Prizewinner scolds anti-beggar attitudes

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Dr Per Fugelli, a professor at the University of Oslo’s medical school who’s been an active voice in social issues for years, accepted Norway’s most prestigious prize for freedom of expression on Tuesday and immediately entered the ongoing debate over begging and migrant poor in the country. He lashed out at “panicking politicians” on the right and the left, and at ordinary Norwegians whom he accused of lacking decency towards fellow human beings.

Dr Per Fugelli accepted the annual Freedom of Expression Prize in Oslo Tuesday night. PHOTO: Fritt Ord Foundation

Dr Per Fugelli accepted the annual Freedom of Expression Prize in Oslo Tuesday night. PHOTO: Fritt Ord Foundation

Fugelli won this year’s Freedom of Expression Prize from Norway’s Fritt Ord (Free Word) Foundation for giving a voice “to cancer patients and those who stand face-to-face with death.” Fugelli has been battling cancer himself and has spoken and written openly about his experiences, leading the Fritt Ord jury to declare that he had, “with wisdom and generosity, directed attention to our fears over talking about death and suppressing it.”

The 70-year-old doctor was declared free of cancer this spring after lengthy treatments and clearly feels he’s won a new lease on life, as long as it lasts. He wasted no time in plunging back into the social issues of the day, not least the ongoing debate over how Norway should deal with the thousands of migrant poor, mostly Roma folk, who have arrived in country and beg on the streets for money.

Fugelli called the Labour Party-led government’s delayed response to the issue “cowardly” and had plenty of criticism for politicians at the opposite end of the political spectrum as well, some of whom have suggested closing Norway’s borders to eastern Europeans or deporting them for minor offenses.

“It scares me very much that in all of us, also here in peaceful and wealthy Norway, there’s a sinister tendency to build fear and hate towards ‘the others,'” Fugelli told newspaper Dagsavisen just before he was awarded his prize on the stage of Oslo’s Opera House Tuesday evening. “When we read about genocide and ethnic cleansing, we wonder ‘how can that happen,’ but then we don’t wonder what we’re doing when we refer to Roma folk as “brown snails’ and parasites, and say that we should close our borders to them and send them back where they came from on railroad cars. Have we forgotten who got that sort of treatment in 1942?”

Fugelli said he thinks politicians are “panicking” and “should take a Valium” before they start talking. He shakes his head over conservative politicians who want to ban begging in Norway, but also at the Labour Party’s justice minster, Grete Faremo, who responded to the despair of Conservative city politicians in Oslo by proposing that they order beggars to register with the police, set up special zones for begging at certain times of the day and that police can deport the migrant poor over a petty crime. “This is ethnic discrimination,” Fugelli told Dagsavisen. “Where is the decency? Give them clean water, a toilet and roof over their heads. I don’t think hordes will invade us if we do that.”

Fugelli nonetheless believes Norwegians retain core beliefs of solidarity and equality and was reminded of a “wise woman” who was asked what she thought the local government should do in a certain case. The woman responded: “The local government? That’s us. What should we do?”

Fugelli’s prize carries a cash award of NOK 400,000 (USD 70,000) in addition to the certificate, trophy and flowers he received on stage.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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