Paradox over fate of refugee children

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Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has been hit from all sides over his refusal, at least so far, to halt the deportation of children whose parents were rejected for asylum in Norway. The paradox, however, is that while many voters want to let children who’ve been in Norway most of their lives remain in the country, very few actually want more liberal asylum policies.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has his hands full trying to defend Norway's current asylum policies, and also faces grassroots opposition from within his own party. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

On the one hand, Stoltenberg finds himself and his Labour Party in the almost embarrassing position of getting political support from the two parties he’s otherwise in opposition with: the Conservatives (Høyre) and the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp). Even some voters in Frp, though, have sympathy for children born and reared in Norway who suddenly may be sent back to the troubled countries that their parents fled.

Newspaper Aftenposten conducted its own public opinion poll on the controversial issue involving the refugee children (called asylbarn in Norwegian). Of roughly 800 voters questioned, a majority of those voting for the three parties making up Stoltenberg’s coalition government believe the children must be allowed to stay indefinitely in Norway. A majority of voters in five of the seven parties represented in Parliament want amnesty for children who have been in Norway more than three years. There was a “considerable” group of voters in the two opposition parties Høyre and Frp who supported amnesty, too.

At the same time, though, two of three voters questioned said they “generally” support Norway’s current, relatively strict asylum policies, or even want the policies to be stricter. Only 18 percent said they supported more liberal asylum policies.

“The numbers illustrate the dilemma over this issue,” said Pål Lønseth, the Labour Party state secretary in the Justice Ministry charged with carrying out government policy many have branded as “ice cold” and “heartless.” Lønseth told Aftenposten that it’s simply not possible to have it both ways.

That’s why Stoltenberg and Lønseth’s boss, Justice Minister Grete Faremo, keep trying to uphold current rules and regulations that call for the expulsion of rejected refugees. They maintain that making exception to the rules will weaken them, and that the fairest thing to do is to uphold “predictable and consistent” asylum policies.

The dilemma is also keenly felt by Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, who agrees that amnesty for children who’ve been in the country more than three years would represent a considerable liberalization of current policy. Jensen’s party traditionally has sought tougher immigration and asylum rules but also is often viewed as populist, and Jensen says she can understand that voters are uncomfortable when faced with the individual, often heartbreaking, fate of children facing deportation.

Trine Skei Grande, leader of the non-socialist Liberal Party, has been campaigning for measures to allow the children to stay in Norway. She called Aftenposten’s poll results “very positive” because “they show that the prime minister is underestimating voters and that we have strong support for allowing the children to stay.”

Grande also disagrees with Lønseth that it’s impossible to let the children stay while also maintaining strict policies. “Voters aren’t so stupid,” she told Aftenposten. “Folks want to give a limited group, children, stronger rights while upholding strong policies.” She also noted that that majority of asylum seekers coming to Norway are single men aged 20 to 40, not children or families with small children.

Stoltenberg faced grilling over the issue in Parliament on Wednesday, where he was likely to be confronted with concern over the roughly 450 children now in Norway who face deportation and must live with the uncertainty that brings.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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