Massive support for refugee children

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In a case where emotions are running high but principles weigh heavily, a little boy testified in court this week in a plea to let he and his refugee parents stay in Norway. Overwhelming public support for seven-year-old Nathan Eshete, especially from his hometown of Bergen, has put the government under severe pressure to grant his wish, but that could set a precedent for future similar cases where permanent residence already has been denied.

The case may end up being settled out of court, because it’s been re-opened by Norway’s Immigration Appeals Board (Utlendingsnemnda, UNE) following an appeal for reversal of its earlier decision. New information might give Nathan’s family residence even if they lose in court, reported newspaper Aftenposten.

Long battle
“Asylbarn,” children of refugees whose applications for asylum in Norway have been rejected, total around 450 in Norway and their fate has been debated for years. This week, the court case where young Nathan plays the leading role, took the stage in Oslo.

Nathan, born in Norway to Ethiopian parents awaiting an asylum decision, views himself as Norwegian. His parents’ asylum application was rejected in 2003 and 2004 but like many others, they appealed and opted to stay in Norway illegally. The family received what was supposed to be a final rejection last year, but then they filed a court case against the state and UNE to reverse the decision. The Supreme Court rejected two similar cases at the end of 2012.

In court this week, Nathan himself spoke to the judge about his Norwegian identity, showed pictures of his life in Bergen, shared his dream about becoming a policeman or a football player, and said that all he knew about Ethiopia was that nice animals lived there. His teacher testified in court and said Nathan’s top subject was Norwegian language studies.

Celebrity and political backing
Nathan has received widespread support and appeals from celebrities, business leaders, artists, entertainers and politicians, but also from the average Norwegian. He has become a local mascot of sorts in Bergen, with massive media attention and personal support from the mayor, who attended the trial in Oslo this week. Nathan has in many ways become the face of the 450 children who have lived more than three years in Norwegian asylum centers while their parents’ asylum applications are being evaluated.

Nathan has therefore become the symbol of a larger, political debate and a headache for the Labour-led government. Opposition parties have called for the government to re-evaluate the asylum cases involving the 450 children. The government has responded that it cannot “reward” families with residence if they have chosen to defy the law and stay illegally in the country. They have said efficient and consistent asylum policies demand consistent deportation policies, and that they want to prevent asylum seekers from using children as a means of obtaining asylum.

Critical voices are responding, however, that the Norwegian system and the lengthy processes are to blame for why these children have been forced to spend many years in asylum centers. They argue that the considerations should revolve around what is best for these children in keeping with a United Nations’ convention that Norway has adopted.

The more time that passes, note some, the heavier arguments are needed to send Nathan and his family back to Ethiopia. Should they lose this round in court, an appeal is likely, which will further prolong the process. New reports from Ethiopia also show that the situation for refugees has worsened. A new proposal to Parliament about children on the run (Barn på flukt), has also established that UNE’s practices regarding asylum children have been too strict. All this could make UNE reverse its earlier decision and grant the family permanent residence in Norway regardless of the result in court.

Views and News from Norway/Aasa Christine Stoltz

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