A new report issued this week by Norway’s new National Institute for Human Rights has concluded that Oslo police discriminate against Roma and migrants from African countries who are found sleeping on city streets. The police behaviour towards these groups was described as both “gruesome” and “racist,” and the report has sparked concern at the highest level of the justice ministry.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that the human rights institute (Nasjonal institusjon for menneskerettigheter) claims police have been known to kick Roma and people NRK described as “Africans” whom they find sleeping outdoors, and verbally abuse them with racist remarks. The report cites the conclusions of an institute study of how Oslo police have enforced a law passed in 2013 that bans sleeping outdoors in public areas.
“This is actually quite surprising police behaviour,” Kristin Høgdahl, director of the institute, told NRK, which broke news of the report on its morning nationwide radio channels. “Relatively many (of the locally homeless who were interviewed) reported cases of racist commentary and exaggerated use of force.”
NRK reported that the study also concluded that those found sleeping outdoors who had European facial features were generally treated better by the Oslo police. Høgdahl thus described the Oslo Police District’s enforcement of the law as a violation of human rights, and she hopes the UN will recommend that Norway repeal the law entirely.
It was just last week that Norway’s government minister in charge of equality and integration, Solveig Horne, was grilled by a UN committe in Geneva that’s charged with combating racism and discrimination. Horne caught more criticism over how Norway was tackling hate crimes and could point out that the Oslo police have a new unit devoted to the problem. Now, both she and Justice Minister Anders Anundsen, both from the conservative Progress Party that has a long tradition of being skepical towards immigration, face more criticism after the human rights institute’s charges against the police themselves.
Newly formed institute
The institute itself was formally established just this past summer, from July 1 2015, after being spun off from the University of Oslo law school’s Norwegian Center for Human Rights. The Norwegian Parliament decided in June of last year to create a new national institute for human rights that would be organized as answerable to Parliament but otherwise independent. It’s charged, among other things, with monitoring and reporting on human rights in Norway, making sure that recommendations for securing human rights are followed, advising the Parliament, government, Sami Parliament and other public and private agencies on human rights issues and cooperating with other international efforts to promote and protect human rights. The institute is chaired by an appeals court judge, Cecilie Østensen Berglund, with a former foreign minister (Knut Vollebæk of the Christian Democrats party) as vice-chairman.
This week’s report can arguably be described as getting the institute’s work off with a bang. Its findings were being described Tuesday morning as both “surprising” and even “gruesome,” based on findings, for example, that homeless Roma or people with African background faced a risk of being rudely awakened by police that was double so high as those with European features. Enforcement of the law against sleeping in public areas was called “gruesome, demeaning or inhumane,” with many forced relocations accompanied by racist commentary, use of violence and confiscation of identification papers.
The police officers’ behaviour was said to vary, though, with some “always being polite,” while others behaved “shamefully” and used swear words.
“They would uproot us, and then cleaning crews would take everything we had, baggage, clothes and blankets,” one homeless person was quoted as saying. “We were constantly asked to show our identification, we were subjected to bodily searches. We were told, ‘get lost, you Romanians,’ and that ‘if you don’t like it here, go back to Romania.'”
The report concluded that the Oslo Police failed to strike a balance between enforcing the law and the right to a private life, family life and respect for peoples’ homes, plus the right to freedom of movement and choice of housing. The researchers entitled their report “The criminalization of homelessness in Oslo.”
No records of complaints
Oslo Police District officials had claimed before the law was enacted that they would be “restrained” in its enforcement, but the report suggests they quickly began enforcing it “effectively.” In the two months from April to June last year, 679 people found sleeping outdoors were told to move, 140 were forcibly moved, 55 were arrested and 39 were indicted. Another homeless person was quoted as saying that “we had to move at four-o’clock in the morning and were threatened with jail if we didn’t leave. It was December and very cold. The police don’t treat others like that, there was no understanding. I asked where else I should go in the rain, they said I just had to go.”
Police leaders, who have read the report, declined to be interviewed by NRK. Johan Fredriksen, an acting leader for the Oslo Police District, wrote in an email to NRK, however, that the district had “strong focus on police officers handling all people with respect. If someone has experienced poor treatment or derogatory comments, that is of course completely unacceptable.” He claimed the police have not received any complaints about demeaning or racist treatment of homeless, neither from victims themselves nor from organizations that work with the homeless like the Salvation Army and Kirkens Bymisjon.
Anundsen, the justice minister, said on NRK radio that he was concerned by the report and would follow up after reading through it. NRK was set to present the report in detail on its investigatory Brennpunkt TV program Tuesday evening.