norway, for example, so refugees who have worked as nurses should be allowed to resume their careers as quickly as possible. Given Norway’s history of lengthy and demanding academic and professional verification processes, critics have their doubts. Again, language competence will be the biggest hurdle and Listhaug was criticized for not have more concrete language training programs on offer.

She won lots of attention along with support for a proposal to put refugees to work making sandwiches for school children, thus relieving overworked parents of the task and giving the refugees a chance to practice their Norwegian language skills in schools. Åsne Havnelid of the Norwegian Red Cross, however, joined the critics in criticizing a lack of earmarked funding for more language classes.

“Language is the key to succeeding at integration,” Havnelid told newspaper Dagsavisen. “Refugees must be able to start language classes from day one.” She proposes expanding language classes back up to 250 hours, improving the quality of Norwegian classes and introduction programs and expanding use of trainee programs in the workplace.

A poll of Members of Parliament suggests Listhaug will need to boost pure language training, also to satisfy her minority government coalition’s support parties, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals. The integration proposals will be debated before the summer recess.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund