Norway’s new immigration minister, Sylvi Listhaug, isn’t waiting to toughen asylum and immigration rules pending full consensus on a rash of new proposals. She’s keen to enforce some tough rules that already exist, and thus sent out instructions this week ordering immigration officials to deport asylum seekers granted temporary refugee status if peace returns to their homelands.
Norway thus has become the first country in Europe to declare that temporary asylum status can suddenly be withdrawn for those no longer determined to be in need of protection. Refugees with permanent asylum status won’t be affected by the new instructions.
Listhaug told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that current rules already allow for such returns of refugees who’ve been granted temporary asylum status, if hostilities cease in their home countries. The rules haven’t been put into practice, though, and Listhaug now wants them enforced.
“Those who come from countries that become peaceful and stable shall travel back and be part of rebuilding efforts,” Listhaug told NRK. “We want to make sure UDI (Norway’s immigration agency Utlendingsdirektoratet) practices that.”
Around 15,000 refugees in Norway currently have only temporary residence permission in Norway. The number is likely to rise quickly as the roughly 30,000 asylum seekers who arrived last year have their applications evaluated.
Listhaug’s instructions, sent out on Thursday, take effect immediately. She also wants the period for temporary asylum to be expanded from three to five years, but that’s part of the controversial measures she proposed just after Christmas that face more debate in Parliament this spring and must win approval.
The majority of refugees in Norway now come from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Listhaug and her conservative Progress Party have long demanded that all refugees and immigrants in Norway integrate themselves and learn Norwegian as quickly as possible.
Asked whether there’s a risk refugees will lose motivation for integration if their “probation” period is extended to five years with the possibility of deportation, Listhaug said she still “expects that those who come to Norway make the best out of their situation, that they view learning Norwegian and integration as an important part of what they must do.” It was unclear whether the government will invest in language classes or other programs aimed at promoting integration for those who may be sent out of the country.
Listhaug said she had some “understanding” that it can become even more difficult for refugees who have integrated and had children in Norway to be deported back to countries where they may have lost their homes, jobs and networks. “At the same time, no one has a basic right to be settled in another country,” Listhaug told NRK. “Norway can offer protection, but if peace and stability return (to refugees’ homelands), then they should go back.”
Uncertainty for Eritreans
Concern also immediately rose among many refugees in Norway who fled Eritrea to avoid potentially life-long military service in the country’s harsh dictatorship. Those with temporary asylum status now face uncertainty over whether they may now be sent back, a frightening prospect that prompted a spokesman for an Eritrean association in Oslo to tell NRK that “given the situation in the country, no one will travel back now. Young people in Eritrea live in fear and under a tyrannical regime.”
Listhaug admitted that Norway “knows very little about Eritrea” because of its authorities’ “lock” on information. One of Listhaug’s former government and party colleagues traveled there last year, however, and attempted to build contact with officials.
Asked whether Eritrean refugees could also be returned if the Norwegian government secures an agreement with their Eritrean counterparts, Listhaug replied: “If peace and stability return to Eritrea and we know that people won’t be subjected to persecution, torture and the other principles contained in human rights, we will of course do so.”