NEWS ANALYSIS: The Norwegian government is about to make it much tougher for many foreign nationals to move to Norway and settle down in the country. Newspaper VG reported on Tuesday that a proposal sent out to hearing this week would extend the qualifying period for permanent residence permission to five years, nearly doubling the amount of time that effectively puts a newcomer on probation. At a time when Norway has sought global talent and likes to portray an international image, it’s questionable whether the government realizes what it’s doing.
The rule is likely to hit people coming from outside the EU and European Economic Area (EEA) hardest, for example those from the US and Canada, Asia, Africa and South America. Residents of EU and EEA countries including Norway can more freely move among them, while all those coming from elsewhere face a far more complicated process.
Even after permanent residence is finally granted in Norway, holders of non-EU passports also must continue to renew their legal presence in the so-called Schengen area of the EU every two years, and carry a valid residence card. Nor does “permanent residence” live up to its name and guarantee “permanence:” If the hapless immigrant who retained his or her own citizenship ventures abroad again and is resident outside Norway’s borders for more than two years, his or her “permanent residence” is revoked and the immigration process starts all over again.
Newspaper Dagsavisen recently carried a story about an American woman married to a Norwegian who’d held “permanent residence” in Norway for 15 years. When her husband accepted a job as a national expert from Norway for the EU Commission in Brussels, she and their two children moved with him to Belgium, but she encountered huge problems upon their return three years later. Her “permanent residence” was revoked because she’d been “outside the realm” for more than two years, and she faced a tangled web of restrictions and new applications for resuming residence. “When you see the questions we suddenly have to answer after living together for 22 years, it’s absurd,” her husband, a state employee himself, told Dagsavisen. “You can’t believe (the immigration rules) are so bad until you experience them yourself.”
Life put on hold
Most who have been through the process (including the undersigned) would likely agree. And now the rules will get tougher, and the waiting time longer, at a time when immigration agency UDI is already lagging far behind in its workload. News bureau NTB reported last month that UDI had around 35,000 pending cases at the end of 2014, up 4.5 percent from the year before. UDI managed to process 96,300 cases last year but is chronically understaffed and the waiting time to get an application processed and evaluated is currently around 12 months. During that time, it can be difficult if not impossible to get through to UDI to check on the status of an application for residence and work permission, and in the meantime, the newcomer’s life can effectively be put on hold.
Norwegian media outlets, including newspaper VG and state broadcaster NRK, were reporting news of the tougher residence rules almost without comment or question Tuesday morning. They seemingly accepted the conservative government coalition’s justification that adding two full years to a newcomer’s “waiting period” is aimed at weeding out criminals who may be keen on moving to Norway, or “pro-forma” marriages between Norwegian citizens and foreigners. Justice Minister Anders Anundsen of the Progress Party and other members of the Conservatives-led government, with backing from their support parties Venstre (the Liberals) and Kristelig Folkeparti (the Christian Democrats), seem especially keen on making sure Norwegians don’t marry foreigners for the wrong reasons.
Adult versions of ‘asylbarna’
The marriage or partnership issue can have a darker and far riskier side, though, for foreign brides or grooms who move to Norway with Norwegian spouses. Many qualify for permanent residence based on marriage to a Norwegian, but if the relationship breaks up before the probation period is over, the foreign ex-spouse can quickly be ordered to leave the country. Since “temporary” work and residence permission granted to a newcomer (which now lasts for three years but soon will drag on for five) is often based on a marriage or partnership, immigration officials most often conclude that the basis for residence no longer exists if the relationship is dissolved. Foreign spouses who have lived in Norway for at least three, soon five years, can suddenly find themselves sent “home” to their country of citizenship against their will, losing their jobs, homes and the lives they’d built in Norway in the process, for what may be an uncertain future in a country that may no longer feel like home. They can become adult versions of asylbarna, the children of rejected refugees, without any of the public sympathy.
That raises the citizenship issue as well, also a thorny one in Norway because the country does not allow dual citizenship. Many people find exceptions to the rule, and opposition is growing to Norway’s dual-citizenship ban in an increasingly globalized world, but Norway generally won’t allow immigrants to become Norwegian citizens unless they agree to give up their existing citizenship. State statistics bureau SSB has confirmed that many foreigners, especially immigrants from the US and Canada, are reluctant to do that, for all kinds of reasons. The American woman in Dagsavisen’s story was among them. She’d retained her US passport, in part so that her children would have more choices, but that caused problems when she got hung up in the current residency rules. Many Norwegians would likely be reluctant to give up their passports as well, but the US and many other countries don’t require them to do so if they seek, for example, a US passport.
Now the situation for would-be immigrants to Norway is about to become even more complicated and uncertain. Anyone attempting a move to Norway needs to be mentally prepared for a process that was tougher than obtaining a US green card even 30 years ago. It’s difficult sometimes not to compare Norwegian government officials, through both their immigration and asylum rules, to those running a very exclusive club, where membership is reserved only for the most resourceful.