Police evict homeless as debate rages

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Police evicted more than 100 occupants of an abandoned building in Oslo Thursday morning, many of them Roma and other foreign migrants. The evictions occurred as debate continues to rage over what state and local authorities should do to halt such illegal occupations and camping within city limits. Providing legal accommodation and welfare services for those now sleeping outdoors is highly controversial.

The debate is also flying in communities all over Norway, as police and politicians brace for a new influx of itinerant beggars this spring and summer. Proposed solutions range from calls to close Norway’s borders to providing the migrant poor with accommodation, showers and toilets.

Urgent needs
The issue has figured prominently in Norwegian media for months, and as warmer weather sets in, the need for measures to deal with increasing numbers of the itinerants is becoming urgent. Local humanitarian organizations including the Salvation Army and the church aid group Kirkens Bymisjon are already stretched too far in their efforts to offer food and various forms of sanitation to the people who beg in public areas all over town during the day and sleep under highways or in parks at night.

Newspaper Aftenposten found a large group of migrant beggars sleeping amidst blocks of concrete between a motorway and tram tracks on the outskirts of downtown Oslo. “Dogs in Norway sleep better than we do,” Dumitru Gheorghe, age 53, from Romania told Aftenposten through an interpreter. Lying next to him was his 73-year-old mother.

Asked whether this could be better than life in Romania, he answered yes. The nights sleeping outdoors are cold and terrible, he said, but during the day, many Norwegians give them money, and they can get free food. At home, Gheorghe said, they get nothing.

Political dilemma
With state politicians largely leaving the issue to their colleagues at the local government level to address, city politicians from Kristiansand in the south to Tromsø in the north have been tackling it in various ways. In Bergen, for example, beggars are required to register with city officials and police enforce the registration, reducing their numbers somewhat. In Oslo, where there are more itinerant beggars than anywhere else in Norway, the Conservative-led city government is requiring the police to enforce laws that prohibit camping outdoors in populated areas and to act against illegal occupations, hence the evictions Thursday morning.

The evictions, reported by Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), set off an immediate protest march by those evicted, which wound its way past City Hall and culminated in front of the Norwegian Parliament, where protesters claimed they would be willing to pay rent for a building where they could stay. They complained that no one came out of the Parliament to speak with them.

Inside, though, politicians are anguishing and arguing over what to do. The illegal settlements around the city and the country pose major sanitation problems and are beneath human dignity, they realize, but they won’t go away. “I have six children, my husband is dead,” Gheorgita Ihaltea, age 55, told Aftenposten. “My future is not bright, but here I know I can survive. I did not come here to kill or steal.”

Criticism from abroad
Thorbjørn Jagland, a former president of the Parliament and Labour Party prime minister, took the opportunity on Thursday to once again criticize his own party and Norway’s government for failing to address the issue. Jagland, now the secretary general of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, told Aftenposten that he thinks “fear is steering Norwegian politics on the Roma issue, fear that Norway will be overrun by Roma if we do anything for them. That’s why no measures are in place.”

Jagland suggested that his successor, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, has been reluctant to comment on the issue of migrant poor arriving in Norway “because the authorities don’t know what they should do about the Roma problem in Norway. But the problem won’t go away. Some concrete measures must be taken.” He noted that Kirkens Bymisjon has been offering showers and toilets: “That’s an example of what could be done.”

That’s also been proposed by city politicians for the Socialist Left party (SV) but struck down by the Conservative-led city government in Oslo. Along with the Liberals and the Christian Democrats, the Conservatives maintained in a written statement sent to Aftenposten that “a fundamental premise for free movement over borders in the European Economic Area (EEA) is that people must provide for themselves while staying in another country and not be a burden on the host country. That means that each individual tourist or person seeking work must provide for their own food and lodging. Groups of EEA residents without the ability to do that … have very limited rights, and the local and state government have very limited obligations.”

Reverse discrimination
Moreover, wrote Morten Bakke of the city government, “it’s not possible for the City of Oslo to provide special services for specific groups of EEA residents. It would, for example, be discriminatory to provide special welfare services to Roma folk. Various services like sanitation facilities, lodging, food or clothing would thus need to be offered to everyone claiming a need for it.” The Conservatives also want to ban begging, which was legalized at a state level several years ago. The Labour-led government refuses, saying a ban now would be difficult and extremely costly to enforce.

The only elected political party disagreeing with Bakke’s statement on behalf of the city government was SV, so the issue remains deadlocked. Organizations like Kirkens Bymisjon, the Red Cross and Amnesty International are crying out for “help to help,” while state church officials claim everyone “has a responsibility to meet these people with dignity.” Representatives for the church, which is taxpayer-supported, have said they will try to “strengthen” the organizations’ efforts.

Norway, meanwhile, has sent hundreds of billions in foreign aid to countries like Romania to assist Roma at home with education and job training, for example, in the hopes they will stay in Romania. Jagland acknowledged Norway’s efforts “to help Roma help themselves,” yet the wave of migrants is bigger than ever. The aid from Norway doesn’t seem to be meeting its goals, at least not yet.

State government politicians are now saying they will “do something” here in Norway, in the words of Pål Lønseth, state secretary in the justice ministry for the Labour Party. His government partner Audun Lysbakken of SV agreed, writing to Aftenposten that “no one benefits from people sleeping under bridges, and it’s important that the cities build up their preparedness before summer. Everyone must have the possibility to go to the toilet, wash themselves and have a safe place to sleep.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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