Citizenship rules come under fire

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The rules qualifying foreigners for Norwegian citizenship have come under fire on several fronts lately, with a proposed test of applicants’ Norwegian knowledge branded as being too difficult and strict. The test comes at a time when fewer immigrants in Norway are applying for citizenship, largely because of the country’s ban on dual citizenship that also has been criticized as being “anachronistic” and out of touch with today’s global society.

Mazyar Keshvari of the Progress Party led Oslo's 17th of May Committee when he was still a member of Oslo's city council. Now he's a Member of Parliament and wants would-be citizens to be able to pass a test about Norway, in Norwegian. PHOTO: mazyarkeshvari.com/Heidi M Skjebstad/Wikipedia

Mazyar Keshvari of the Progress Party led Oslo’s 17th of May Committee when he was still a member of Oslo’s city council. Now he’s a Member of Parliament and wants would-be citizens to be able to pass a test about Norway, in Norwegian. PHOTO: mazyarkeshvari.com/Heidi M Skjebstad/Wikipedia

The new citizenship test proposed by Norway’s conservative minority government coalition was catching the most criticism this week. It requires all those applying for citizenship who are between the ages of 18 and 67 to pass a test, administered in the Norwegian language, that evaluates would-be citizens’ knowledge of both the language and Norwegian society.

“We take it for granted that those who seek Norwegian citizenship have at least minimal knowledge of the country where they want to be a citizen,” Mazyar Keshvari, spokesman for the Progress Party on immigration issues, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), on Tuesday.

The Progress Party shares government power with the Conservatives in a minority coalition, and critics claim they want to make it even more difficult to become a citizen of Norway than it already is. Not so, responds Keshvari, himself a Norwegian politician of Iranian descent who came to Norway as a child with his refugee family in 1986. The former member of the City Council in Oslo now serves as a Member of Parliament, filling the seat of Progress Party leader Siv Jensen while she serves as Norway’s Finance Minister.

“We think that having (basic) knowledge of the country and being able to answer questions in Norwegian is the minimum criteria for becoming a Norwegian citizen,” Keshvari told NRK.

‘Too difficult’
Professor Anne Golden at the University of Oslo believes the demand that the test be taken in Norwegian makes it too difficult. Golden worries that many would-be citizens, even those who have lived in Norway for many years, will be denied the opportunity to take part in society as citizens because the test is difficult for weak groups. “That applies especially to women who come from areas with war and who have had few possibilities to go to school,” Golden said. “Many will probably have big problems passing the test.”

Guri Hestflått Gabrielsen of the state equality and anti-discrimination agency (Likestillings- og diskrimineringsombudet, LDO) agrees. “We’re not opposed to putting an emphasis on good language ability and good understanding of society,” Gabrielsen told NRK. “But we need an education program that takes folks’ various needs into consideration.”

A link to an online example of the test administered through the national competence agency VOX resulted in so much traffic from people keen to test their own knowledge of Norway that VOX’ system crashed on Tuesday and access to the pilot test was blocked.

Dual-citizenship ban discourages applications
Recent figures from the state statistics bureau SSB, meanwhile, show a marked decline in the numbers of immigrants with permanent residence permission in Norway who actually apply for Norwegian citizenship. Only 4.4 percent of those who met the requirement of seven years of residence in Norway chose to apply in 2013, compared to 13.3 percent in 1996. Citizenship requirements also require documentation of fulfilling at least 300 hours of Norwegian language instruction, and now probably the new test.

The figures showed a sharp division between labour migrants and students on the one side and refugees or people who applied for family reunification on the other. The decline in citizenship applications “has a lot to do with many immigrants coming from Europe during the last 10 years,” Silje Vatne Pettersen of SSB told newspaper Aftenposten. “Very few European and American immigrants apply for Norwegian citizenship even though they’re well-established here.”

And that, Pettersen believes, is because Norway is one of the few countries in the world that does not allow dual citizenship. Many people have found ways around the law against dual citizenship, or have two passports in defiance of the law. Exceptions have been granted, but immigrants applying for Norwegian citizenship in Norway are currently legally required to give up their existing citizenship unless they come from a country that does not allow their citizens to do so. Many immigrants in Norway don’t want to part with their existing passports, for a variety of reasons.

“A Polish citizen may view their EU citizenship as so attractive that they don’t want to give it up,” Pettersen noted. “For a refugee, it’s much more important to acquire Norwegian citizenship than it is for someone from Europe.” Statistics support that: Only 7 percent of labour migrants who have lived for many years in Norway have become Norwegian citizens since 1990, while fully 81 percent of those who came to Norway as asylum seekers now have Norwegian passports.

‘Anachronistic policy’
It seems unlikely that the law against dual citizenship will be repealed, despite criticism of it, most recently from Torill Moe, a Norwegian professor at Duke University who has lived in the US for more than 25 years. “In today’s globalized world, this is a completely anachronistic policy,” Moe wrote in newspaper Morgenbladet. “It prevents many foreigners who have lived in Norway for years from applying for Norwegian citizenship because they still feel French or British or American (and don’t want to give up their original citizenship because it’s such a large part of their identity).” Moe herself, who still sees herself as a Norwegian despite many years living and working in the US, noted that while the US allows dual citizenship, she legally can’t apply for American citizenship without giving up her Norwegian citizenship.

Moe noted that “people don’t emigrate once and for all any longer. They move back and forth and maintain strong ties to several countries for the rest of their lives.” It can be too difficult to choose, but Norwegian politicians have continued to back the ban on dual citizenship that was invoked in 1950, just after World War II and the period when Norwegian authorities had been conducting treason trials and cases of Norwegians allegedly letting their country down during the war years. That’s when it was decided that Norwegians who seek citizenship in another country would also be subject to having their Norwegian citizenship revoked.

“I think it’s desirable for those who fulfill the requirements of citizenship to become citizens, because it’s a sign of loyalty and belonging between citizen and state,” Kai Morten Terning, a state secretary for the Progress Party, told Aftenposten. “Those who fulfill the requirements, though, must evaluate whether they want Norwegian citizenship. I don’t want it to be easier to become a citizen so that more will seek citizenship.”

An SSB survey in 2006 found that half of those who qualify for citizenship would apply if they could maintain their original citizenship, but likely won’t be able to. “We have a principle of single citizenship in Norway,” Terning said. “That policy won’t change at present.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund