A murder trial beginning this week in Northern Norway points up the lack of security and even potential hazards facing newly arrived foreign spouses of Norwegian citizens, and their children. So-called “love-” or “marriage-immigrants” are often utterly dependent on their Norwegian spouses, and that can leave them vulnerable to exploitation and dangerous situations.
The trial that began Monday in the Øst-Finnmark Court in Vadsø illustrates an ultimate worst-case scenario. A 59-year-old Norwegian man from Kirkenes is charged with murdering his 37-year-old wife from Thailand and her 12-year-old son before turning his rifle on himself on a late summer night last August. He survived and has admitted to the shootings but he denies he’s guilty of a criminal offense. He claimed in court on Monday, after recovering from his wounds sufficiently enough to testify, that he doesn’t remember anything from the shootings.
The murders shocked Kirkenes and not least its Thai community, which includes several Thai women who have married local Norwegian men. Immigrants can often be viewed as a positive new resource for many of Norway’s small- and medium-sized towns, especially those that are remote. Newspaper Aftenposten reported in 2015, for example, how the percentage of women living in Bygde-Norge (Small-town Norway) has taken a dive in recent years, with many young female residents opting to move to Oslo or other cities, to study or work. “There aren’t many women here,” confirmed one young man living in Stor-Elvdal, far south of Kirkenes. Also at the other end of the country, he experienced the same as what’s prompted men elsewhere in Norway to find wives abroad; a sheer lack of eligible partners.
Researchers hasten to note that the vast majority of those marrying Norwegians and moving to Norway end up with good lives in what’s been ranked as the world’s happiest country. They don’t receive anywhere near the state support offered to refugees, however, in terms of language training and integration programs, and often find themselves dependent on their spouse or spouse’s family. Many foreign women, especially from Asia and Africa, who marry Norwegian men have admittedly sought a better life in Norway. They can end up in unhappy marriages, and stuck in them because of controversial clauses in Norwegian immigration law.
Hindered by the ‘three-year rule’
Pimsiri Songngam, known as Pim, and her son known as Belt, had come to live in Kirkenes with her new Norwegian husband. She came first and Belt arrived later. Both were both found shot in the face, reportedly while they slept. Just three days earlier she had appeared at the police station in Kirkenes with a note claiming she was a victim of “psychologically inflicted violence.” She had also arranged to move with her son to an apartment arranged by the local crisis center, as a first step in ending her marriage to the Norwegian. She had already obtained permanent residence permission in Norway, but wanted to make sure her son would be able to remain with her in Norway as well. Both were killed the day before she and her son planned to move out of her Norwegian husband’s home.
It’s not the first time immigrant women have become victims of their spouses in Norway, and the murder already has highlighted the painful lessons to be learned about the situation for those in what are now being called “trans-national marriages.” Now it’s raising new objections to Norway’s so-called “three-year rule,” which decrees that immigrants coming to Norway with a Norwegian spouse must remain married while physically present in Norway for at least three years before they qualify for permanent residence permits.
“We have been warning the authorities (about the three-year rule) for years, but no politicians dare to touch it,” Tove Smaadahl, leader of Norway’s Crisis Center Secretariat, told A-Magasinet over the weekend. “The three-year rule gives Norwegian men in trans-national marriages enormous power. Many (women) remain in dangerous relationships because they’ll be thrown out of Norway if they leave their husband before three years have passed.” In some cases, the Norwegian spouse dumps their foreign partner before the three years are up, which also generally means the foreigner will be expelled from Norway.
Opens for exploitation
Some lawyers and immigration advocates believe the three-year rule is consciously used by some Norwegians to exploit their foreign spouses. Hanne Stenvaag, leader of the crisis center for the Tromsø region in Northern Norway, points to several examples where Norwegian men have threatened to send their wives back to their homelands. That leaves their wives vulnerable to social and economic control, restricted freedom of movement, sexual pressure and physical violence. They can end up in cases that authorities equate to legalized human trafficking.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported a case over the weekend of an Asian woman who met and married a Norwegian man and moved with him and her two children to Norway. Once in Norway, all three were subjected to physical abuse and when he lost his job, they were forced to work night and day in a restaurant to pay him NOK 20,000 a month, which he gambled away online. She had no network of her own in Norway, couldn’t understand the language and had no idea about any rights she had.
“Some of these men behave in a way you can hardly believe,” Gro Wildhagen, an attorney who has represented many foreign spouses in Norway. “Most people have no idea how serious these cases can be.” Guri Tyldum of the Oslo-based research institute Fafo has studied trans-national marriages for years, agreed. The Norwegian spouse, she notes, knows the language and how Norwegian society functions, while their spouse from abroad is a foreigner without the language or a network. Many of the Norwegian men who marry foreign women are themselves lonely in Norway, meaning the couple can live an isolated life.
Thousands of potential victims
Last year alone, 1,109 women and 233 men from Thailand were allowed to move to Norway on the grounds of family reunification. That’s second only to Syrians in the statistics compiled by Norway’s immigration agency UDI. All told, around 4,250 foreign women arrive in Norway every year to live with their Norwegian husbands, according to state statistics bureau SSB (Statistics Norway), which compiled the figure for Aftenposten. Around 3,460 children also came to Norway during the past five years, via their mothers’ marriages to Norwegian men.
How they manage remains mostly up to their spouses, according to Tyldum of Fafo, since Norwegian politicians “have largely left their integration up to the men they married. For those who found a kind man willing to help them integrate, it can be fine, while others find themselves with unresourceful or even violent men.”
Per Sandberg, Norway’s acting government minister in charge of immigration and integration, and his conservative Progress Party have been stressing the need for integration for years. He and fellow minister Sylvi Listhaug have mostly seemed to make integration the responsibility of the new immigrant, and Sandberg wouldn’t comment on the lawyers’ claims of how Norwegians can restrict their own spouses’ and children’s integration. A ministry spokesman, howver, noted that all new arrivals in Norway now are expected to take part in state-offered classes regarding language and society. The offer is not nearly as extensive as that offered refugees, however, and there’s little follow-up regarding required attendance.
Smaadahl of the national crisis center system also cited what she called “serial importers” of foreign brides. “Some of the women in our crisis centers have been abused by the same man,” she told Aftenposten.
Extension of the three-year rule halted
Norway’s conservative government coalition last year proposed extending the residence requirement in Norway from three to five years. Several organizations including the Norwegian Bar Association, the state equality ombud, the directorate for integration and diversity and the police all protested, on the grounds that the three-year rule already left foreign spouses vulnerable to exploitation. The proposal was ultimately withdrawn, leaving the three-rule intact.
Calls continue for its withdrawal as well. “It takes courage to break out of any violent relationship,” Karin Andersen, a Member of Parliament for the Socialist Left party (SV), told A-Magasinet. “For immigrant women, the three-year rule is an extra burden.” Andersen was among those strongly critical to the proposal to extend it to five years, and doesn’t believe the existing rule provides immigrant spouses with enough protection.
It remains on the books for now, but the controversy around it has resurfaced in connection with this week’s murder case. State officials stress that immigrants who can prove physical abuse can be exempted from the rule. Of the 109 women who exercised that right last year, 73 prevailed. The other claims were rejected, and Tyldum worries that many others aren’t aware of the potential exemption.
Many of the women she has interviewed feel they lack control over their own lives, and must choose between remaining in a destructive relationship or having to uproot once again and leave the country. Police Chief Ellen Katrine Hætta in Kirkenes calls the murder case now underway “enormously tragic.” She doesn’t think the police could have done anything different, though.
“The police can’t get involved in all divorce cases,” Hætta told A-Magasinet. “We can’t have that.”