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Monday, July 22, 2024

Townships reject more refugees

Many local municipalities in Norway are refusing to accept more refugees, and struggling with what they say are the “skyrocketing” costs of integration. Only one in five has taken in as many refugees as the state government wished.

Many of Norway’s municipalities (kommuner) believe that the government is trying to settle too many refugees, according to this year’s survey of municipal leaders (Kommunelederundersøkelsen), conducted by the Directorate of Integration and Diversity (IMDi).  Newspaper Aftenposten reported recently that the majority (71 percent) of all the local leaders questioned say they do not have enough accommodation to house refugees. Over half think the costs involved are higher than the state government initially made out, and that the contribution from the state is too low.

Refugee arrivals rising again
After a recent decline in the number of asylum seekers arriving in Norway, new figures from immigration UDI show that 3,310 applied for asylum during the first four months of this year. News bureau NTB reported the arrivals are up 20 percent from the same period last year, but the number of young, single asylum seekers was down 7 percent.

Most of the refugees now arriving in Norway are from Somalia (18 percent), with the next two largest groups coming from Eritrea and Afghanistan. A total of 166 persons from Syria have sought asylum as they flee their homeland’s ongoing civil war.

The Norwegian government is granting NOK 8 billion (USD 1.4 billion) to the municipalities this year towards the settling and integrating of refugees. According to the local leaders, however, the actual cost per refugee during their first five years of residence in Norway is 27 percent higher than the contribution from the state.

Skien says ‘no’
For the first time in 10 years, the township of Skien, which initially made a stand for accepting refugees, is now declining to take in more. Deputy Mayor Knut Wille told Aftenposten that “over the last 10 years, we have taken in all those we were told to take in. This is the first time we are cutting back. I would recommend that the government further reduces the number of refugees it takes in next year. It’s a shame, because we have a good set-up in place for accepting refugees, and we know that we have a social responsibility. But with skyrocketing costs, we have no alternative.”

He pointed to the high costs of accommodation, special needs education, teaching pupils in thir own language, and a need for child protection. Of the 61 unaccompanied refugee minors settled in Skien, 23 are under heavy and costly child protection programs.

Until now, Wille said, the government has not been taking these costs seriously enough, and Skien has not been good at making the costs visible. He is alarmed by how much the costs are increasing and feels that the situation could get a lot worse. His municipality risks having a large budget deficit in 2013, and 100 employees could lose their jobs.

Settlement agreement
The government has just entered into a new agreement with the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities (KS) to settle at least 7,500 refugees this year, and 8,000 in 2014. KS is the employers’ association and interest organization for municipalities, counties and local public enterprises in Norway.

Inga Marte Thorkildsen, government minister in charge of integration and family issues, argues that those who are granted the right of residence in Norway, need to have a place to live. Norway, she says, is not taking on more refugees than any other country, and to “take in refugees is just part of being a country in the world.”

Around 4,400 refugees who have been granted residence in Norway are still living in one of Norway’s 105 asylum centres, waiting to be settled. Nearly six out of 10 should by now have either been settled or sent out of the country, reported Aftenposten.

Responsibility split
Settling refugees is particularly complex, because the responsibility is split between many different agencies, including the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI), the Directorate of Integration and Diversity (IMDi), the Norwegian State Housing Bank (Husbanken), and all of Norway’s 428 municipalities. Each municipality has a certain degree of autonomy, which means that the government depends on them agreeing to take in refugees, and they can refuse.

Many local leaders also contend that the the state’s introduction program for refugees is delivering poor results.  Newly arrived refugees to Norway have the right and obligation to participate in up to two years of Norwegian and social studies, and the government stands by its introduction program as one of its biggest successes for facilitating integration. Currently, however,  just 47 percent of those completing the program start working or studying afterwards.

In Skien, of the 60 refugees who finished the program last year, only eight are working and two are studying. Forty rely on welfare assistance, while the rest attend other initiatives set up by the state.

Thorkildsen said results of the introduction program vary, suggesting problems with its implementation at the local level. “We also know that there is a lot of variation in how good the townships are at having systems to get refugees into jobs quickly,” she said.

Municipalities in northern Norway are the most likely to accept refugees. There is a greater need in northern Norway for labour, and there is more low-priced accommodation available. In the municipalities of easten Norway, which includes Oslo, immigration is higher, and two out of three municipalities think they already have settled too many refugees.

Views and News from Norway/Elizabeth Lindsay

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