Thousands stuck in UDI backlog

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Nearly 40,000 people have had their lives put on hold, some for as long as three years, while they wait for legal permission to work or live in Norway. A huge backlog at immigration agency UDI is affecting everyone from asylum seekers to foreign researchers at Norwegian universities, and there’s little hope their paperwork will be expedited any time soon.

“Criminals can get into Norway, but not me,” Michael Chappell, a researcher from New Zealand at St Olav’s Hospital in Trondheim told newspaper Aftenposten. “This is absurd.”

Chappell is among the roughly 38,000 foreigners in Norway who’s had to tolerate lengthy delays to obtain working permission in the country. In his case, according to Aftenposten, it was seemingly a clear-cut case of renewal, but the processing time dragged on for five months. In the meantime, Chappell was told that if he left the country to visit his sick father back home in New Zealand, he wouldn’t be allowed back into Norway for at least 90 days. Chappell finally wrote directly to Justice Minister Knut Storberget and since has received a positive reply.

Most others aren’t so fortunate. Aftenposten reported that more than more than 7,000 persons like Chappell are still waiting for settlement permits, work or temporary residence permits, visas or travel documents. More than 730, even from European countries where work and residence permission in Norway should be relatively automatic, have been waiting for more than a year.

Another 7,728 persons who already hold settlement permits are waiting for citizenship papers, more than 2,300 of them for over a year. Family reunion cases have left 8,331 in a queue, while more than 12,000 persons are waiting for their asylum applications to be processed.

“It’s impossible to describe how difficult this is,” Norwegian Bjørn Egil Hansen told Aftenposten. In 2006, he married a woman who had residence permission in Italy. She still hasn’t been approved for residence status in Norway.

“Preventing me from living with my wife makes me feel unwelcome in my own country,” Hansen said.

‘Growing pains’
The long waiting periods are blamed on a boom in immigration to Norway, complicated rules, overworked staff and a lack of technology that could speed up processing.

“The situation has been extremely difficult,” wrote UDI (Utlendingsdirektoratet) itself in a report on the first nine months of 2009 to the Justice Ministry, which now has responsibility for the immigration agency. Even though asylum applications ended up declining last year, other immigration cases rose.

“Any organization would have had major challenges handling the kind of growth we’ve seen,” UDI director Ida Børresen told Aftenposten. “We know that our level of service isn’t good enough. I understand that people can get frustrated when they experience that it takes so much time for their applications to move around in the system.”

UDI has been granted major funding increases and staffing has doubled since 2007, to around 1,200. Their workload just keeps growing, and it often takes at least 20 minutes just to get through to UDI on the phone, to check on an application’s status.

“We can’t live with this over time,” Børresen said, noting that UDI needs “new methods” including the ability to process applications electronically and give some new regulations aimed at expediting cases time to take effect.

“Everyone wants quick answers, while we still need to handle each application thoroughly and on an individual basis,” Børresen said.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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