Smiling and ready to take off on another summer vacation in the United States, Immigration Minister Sylvi Listhaug spent part of her last day before the July recess on Thursday summing up her successes and her goals after six months on the job. She also made it clear that she’s “just getting started” with her attempts to reform and further tighten Norwegian immigration policy.
“I’m happy, I’m really happy,” Listhaug told members of the Foreign Press Association in Oslo at an early morning meeting. “It’s been a stormy six months. I knew it would be hard. I thought it would be even harder. I’m satisfied with the situation now.”
That “situation” involves a sharp reduction in the numbers of asylum seekers and other immigrants arriving in Norway, from hundreds and even thousands a week late last year to around “50-70” now. “It’s because of the border controls, of course,” Listhaug said.
It also involves the Parliament’s approval earlier this month, after weeks of political quarreling also among Listhaug’s own fellow government ministers, of a series of measures to tighten immigration law. The Parliament softened some of Listhaug’s tough initial proposals, and neither she nor her conservative Progress Party managed to win political support for all 40 of them. The new rules will be stricter, though, and that’s what Listhaug likes to emphasize.
Limiting immigrants to a nation that produced thousands
Listhaug’s nearly ever-present smile can be deceptive, even annoying to her opponents who favour more liberal immigration regulations. She’s known for being tough and ambitious and lately she’s been especially keen to send out “signals” to would-be refugees that it’s not easy to head for Norway and secure asylum. Listhaug is blunt about her desire to stem the flow of people fleeing war and poverty, especially those she calls “economic migrants” who seek a better life in Europe. Even though Norway itself has historically produced hundreds of thousands of economic migrants itself, along with war refugees who included Norway’s royal family, Listhaug doesn’t want her now-prosperous country to take in any more people in need than it has to.
“You can’t compare the emigration from Norway to the US with what’s happening here now,” Listhaug claims. Norway’s labour market can’t absorb large numbers of unskilled or uneducated workers like the US labour market could, she insists. “There are few jobs here for people with no education,” Listhaug said, adding that Norway’s social welfare state also must cover the expenses of those arriving now, while immigrants to the US were largely on their own. Immigration to Norway puts pressure on the welfare system that Listhaug contends even oil-rich Norway can’t afford.
She said she does have sympathy for asylum seekers and would have sought the best for her own children as well if she found herself in a similarly desperate situation. The influx of refugees to Europe last year, though, simply couldn’t continue, Listhaug said, and she’s glad it was halted, at least for the time being.
Concentrating now on sending people back
Listhaug is putting her efforts now into sending back asylum seekers whose applications were denied. “One of the main problems for Europe is that we can’t always send them back,” Listhaug said. She and Foreign Minister Børge Brende are working on obtaining readmission agreements with a string of countries and she’ll be traveling to Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Lebanon and Jordan this fall to negotiate new deals. She said Norway sent around 8,000 out of the country last year and will send out another 9,000 this year.
Border controls will be maintained, especially along the border Norway shares with Russia, where thousands crossed last year. “We have to remember that’s a Schengen border (to the European area within which free movement has long been allowed),” Listhaug said. Its control has been tightened and, according to Listhaug, will continue to be more strictly controlled. She wouldn’t speculate on why it attracted so many asylum seekers last year, and said she has not had direct contact with Russian authorities herself.
She believes the refugee crisis will remain a “big challenge” for Norway and Europe “for a long time” and she’s “dedicated to the task” of continuing to try to control it. She’s not entirely opposed to immigration, noting that it has led to “more exciting” food in Norway, new businesses and services, “and I also like the way other cultures view elderly people with respect” and care for them not least within the family. She allowed that Norway needs to do a better job of integrating immigrants, accepting their education and competence and using it “in a much better way,” to avoid the chronic underemployment often found in Norway.
“No, the job is not done, not at all,” Listhaug said. “It’s just getting started.”