Debate rages over asylum children

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The children of rejected asylum seekers in Norway continue to pose tough dilemmas for state officials and stir debate. At issue is whether the children, and thus their parents, should be allowed to stay in the country even though the parents didn’t qualify for asylum and, in many cases, violated immigration law and residence rules.

The issue rose again this week when Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that immigration officials suspect that more than 100 people who won asylum in Norway 10-15 years ago, by claiming they came from war-torn Somalia, did so on false pretenses. A lengthy investigation indicates they instead came from other countries including Kenya and Tanzania and thus were ineligible for asylum and the Norwegian citizenship they received. Those found to have lied about their background stand to have their Norwegian passports revoked and be sent out of the country.

Sins of the parents
Nearly all have children, though, many who were born and reared in Norway and who also have Norwegian passports, putting immigration officials in a bind. The authorities regularly face charges of being heartless if they follow the rules and deport the parents, since that poses the dilemma of either breaking up families or sending the children out of the country, too.

“It’s the parents who have done this, and it’s serious abuse of the entire purpose of asylum,” Karl Erik Sjøholt of immigration agency UDI told NRK. Even though the children themselves have done nothing wrong, and it arguably would be in their best interests to remain in Norway, “the children generally follow their parents.”

Ann-Margrit Austenå of the Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers (NOAS) is calling upon the authorities to “find other solutions” or means of punishment for the sins of the parents, as an alternative to deportation. She thinks fines or invalidation of their passports would be more appropriate, so that their children won’t suffer as well.

The Norwegian chapter of Save the Children (Redd Barna) agrees. “Children should not suffer because of their parents’ actions,” Tove Romsaas Wang, secretary general of Redd Barna, told NRK, pointing to UN conventions. “Children have their own rights.”

Innocent pawns?
Questions arise, though, over whether would-be refugee parents use their children as pawns in their efforts to obtain legal residence. Newspaper Aftenposten reported the case on Thursday of a woman from Ethiopia whose application for asylum was rejected and she’s now in Norway illegally. She had a second child last fall, though, with another man from Ethiopia who holds a Norwegian passport after being granted asylum several years ago. Both of their young children have also been granted Norwegian citizenship. As an illegal alien, though, she has been billed NOK 52,000 (USD 6,700) for her hospital expense during her last delivery since she doesn’t qualify for Norway’s national health service. She has no job since she lacks residence and working permission in Norway, and her partner is protesting the hospital bill, claiming he can’t afford it.

Sven Mollekleiv of the Norwegian Red Cross told Aftenposten that Norway is obliged under UN conventions to provide medical care to everyone in Norway on an equal basis, based on need and not their ability to pay. Health department officials refer to state regulations, however, that those who lack legal residence in Norway must cover their own health expenses. In this case, the mother also faces deportation because she did not qualify for legal residence, but that will complicated because she had children.

Asked whether he didn’t realize the family would face complications because of her illegal status, the father claimed “we didn’t talk about (legal residence) papers in the beginning, and when I learned she didn’t have legal residence, she was pregnant with our daughter.”

Justice minister under pressure
Justice Minister Anders Anundsen of the Progress Party has been under fire lately for allowing the deportation of families in cases where the parents’ asylum applications had been turned down. In many cases, they had children and had been in Norway for many years while their applications were processed and rejections were appealed. The children thus feel that Norway is their home, while their parents have refused to accept rejection of their applications and stayed on illegally. That’s when police carry out orders to deport them, even though the government has agreed to give amnesty in various cases. Anundsen has been criticized for not following through on that agreement.

On Thursday, newspaper Bergens Tidende reported that authorities in Afghanistan are objecting to the forced returns of Afghan families with children whose asylum applications were rejected. Afghanistan’s own foreign ministry noted in a letter to Norwegian authorities that Afghanistan is  dangerous, has major economic problems and a lack of housing, jobs and schools. They reportedly have asked that Norway only send back families willing to return to Afghanistan voluntarily, “otherwise they will be denied entry into Afghanistan.”

Anundsen, already criticized for avoiding interviews about deportation cases, is now under fire for failing to share the Afghans’ letter with the parliamentary committe probing the issue of asylum children. Nor would the justice ministry comment on the letter or answer questions from Bergens Tidende. Anundsen has earlier maintained that immigration law and regulations must be followed, as did his predecessors in the former left-center government. Deportations of families with children spark controversy across party lines.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund