Aid can be tied to language skills

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Labour and Social Affairs Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen wants to cut welfare aid payments to needy young immigrants if they don’t take part in Norwegian language classes.  He’s sending a proposed law to Parliament aimed at boosting proficiency in Norwegian, and getting more immigrants into the labour market.

Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, Norway’s government minister in charge of labour and social welfare, wants stricter requirements for financial aid to boost immigrants’ proficiency in the Norwegian language. PHOTO: ASD/Ingrid Asp

“Norwegian is the entry ticket to the job market,” Isaksen, who represents the Conservative Party,  told newspaper Aftenposten. “A lack of Norwegian language skills can leave you facing closed doors.”

He’s now keen to demand that immigrants under the age of 30 who receive financial assistance from state welfare agency NAV must attend language classes if their Norwegian is poor. If not, their welfare payments can be cut.

Isaksen claims that immigrants are overrepresented among welfare recipients in Norway. He wants to make language classes part of NAV’s so-called “activity obligation,” which requires welfare recipients to actively be looking for work or taking on jobs or training arranged through NAV.

“If their Norwegian is the reason they’re struggling to find work, we want to make instruction in Norwegian part of their obligation for all those under age 30,” Isaksen told Aftenposten. “That will also improve integration and help more people qualify for work.”

Tougher times
Isaksen’s proposal comes, ironically enough, just as a new biography of Norway’s late King Olav V portrays both Olav, his Danish father and especially his British mother as immigrants who all struggled with the Norwegian language themselves. Queen Maud, a former British princess, never learned Norwegian, nor did she fully integrate into Norwegian society. She didn’t need a conventional job, though, and both immigration and integration requirements have become much tougher in recent years.

“In order to have successful integration,” Isaksen argues, “it’s important that those who intend to live in Norway learn Norwegian and take part in society, either through schooling, a job or other activities.” No one required that of Norway’s new queen in 1905, who also spoke only English with her son, even though he suddenly had become Norway’s crown prince. Olav did eventually learn Norwegian as a child and went on to become a cherished monarch, thanks mostly to official efforts to make him, according to the book, “more Norwegian than Norwegians.”

Asylum seekers in Norway go through a so-called “introduction program” that includes language classes and training to help them find jobs. Most all other immigrants, however, are on their own and often face expensive language classes in the private sector. Only those with documented economic problems are entitled to language instruction at public expense, even though language proficiency is generally required for those seeking permanent residence in Norway or Norwegian citizenship.

Isaksen conceded that the new obligatory language instruction he’s proposing will be tailored to the individual welfare recipient. If there’s a valid reason why a recipient can’t take part in Norwegian classes, it won’t be required.

Mixed reception
Aftenposten reported that Isaksen’s proposal won both criticism and praise. It’s likely to gain the support the government needs in Parliament from the conservative Progress Party, which is known for advocating tough immigration and asylum policy and withdrew from the government coalition in January. Isaksen’s boss, Prime Minister Erna Solberg, is keen to woo Progress back. The Conservatives’ proposed platform heading into next year’s national election also features more restrictive immigration and asylum policy.

Karin Andersen, a Member of Parliament for the Socialist Left party (SV), quickly bashed Isaksen’s link between language proficiency and state welfare support. She claimed that she usually supports efforts that contribute towards immigrants receiving better instruction in Norwegian, but not this one. “Cutting welfare payments is just a recipe for more poverty, not something that will improve Norwegian skills,” Andersen told Aftenposten.

The proposal won support, however, from a relatively new immigrant who now leads the organization Fakkeltog that works to boost integration and inclusion. “Jobs and education are the most effective inclusion tools we have,” Farooq Isam, who arrived in Norway in 2015, told Aftenposten. He claims that most immigrants have resources, experience, skills and the persistence needed to adapt to their new homeland.

“A lack of language skills can dampen those resources,” Isam said, adding that “adequate language instruction is crucial.” He thinks local governments should receive more resources from the state themselves to chart needs, measure language proficiency and offer language programs that also address special needs.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund