Sylvi Listhaug, Norway’s government minister in charge of immigration and integration, was back in the news this week, exactly one year to the day since she first presented a long list of proposals aimed at toughening Norway’s asylum and immigration rules. This time Listhaug, who has sparked controversy since the day she was appointed, was claiming that she’s often misunderstood.
“It’s become a sport to misunderstand me,” Listhaug told news bureau NTB as she wound up the year and geared up for some maternity leave. She’s expecting her third child, but despite Norway’s fully-paid parental leave that can last for a year or more, Listhaug has said she’ll be back at work well in advance of this summer’s and fall’s election campaign.
For Listhaug and her Progress Party, Norway’s most conservative party represented in Parliament, it will be a re-election campaign aimed at also retaining their place as part of the country’s minority coalition government. The Progress Party had never held government power before forming the coalition with the Conservative Party after the last national election in 2013. The Conservatives’ prime minister, Erna Solberg, has been catching flak lately for allegedly turning too far to the right in their efforts to keep the coalition together, but most commentators think both parties want to retain government power.
Listhaug has been a target of the anti-right, not least for her efforts to discourage asylum seekers from heading for Norway but also for her recent efforts to force returns of those who fail to meet the stricter asylum criteria that came into force on her watch. There’s been a string of complaints that Listhaug is more divisive than inclusive, and that her participation in a recent hunt for illegal aliens along with police “crossed a line.” Some critics even drew comparisons to how police during the Nazi German occupation of Norway during World War II hunted for Norwegian Jews and sent them to concentration camps in 1942.
That’s where Listhaug herself drew the line with her critics. “I have put up with a lot, I don’t think there’s a single leader in the Third Reich that I haven’t been compared to,” Listhaug told NTB. “Sometimes I feel a need to send a message that (the criticism) is way out of line.”
Listhaug has been called one of “Europe’s Trumps” and she has indeed lashed out at all the claims of fellow Norwegian politicians that the US president-elect scares them. “It’s not any state coup we’ve been witness to in the US,” Listhaug said after Donald J Trump won the US election. She claimed it was important to “calm down” and get ready to work with Trump. She flatly refused to compare herself with Trump, though: “I have my own style. I’m not like anyone else. I just want to be myself.”
She raised perhaps the biggest stir over the controversial forced returns of rejected refugees when it prompted a Norwegian actor to urge other Norwegians, via Facebook, to send donations to NOAS, the local advocacy group for asylum seekers, in her name. The stunt quickly raised more than NOK 3 million for NOAS, which turned out to be part of the campaign. Listhaug responded by using her own Facebook page to urge people to send donations to Christian organization Åpne Dører (Open Doors), which aids persecuted Christians in many countries. Her counter-campaign raised around NOK 100,000 but the organization wasn’t comfortable by suddenly becoming part of a political battle. “We think it’s unfortunate we’ve been put up against NOAS,” its local leader Morten Askeland told newspaper VG earlier this month. “We have respect for NOAS.”
War of words
When Listhaug dismissed critics of what she considers “strict and sustainable asylum policies” as “voices from a chorus of wailers,” demonstrators showed up outside her office and screeched and wailed and made it clear they think Listhaug should be ashamed of herself. “We’re trying to shatter prejudice and build up understanding and tolerance,” one member of what Listhaug called a hylekor wrote in newspaper Aftenposten. “We want and expect an immigration and integration minister to do the same.”
Several politicians, some with background from the Conservative Party, also criticized Listhaug’s use of social media and her tough language, not least on a blog she launched in November. “I don’t think you should characterize people who disagree with your opinion as a ‘hylekor’ when you’re a government minister,” Kristin Clemet, a former minister herself for the Conservatives, told Aftenposten last month. Petter Bae Brandtzæg, who conducts research on the Internet and social media for SINTEF, has said he’s often been shocked by Listhaug’s style in social media. “She has a very aggressive way of communicating,” Brandtzæg told Aftenposten. “When you’re sitting in the government, I think it’s strange that you don’t use a more inclusive tone.”
Aftenposten itself has editorialized against Listhaug, claiming in one recent headline that “government ministers have a special responsibility for a fair, honest and straightforward debate,” using a “professional, fact-based tone.” Norway’s largest newspaper wrote that Listhaug has a unique ability “to stir up her opponents” by her choice of words: “Saying that someone is ‘fueled by hate’ (as Listhaug referred to a columnist in newspaper Dagsavisen) should be below a government minister’s dignity.” In another case, Listhaug commented that she was “prepared for a shit-storm” of criticism, not the way most ministers refer publicly to political opposition.
Wouldn’t do anything differently
Listhaug has defended her style and her tone, again this week. She thought her “hylekor” characterization of her critics was fully justified. She calls the criticism “predictable” but denies she’s responsible for the fact it’s not more constructive. “What folks claim I’ve said sparks debate,” she told NTB on Thursday, “but I think most people would support what I’ve actually said.”
Listhaug claims her critics misunderstand her on purpose. She’s satisfied with her first year as the minister in charge of immigration and integration. Asked if she can think of anything she wished she’d done differently, she said “no.” She claimed that the signals Norway now sends as having a “strict asylum practice” contribute to why so few asylum seekers arrived in Norway in 2016. She continued to blame Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre this week for setting off last year’s refugee influx by claiming in the spring of 2015 that Labour would support taking in at least 8,000 refugees. “Signals have great significance for how attractive Norway is portrayed for asylum seekers,” she told newspaper Dagsavisen. She added to NTB that it’s also “important that those who have had their asylum applications rejected are sent out.” The low numbers of refugees now arriving means Norway can help more people outside of Europe, she said.
“This is all about helping the most people in need possible,” Listhaug claimed. “That’s what’s morally important to me.” She was working on Thursday, despite Norway’s romjul holidays between Christmas and New Year, hosting a meeting in Oslo of her Danish counterpart and an Islamic critic from Somalia, all worrying that too much Islamic immigration can threaten women’s rights and equality in western countries, because Islamic women “are often scared into silence.”
Her critics who remain positive to immigration, and who remain in the majority in Norway, aren’t convinced and aren’t likely to show her much slack either. Newspaper Dagbladet was perhaps the harshest in its assessment of Listhaug’s first year as immigration minister in a recent editorial: “Why can’t Sylvi Listhaug manage to reach out a hand to someone without spitting at others in the face?” There was no immediate response.