Retired Bishop Gunnar Stålsett was convicted by an Oslo court as expected on Thursday, for having offered work and income to a rejected refugee who couldn’t be sent back to Eritrea. That became illegal in 2011, but Stålsett described himself as a conscientious objector to a law he views as simply wrong.
The Oslo County Court handed Stålsett a suspended sentence of 45 days in jail for violating immigration law. Since the sentence was suspended, he won’t actually have to spend time in jail, but he was ordered to pay a fine of NOK 10,000 (USD 1,100).
Stålsett accepted both his conviction and sentence after earlier confessing to his crime in a courtroom packed with supporters just six days before Christmas. “I declare myself guilty for having given work to Lula Tekle,” Stålsett said in court Thursday morning.
Tekle is a now-55-year-old refugee from Eritrea who earlier worked legally both for the Norwegian church and in Stålsett’s home. When the law changed, she ended up working illegally for Stålsett, for another eight years. She’s one of an estimated 3,000 people in Norway who’ve been denied asylum but who for various reasons can’t be sent back to their homelands. That leaves them in a state of legal limbo, unable to support themselves or qualify for welfare benefits, but lacking resources to move to another country.
When Stålsett first offered her cleaning work both at his office and at his home, he testified, Tekle “had her Norwegian social security number and a tax card.” When they were withdrawn, Stålsett admitted, “I allowed her to keep working.” He objected to the law change that prevented illegal residents from working, saying that “I view it as a citizen’s duty to work towards changing laws that lead to unacceptable consequences for people.”
Renewed debate over the law
His case has renewed political debate over the plight of “paperless” immigrants in Norway. A majority in Parliament supports strict asylum and immigration policy, but several parties have been lobbying for at least a form of amnesty for people like Tekle, who was among those in the courtroom on Thursday. The Christian Democrats party, which is a member of the government coalition, hopes for an agreement before Christmas that would allow “paperless” people who have lived in Norway for at least 16 years to gain legal residence.
Stålsett doesn’t think that’s enough. He also made it clear that he has never wanted his age (84) or his “personal status” (as a retired bishop) to accord him any special privileges in the case. He made it clear he has “no regrets,” and he was applauded as he left the courtroom.
Stålsett’s crime was punishable with fines and as much as two years in prison. State prosecutors had sought a jail term of 45 days, out of consideration for his age and over his objections. Stålsett stressed that he viewed his conviction as of the law, and hopes it will lead to changes in the law itself. While amnesty can help some people like Tekle, he told reporters, it doesn’t address the real problem.
“This is a case about fairness and human compassion,” Stålsett told news bureau NTB before his court case began. “It’s about a group of people who live in constant uncertainty and feel unsafe, with no future. They are robbed of their most important means of dignity, the right to work, while their lives are put on hold. It’s an existential and personal ‘no-man’s land’ where they’re plagued by hopelessness from morning to night.”
Stålsett also characterized the treatment of such rejected refugees as a fundamental challenge for the rule of law and the values that are expected to lie within both a humanist and Christian mindset.