Expatriate workers in Norway who come from EU and European Economic Area (EØS) countries have also been hit hard by Norwegian welfare agency NAV’s misinterpretation of EU and EØS rules. Many of them have been wrongly stopped from traveling home when they’re sick or even to just visit family or attend a funeral, for fear of losing various NAV benefits to which they were entitled.
“There are thousands of EØS citizens who’ve had their rights violated for years,” Anna-Sofie Ekendal-Dreyer, leader of the Caritas humanitarian resource center in Oslo, told newspaper Dagsavisen. Now they also risk being overlooked as NAV rushes to compensate Norwegians who’ve been wrongly denied benefits or even convicted for having traveled to another EØS country.
Scores of immigrants in Norway from EØS countries visit the Caritas center every day, many of them with questions about NAV. “People who are sick wonder if they can travel home for Christmas,” Ekendal-Dreyer said. “We’ve been asking for guidelines from NAV, but so far we haven’t received any.”
She said Caritas and NAV have generally cooperated well, “but NAV needs to write more about this on their own website, also in languages like Spanish and Polish, so folks can understand.”
EU and EØS rules are based on the free flow of goods and services across members’ borders. Even though Norway is not a member of the EU, it’s obliged to follow EU rules because of its EØS trade and policy agreement with the EU. By denying eligible recipients welfare payments such as sick pay and unemployment benefits, because they were physically present in another EU/EØS country, NAV broke the rules for years. The immigrant workers should thus be just as eligible for compensation as Norwegians.
One woman at Caritas told Dagsavisen about her sister, who’d been working in Norway but lost her job and qualified for unemployment benefits. After traveling home to visit family in Spain, NAV wrongly halted her benefits and thus her only income.
“This is a widespread problem,” Ekendal-Dreyer said. Many immigrants have been afraid to visit family if they’re receiving sick- or disability pay. One man from Poland who received disability payments after being injured on the job in Norway even missed his wife’s funeral after she became seriously ill. NAV threatened to halt his benefits if he traveled back to Poland. He couldn’t afford to lose his benefits, but paid a high personal price in the end.
Several said NAV made them feel like criminals, “that NAV thinks we are trying to cheat the system.” Erkendal-Dreyer said she could understand why many feel like “second-class citizens” in Norway: “There aren’t many who care about this group (of migrant workers from within Europe, many of whom have construction jobs, work in the restaurant branch or as hotel maids).” Ekendal-Dreyer told Dagsavisen that she thinks many would like an apology, and compensation for not being able to meet their families when they had a need to do so. Others, however, feel powerless and “won’t want to take this further,” she said.
‘Cases will be reviewed…”
Anniken Hauglie, the government minister in charge of NAV, declared in Parliament last Wednesday that “everyone” who has been affected by the NAV scandal “shall know that their cases will be reviewed and their rights taken care of. The state will make up for this.”
Bjørnar Moxnes, a Member of Parliament for the Reds party, asked for a confirmation that Hauglie’s words also apply to those who did not travel because they were afraid they’d lose their benefits.
“We want to make sure everyone affected will receive compensation,” Hauglie replied. That includes “those who had to pay money back (because they’d defied NAV’s travel ban), those who traveled and lost money they still had a right to, and those who opted not to travel.”