Indictment reveals refugees at risk

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A shocking indictment that charges a former top Norwegian official with abusing his role to obtain sexual favours from asylum seekers is prompting urgent calls for better protection and care of some of the most vulnerable young people in Norway. The indictment has severely shaken politicians and administrators alike, and been branded as nothing less than a “fundamental violation of confidence and trust.”

Asylum seekers arriving in Norway have often met a strict reception and lots of uncertainty over whether they’ll win refugee status and, ultimately, residence permission. Young asylum seekers arriving alone are viewed as being among the most vulnerable and subject to exploitation. PHOTO: UDI/Hero

Svein Ludvigsen, the former government minister and county governor under indictment, allegedly told at least two young asylum seekers that he was in a position to grant or retract citizenship in Norway, or that he could arrange permanent residence for them. Prosecutor Tor Børge Nordmo has stressed that Ludvigsen would not have been able to make such alleged claims to win sexual favours if he hadn’t been county governor in Troms.

Ludvigsen, age 72, denies the charges against him but now faces up to 12 years in prison for alleged abuse of power. As details continued to emerge from the indictment and police investigation that led to it, it’s been revealed that police received their first complaint about Ludvigsen in 2015, the year after he retired as fylkesmann for Troms County since 2006. That case was eventually dropped for lack of evidence. When another young man filed a complaint against Ludvigsen in Oslo in December of last year, it was forwarded to police in Troms, who investigated and then reopened the case from 2015. Ludvigsen was ultimately arrested in January and held in custody for five weeks while the investigation continued.

‘Cynical’ and ‘systematic’
Charges were expanded to include three young men, one of whom allegedly was subjected to sexual assaults by Ludvigsen from 2011 to 2017 at the asylum institution where he was living, at Ludvigsen’s holiday cabin and at various hotels i Oslo. Another young asylum seeker, who’s also described as physically impaired, was also allegedly assaulted at the institution where he lived on several occasions, while the third plaintiff was, over a period of three months in 2014, allegedly subjected to Ludvigsen’s sexual advances after Ludvigsen had made him believe that he could acquire a home and permanent residence permission for him in Norway.

“If what’s been presented in the indictment is correct, we are talking about a person in a position of trust who cynically has exploited his position towards people in extremely vulnerable situations,” Ann-Magrit Austena, secretary general of the Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers (NOAS), told newspaper Dagsavisen on Thursday. She said she’s most shocked by how “systematic” the exploitation was: “This isn’t a matter of sporadic incidents, but a man who planned over long periods of time to acquire sexual contact with promises that he had influence over their rights to residence in Norway. He has appeared as a friendly and caring adult who invited these young men home and shown interests in supporting their (asylum) cases, and then this happens.”

‘Supposed to be safe here’
The leader of the state agency in charge of equality, integration and diversity in Norway (LIM) describes the alleged exploitation as both vicious and reprehensible. “Many of the asylum seekers who come to Norway have little confidence in authorities or institutions,” LIM’s secretary general, Dana-Æsel Manouchehri, told newspaper Aftenposten. “They come to a country that’s supposed to be safe, where you can rely on the authorities, and then they get this right in their face. This is a terrible violation of trust if the indictment is correct.”

Austena and others claim the indictment shows an urgent need for better care, protection and follow-up of young asylum seekers in Norway. “We need to pay closer attention in our conversations with them,” Austena told Dagsavisen. “We might hear about good helpers who perhaps aren’t so helpful, and have other motives.” She noted that the vast majority of asylum seekers, especially those below the legal age of 18 in Norway, are utterly dependent on adults who can help them.

“These are children and youth who have already been through so much,” Austena said. “Relations with adults can mean a lot to them, while they’re also extremely subject to violations of trust.” She thinks responsibility for asyslum seekers should be moved from the state immigration agency (UDI) to state child and family care agencies.

Monitor with a mandate
It’s unclear whether that would have helped in this case. The indictment made public on Wednesday has also severely shaken those working at the state agency in charge of aiding families and youth, Bufetat. It ran one of the institutions where one of the plaintiffs was staying after arriving in Norway as a young asylum seeker on his own. Pål Christian Bergstrøm, in charge of Bufetat’s northern region, remembers that Ludvigsen was a frequent visitor, often arriving after normal work hours and spending time with young asylum seekers alone.

As county governor and literally the king’s representative in Troms, Ludvigsen was the top authority and monitor of local child and youth care provided by the state. Visiting the insitution therefore “fell under his mandate,” Bergstrøm told both Dagsavisen and Aftenposten. Ludvigsen had an “untraditional interpretation” of his role as monitor, with his after-hours visits and invitations to his home and hytte, that Bergstrøm and his staff “drafted” among themselves.

There was never any suspicion that he was breaking the law, Bergstrøm stressed, and the visits were viewed as in line with Ludvigsen’s informal style and engagement. The Bufetat staff thought perhaps they’d receive reports from Ludvigsen after his visits, but they never did.

Looking forward to his day in court
Ludvigsen’s defense attorney Ulf E Hansen told Aftenposten that his client was “disappointed” that an indictment had been taken out against him, “but not especially surprised” because he’s “realistic” and looks forward to defend himself in court. Hansen said Ludvigsen can’t understand why the three young men would report him to police. “The three are among the many he has met and tried to help find their way in our society,” Hansen said. “They are three of very many youth he has met along his way.”

Former Tromsø Mayor Jens Johan Hjort, a lawyer himself who now leads Norway’s bar association, has been a good friend of Ludvigsen. He thinks Ludvigsen, who has declined comment on the case, is looking forward to defend himself against the charges of sexual assault and abuse of power.

“If this case had been dropped, it would have been something still hanging over him,” Hjort told TV2 on Wednesday. “It’s a good thing that he now gets an opportunity to defend himself in court. He must get a fair trial, and we must regard him as innocent until the opposite is proven.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund