NEWS ANALYSIS: Kirkenes’ new, bright yellow school complex stands out in the otherwise muted Arctic city in Norway’s far north, this week for all the wrong reasons. The murders of one of the school’s young students and his mother, both from Thailand, have shaken Kirkenes and also present painful lessons to be learned about the situation for immigrant spouses all over the country who find themselves caught in unhappy marriages and worried about their rights and their future.
Details continued to emerge Tuesday from what police are finally starting to call a double murder and attempted suicide, carried out in the pre-dawn hours of Monday by a 59-year-old Norwegian man. He’s been charged with shooting his 37-year-old wife, Pimsiri “Pim” Songngam, and her 12-year-old son, Petchngam, both citizens of Thailand. Police suspect he then turned the gun on himself.
In line with Norwegian press tradition, which avoids reporting suicide and usually doesn’t name crime suspects until a conviction is in place, the Norwegian man’s identity has not been released. He remained in critical condition on Tuesday, after being transferred first from the hospital in Kirkenes to the University of North Norway’s hospital in Tromsø and finally to Oslo University Hospital Ullevål.
Songngam, known to friends as “Pim,” and her son were registered with local authorities as having moved from Thailand to Norway’s northernmost county of Finnmark in the middle of winter three years ago, in January 2013. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that “Pim” and the much older Norwegian man married three months later. She settled into life in Kirkenes, with NRK reporting that she held two jobs, both at the local Shell gasoline station and at the school where her son was enrolled.
Sought crisis center help
At some point their home must have become deeply troubled, because police confirm she sought help and planned to move to a local crisis center. Police have also confirmed that she went to the local police station late last week, supported by a friend, to inquire about the status of her son’s residence permission in Norway. After three years in Norway, with residence permission granted because of her marriage to a Norwegian, she finally qualified for permanent residence that would no longer be based on her marital status. The situation was less clear for her son, whom she clearly wanted to protect and keep with her.
“She said herself that she wanted to get out of (her marriage),” Jan Jamtli, a friend who accompanied her to the police station, told newspaper VG. Jamtli claimed, however, that the police had determined there had “only been a quarrel” in the family and they wouldn’t investigate her complaint of “psychological violence” at home with her husband. “So then she gets killed a few days later,” Jamtli told VG. “This is just terrible. The police have not done their job, and I told them so when they questioned me (on Monday, after the murders had occurred during the night).”
Police wouldn’t comment, but the case, and the desperation the two Thai victims are believed to have felt, may be particularly troubling for other immigrant spouses caught in unhappy marriages, especially those with less than three years of temporary residence permission. Some may have given up good careers and family relations to follow a spouse to Norway, while others may have married Norwegians as a ticket out of troubled homelands and even poverty. If the marriage goes bad, Norwegian immigration law is not on their side and they can land in an extremely difficult situation, even facing deportation if the marriage ends and they’ve legally been in Norway for less than three years. Proposals have also been lodged to extend that to five years. It’s not always easy for foreigners to simply move back home, and that can be the only option if they’re abandoned by Norwegian spouses or unable to tolerate a troubled marriage. Others simply try to stick it out, until they can decide on their own terms whether they want to stay in Norway or leave.
Break-up behind the murders
Police now think that the pending break-up of the marriage between the woman friends called “Pim” was behind the double murder. One theory is that her Norwegian husband was enraged by the prospect that she’d leave him, or that he felt betrayed and was desperate as well. The police investigation would continue, assisted by state police unit Kripos, while officials from the Thai Embassy in Oslo tried to help both Norwegian officials and relatives of Pim and her son back home. They and others in Kirkenes referred to both murder victims as “always smiling, always kind.” Pim’s son “like to play football and cards,” one of his friends told NRK. “He never did anything wrong.”
Many of those called “love refugees” in Norway by a professor at the Norwegian Business School BI end up with happy homes and successful new lives. More than a few foreign spouses, however, both men and women, end up stuck and even frightened when a marriage turns bad, even violent, or if they’re abandoned by their Norwegian spouse. That’s not unusual: Norwegians who bring foreign spouses home to Norway often find it too demanding to help their partner adjust to life in Norway, learn the language, find work and integrate socially. There have also been cases of exploitation, especially involving Asian women who come to Norway with Norwegian men.
It’s always a risk to leave one’s home and move abroad. For Pim and her son, it ended in the worst possible way and police in Kirkenes were facing criticism this week. The case also highlights the pitfalls of immigration law, not least when foreign spouses face a choice between deportation or living with danger at home.