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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Drammen accused of refugee racism

Last week’s vote by the Drammen City Council to only accept refugees from Ukraine has set off charges of discrimination and racism, and left at least one local politician in tears. Now it’s up to the regional authority to decide whether the vote has broken the law.

There’s been a lot of drama going on here in Drammen, after its City Council voted by the slimmest of majorities to only accept 125 more refugees, and only from Ukraine. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Drammen, located southwest of Oslo, has a population of just over 100,000, 25 percent of whom are immigrants to Norway. The city was recently asked to take in 340 more refugees this year, but its conservative coalition government thought that was too many. City administrators recommended 250 but the government agreed to only half that, and only if all the refugees come from Ukraine.

“We’ve taken in far too many immigrants for many years,” said Jon Helgheim of the conservative Progress Party. “We have a very high portion of non-Western immigrants in Drammen, we have taken in many refugees over a long period and we have a big integration problem.”

Helgheim thinks it will be easier to integrate refugees from Ukraine, without clearly explaining why. His political opponents were clear in their criticism and even went so far as to report the city council’s decision to local police.

“This is racism put into the system,” an angry representative from the Center Party, Simon Nordanger, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He claims that paragraph six of Norway’s anti-discrimination law “is clear that ethnicity can’t be used as a reason to treat people differently. That’s what this is.” Another city council member from the Christian Democrats Party burst into tears, claiming she felt forced into voting for the measure as part of the conservative majority coalition, but that favouring one immigrant group over another was not her party’s policy.

Nordanger was so angry about the council’s decision, which passed by only one vote, that he went to the local police station and filed charges against the local government. He’s already won support from others on the council that the decision treats people differently and can be considered racist.

Not so, retorts Helgheim, who hails from a party with a history of trying to reduce immigration. Now it’s also trying to limit the state’s power in setting immigration policy. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre was quick to claim that local governments like the one in Drammen can’t choose which immigrants they’ll accept.

Jon Helgheim has been a high-profile spokesperson for the Progress Party on strict immigration policy. When he lost his nomination to Parliament from his home district of Buskerud, he wound up on Drammen’s city council, where he’s now trying to only accept refugees from Ukraine, not countries in Africa or the Middle East. PHOTO: Frp

Until Russia invaded Ukraine, the majority of immigrants to Norway have come from Africa and the Middle East, especially Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and Somalia. They usually numbered less than 20,000 a year but last year Norway settled around 65,000, the vast majority from Ukraine.

Helgheim of the Progess Party denies he’s pitting refugee groups against one another. “There are problems with all types of refugees, but there are different problems depending on where they come from,” he told newspaper Klassekampen, when trying to explain why Ukrainian refugees seem more welcome in Drammen than those from other countries.

He noted how Progress has long argued that refugee problems in general should be handled closest to the area of conflicts, presumably so that they can more easily return home if and when hostilities cease. The war in Ukraine, in his view, is simply closer than the conflicts creating refugees in the Middle East and Africa.

“Drammen really doesn’t have capacity (for any more refuees),” Helgheim said, “but we feel an extra obligation towards Ukraine. There we have stretched us to take in 125 refugees from Ukraine this year.” The ultimate goal, he added, “is better integration, and that’s a legitimate goal.”

Helgheim scoffed at Prime Minister Støre’s criticism and initial declaration that Drammen’s decision is illegal. Støre later moderated his position and will leave the decision to the regional authority but he still doesn’t like it: “This is something for the state to decide, not a local government, which can only decide how many they refugees they can take in.”

The state, meanwhile, has further cut back on benefits offered to Ukraininian refugees, who’ve been offered collective protection in Norway. As many as 45,000 more are expected to arrive in Norway this year and one out of three already in Norway have said they want to stay.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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