It took a crisis for Norway’s town and cities to more actively offer housing for asylum seekers at a faster rate this autumn. The offers of accommodation have been far from enough to meet demand, however, and Prime Minister Erna Solberg declared on Wednesday that Norway’s asylum reception system is now in crisis itself.
It’s been two months since Solberg called for a national dugnad (the Norwegian term for a collective and voluntary effort) to help house the sudden surge of asylum seekers arriving in Norway. Since then, the pace of arrivals has greatly increased, to a point where immigration officials now predict that Norway will need to provide accommodation for as many as a 100,000 in need of shelter by the end of next year.
Even though Solberg’s hard-pressed government has managed to come up with funding to cover the costs of housing refugees next year, adopted tougher immigration and asylum rules and taken steps to tighten border control, to stem the influx, it faces daunting challenges in getting a roof over the heads of all those still arriving who have a right to demand protection. On Wednesday, Solberg gathered government ministers and mayors of Norway’s largest cities to discuss how to handle the ongoing stream of refugees.
“The situation within the Norwegian asylum reception system can be described as in crisis,” Solberg told them. “Every day, 350 people are coming who must be settled. There is a need to do things in a completely different tempo than what we’ve been used to.”
With arrivals doubling every month, until a slight decrease last week, Solberg warned that “we face extremely demanding assignments” in the months ahead. “The way we treat those arriving will have an effect on Norwegian cities and local communities for years to come,” she said.
Her minister in charge of local governments, Jan Tore Sanner, stressed that all communities nationwide must take their share of the responsibility for accommodating asylum seekers. “We are in a situation where it’s not possible to say that it’s someone else’s responsibility,” Sanner said. “It is our responsibility.”
The challenges are indeed enormous, as many communities, especially small towns, object to taking in hundreds of asylum seekers, often more than the total population of their own community. One young woman from Bolkesjø wrote in newspaper Aftenposten this week that plans to house another 500 asylum seekers at a local hotel that went out of business amounted to an “assault on us.” She argued that it meant there would be 17 asylum seekers for every local Norwegian resident of Bolkesjø and claimed that “we will become a minority in our own village.” While she and her fellow Bolkesjø residents had agreed to take in 150 asylum seekers, an additional 500 will “turn our community (of 40 residents) upside down. Of course we want to help, and have understanding for people in need, but this will overrun us.”
In another small town in the mountains of Sogn og Fjordane, local residents are trying to buy the local hotel to prevent it from being turned into an asylum center. In Sandnes, south of Stavanger, residents are opposing plans to turn an abandoned high school into a refugee reception center. Like many others around the country, they don’t feel their concerns over an influx of asylum seekers in their neighbourhood are being heard.
Similar complaints have been lodged in Norway’s largest city of all, Oslo, where the new Labour-led city government has been asked to take in at least 3,000 asylum seekers. The city’s Labour politicians say they’re simply trying to cooperate with Solberg’s Conservatives-led state government in responding to the call. Aftenposten reported on Wednesday that the city has offered four plots of land around Oslo, including one of its remaining corn fields called Voksenjordet on the city’s affluent west side, to quickly build barracks-like asylum reception centers. The local city district’s own elected officials won’t have much opportunity to protest, conceded the new city government minister in charge, Geir Lippestad from the Labour Party. The accommodation needs are acute, he noted, “and we have very short deadlines. UDI (the state immigration agency) wants to get a facility up before Christmas because there are people without a roof over their heads.”
Many local mayors fear being branded as racists or anti-foreigners if they refuse requests to settle asylum seekers, and insist they’re not. They simply feel they don’t have the capacity to help. In an ironic twist, more asylum seekers than ever before have actually been resettled in recent months, under the administration of government minster Solveig Horne of the Progress Party, which is known for being Norway’s most immigration-skeptical party. She has managed to oversee the settlement of thousands of refugees who have been moved out of asylum centers to make room for new arrivals. Conflicts remain, though, and Horne arguably has one of the most difficult jobs in government at present.
The meeting on Wednesday included representatives from Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim, Stavanger, Sandnes, Kristiansand, Tromsø, Bodø, Arendal, Ålesund, Skien, Bærum, Fredrikstad and Drammen. Hilde Okopu, vice-mayor of Trondheim, sought much better communication and coordination with the state: “We have been contacted many times and have tried to deliver without learning whether we have been concrete enough.” She said it would almost be better if the state simply ordered her city to take in a certain amount of refugees.
Raymond Johansen, the Labour Party veteran who now leads Oslo’s city government, agreed. “We expect to be kept oriented on all plans involving Oslo,” he said. “We know that around 40 percent of all refugees coming to Norway eventually will settle in Oslo, so it’s a big challenge for us.”
Some welcome mats rolled out
Along with the growing concerns and opposition to settling refugees, there also have been major signs of willingness and welcome on the part of local Norwegians. Thousands registered themselves as willing to offer space in their own homes for refugees via the newly established website tilfluktshjem.no, and worry that their offers of accommodation have gone unheeded in the bureaucratic rush to house refugees. Hundreds of families have also expressed interest in providing foster homes for young asylum seekers arriving without parents or guardians. And several small communities, especially in areas threatened with depopulation, have openly welcomed asylum seekers. Aftenposten has reported how the 580 residents of Sulitjelma in north-central Norway, for example, were happy to take in 150 asylum seekers and their children, viewing them as a resource rather than a burden, while the town of Tynset at the northern end of Østerdalen has welcomed refugees as new residents as well.
The numbers settled still don’t come close to meeting demand, despite all the efforts to reduce the influx. “The challenges are by no means limited to our largest cities,” said the leader of KS, the local governments’ organization in Norway, Gunn Marit Helgesen.”Asylum reception centers will be set up all over the country. We know the municipalities are flexible and results oriented, but the pressure is perhaps greatest on the small communities. The possibilities for finding solutions strongly depends on the state viewing the communities as more than just implementers of state-run centers.”