Calling it a “dark chapter in Norway’s history,” the government issued another apology on Monday to the country’s Tater- and Romani minority over how they’ve been unjustly treated during the last century. The apology came after the head of a commission studying their treatment delivered its report to government minister Jan Tore Sanner.
“The authorities’ policies towards the Tater- and Romani population have, throughout large portions of the last century, been totally misguided and detrimental,” stated Knut Vollebæk, who led the commission that’s studied the fate of the nomadic ethnic groups for the past two years.
Vollebæk, a former Norwegian foreign minister from the Christian Democrats party, wrote in a commentary in newspaper Aftenposten on Monday how several laws and regulations used to justify the treatment of Norway’s itinerant Tater and Romani folk in fact contributed to discrimination, or at the very least, did not protect them from discrimination. The state, through its police, its state church and the church’s social services, violated the human rights that Norway was obligated to respect after signing the European Human Rights Convention in 1953. Representatives for today’s state church and its social services agency also issued formal apologies during a ceremony at the University of Oslo’s Aula in downtown Oslo.
The commission reported that surveys among the Tater- and Romani groups show much higher mortality rates and much lower levels of education among those directly affected by the state policies that removed children from their families. Children were often placed in orphanages or foster homes where many were ridiculed and abused. Policies invoked at the time were aimed at cutting all contact between the children and their families. Vollebæk said this led to a distrust of authorities that has lasted through generations.
Families were also forced to settle, or were scared into settling, in labour colonies. At the infamous Svanviken Work Colony outside Kristiansund, nearly 40 percent of the women living there were sterilized, to limit the Tater- and Romani population. Residents of Svanviken were also subjected to gross violation of their private lives, Vollebæk said, with authorities as late as the 1960s subjecting them to near-constant surveillance, censorship of their mail, regular inspection of the small cabins where they lived and constant threats that their children would be taken away from them if they put up any opposition.
During World War II, Norway’s Nazi government tried to put forward a “final solution” to the “Tater plague” that involved custody and the forced sterilizations that continued after the war. Vollebæk told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Monday that many Tater- and Romani folk reported that their treatment grew even worse after the war ended, because they were not viewed as doing enough to rebuild Norway after the Nazi German occupation.
The Norwegian government issued an official apology in 1998, and Prime Minister Erna Solberg also apologized during a meeting with Roma folk in Oslo this spring. The commission claimed, however, that the apology in 1998 was weak and didn’t reach either the Norwegian or Romani population, nor have they received adequate compensation or amends for past injustices.
“The commission has determined that neither the state nor those involved have properly come to terms,” Vollebæk wrote. “A clear and well-founded settlement is necessary in order to lay a foundation for reconciliation.”
Sanner agreed that the Tater- and Romani folk, although officially recognized as an ethnic minority in Norway, have suffered human rights violations. He called the commission’s report “strong and uncomfortable reading” and said it would be studied in detail “before the government takes a position on how it should be followed up” in the form of compensation.
The report comes just two week after the European Council of Human Rights complained that Norway was still placing children from Roma families into foster care or child welfare institutions “extremely often.” The council urged Norwegian authorities to do more to help parents take care of their children, instead of removing the children from their homes.
“Many pregnant Roma women avoid giving birth at Norwegian hospitals, because they fear the child will be taken away by Barnevernet (the state child welfare agency)” the council wrote in its report. The agency is also under harsh criticism from authorities in Russia and several other European countries over incidents in which it has removed children from their immigrant parents who don’t follow Norway’s laws against physically punishing children.