Few workers in Norway have needed a holiday break this year more than those at state immigration agency UDI (Utlendingsdirektoratet). They’ve logged nearly 30,000 hours of overtime since the refugee crisis came to Norway last summer.
“It’s been overwhelming,” Bjørn Fridfeldt, regional director for UDI in Northern Norway, told newspaper Aftenposten. He said the crisis, which has led to around 31,000 asylum seekers arriving in Norway during the past year alone, “escalated so quickly that the employees have been totally overworked.”
He recalled how UDI suddenly got a message from police one day “that they had just filled three busses with asylum seekers, and we had to find several hundred places to house them in the space of a few hours.” Fridfeldt said that turned out to be “an everyday occurance for many weeks in a row.”
Many UDI employees literally have worked around the clock to handle the sudden arrival of thousands of asylum seekers, many of them with small children. In addition, thousands started arriving over the border to Russia in the far northern county of Finnmark, where there were no facilities at all to house so many people. “We had no time to think clearly, we all just developed tunnel vision and were only preoccupied with finding housing, housing, housing,” Fridfeldt said.
The pace of arrivals has slowed in recent weeks, allowing some UDI workers to take some time off over Christmas, but it may just be a lull before another storm. Labour officials fear that some UDI workers may literally collapse from exhaustion, with some individual employees logging more than 300 hours of overtime. Fridfeldt himself tried to take one day off this past autumn, but it was interrupted by more than 200 phone calls.
“We can’t keep this up,” UDI personnel director Elisabeth Halsen told Aftenposten. She said she was impressed by how hard UDI staff has worked but it’s now raising health issues as the government calls for a national effort to help relieve the strain on UDI. State workers in other ministries and agencies are being asked to transfer, at least temporarily, to work at UDI, especially those with expertise in accounting, purchasing, safety and security, child care and communications. All state ministries are being asked to lend staff to UDI, which is also advertising for new staff of its own.