Norway’s Conservative Party (Høyre) had dozens of major issues to debate at its annual national meeting this weekend, but among the most pressing and current was integration. Prime Minister Erna Solberg made it clear in her opening speech on Friday that if the party is to live up to its motto of “‘opportunities for everyone,’ we must succeed with integration.”
Solberg stressed that integration was more important than ever after the arrival of more than 30,000 new immigrants and asylum seekers in Norway last year. And she stressed that integration goes both ways: Norwegians can’t simply expect newcomers to quickly learn the language and adapt to local traditions. Immigrants, Solberg said, “must meet a society that is inclusive.”
She agrees with her minority coalition partner, the immigration-skeptical Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet), that immigrants must learn to speak, read, write and comprehend Norwegian. “They have to follow Norwegian laws and rules, and understand Norwegian customs,” Solberg said. “But they also have to meet Norwegians who will speak Norwegian with them, folks who can whisper a few words to them if they stumble over some of Norwegians’ many and perhaps strange social codes and unwritten rules.”
Solberg, who hails from the west coast city of Bergen, spoke of how the student union in Bergen has invited young asylum seekers to the local team Brann’s football matches. “That’s integration on an everyday basis, and it’s demanding to become ‘Bergenese,'” Solberg said to laughter from her record large audience at a hotel near Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen. “But some of the asylum seekers have already learned to put their hands on their hearts when the loudspeakers play Nystemten (Bergen’s city anthem). You can’t help getting integrated, and then it’s us, all of us, who contribute to that integration.”
The goal, of course, is also pragmatic. The sooner immigrants integrate, the sooner they can get jobs and start paying taxes, Solberg noted. A report released earlier this week by Norway’s state directorate for inclusion and diversity (IMDi) claimed that Norway is doing better than both Denmark and Sweden at including immigrants into local society. Immigrants in Norway had higher levels of employment, income and education than other countries in Scandinavia and the EU. Much of that may be a result of the country’s strong economy over the past decade, during which many jobs were created. That’s changing now because of the fall in oil prices, but Solberg stressed that those securing asylum in Norway, and other immigrants arriving, “must be received as self-sufficient people in a country with opportunity for all.”
The Conservatives have tapped one of the own Members of Parliament with an immigrant background, Mudassar Kapur, to lead its formulation of new integration policy. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported Friday how he’s traveled nationwide to study local integration programs and the efforts of volunteers who have reached out to new arrivals in Norway.
They include a company in Bodø, Bodø Industri, that takes on refugee interns so they can learn about life in a Norwegian business, improve language skills and obtain practical work experience. A couple in the northern city of Vadsø opened a second-hand shop that sells used furniture and other items with all profits funding a free athletics program for refugee children offering wrestling and swimming lessons. A woman in Sola, south of Stavanger, started up a språkkafé (language café) at the local library where locals and immigrants can mingle and chat so the newcomers can improve language skills and both can make new friends. A hiking group in Sula on the west coast simply invites immigrants out on hikes. “A day in the great outdoors doesn’t cost a thing, but gives a lot back,” hiking group leader Mariann Barstad told Kapur.
He said such efforts provide important arenas where immigrants can feel welcome and engage themselves in local society, while the locals can meet people from new cultures. The need for integration doesn’t just apply to asylum seekers but all immigrants, whether they’ve moved to Norway from Seattle or Somalia.
Kapur admitted that the Conservatives’ emphasis on integration may not always mesh with the tougher tones coming from their government partner, the Progress Party. Both parties have been criticized for proposing tough new asylum and immigration rules that many believe are aimed at scaring off more immigrants rather than welcoming them. The Progress Party’s policy tends to put most of the responsibility for integration on the newcomer, while the Conservatives and several other parties think integration should be a joint effort.
“They (Progress Party politicians) can say things in their way, and I will in mine,” Kapur told Dagsavisen. “I won’t say anyone’s rhetoric is negative or unwelcoming.” The Progress Party has been credited, meanwhile, with settling more refugees who’ve won asylum in Norway, by finding more homes for them in cities and communities all over the country than ever before.
When all the party speeches are over, Kapur said, “the real integration has to occur in every town and city, every apartment building entrance, every classroom. We must create a welcoming culture so that it’s not just an immigrant moving in next door. It’s a new neighbour. That’s why the grassroots level is so important.”