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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Drammen fends off racism claims

Engaged residents of Drammen, especially the leader of its youth council, blame their own city politicians for stirring up claims that their culturally diverse city southwest of Oslo had become racist. “Everyone who lives here knows that Drammen is not a racist city,” claimed the youth council’s leader on a nationally televised debate.

Drammen has recently undergone a remarkable transformation from its former industrial era to become a riverfront city with rich cultural diversity. Now some worry its reputation has been damaged by a city council decision to restrict the number of refugees it’s willing to take in, and that they only come from Ukraine. PHOTO: NewsInEnglish.no/Morten Møst

Ronja Bajalan, a local high school student, decided it was time to confront city politicians who decided last week to not only reduce the number of refugees they’re willing to take in, but also to only accept refugees from Ukraine. City Council member Jon Helgheim of the right-wing Progress Party, which has sought to limit immigration for years, had controversially claimed that Ukrainian refugees would be easier to integrate than those from other war-torn countries.

“We have a very high portion of non-Western immigrants in Drammen, have taken in many refugees over a long period and we have major integration problems,” Helgheim claimed. The city politicians’ decision to only accept around 125 new refugees, and only from Ukraine, was approved by just one vote.

That set off claims, also from opposition politicians on the City Council, that Helgheim and his allies from the Conservative and Christian Democrats parties had all but put racism into the system. Simon Nordanger of the Center Party went so far as to file charges with local police that the city was violating state law against discrimination based on ethnicity, nationality, language, skin color and culture. The Christian Democrat behind the lone vote that gave Progress and the Conservatives the slimmest of majorities said she felt pressured and now hopes the decision will be deemed illegal.

Debate has continued to fly, not least on social media after lots of young multi-cultural residents of Drammen felt offended and angry. Bajalan was among them, and she accepted an invitation to appear on NRK’s populate debate program Debatten to publicly scold politicians like Helgheim.

“Now it’s all about trying to clean up the mess they have made, because we’ve been branded as a racist city,” Bajalan said, “but everyone who lives in Drammen knows Drammen is not a racist city. I am dedicated to making our voices heard.”

She noted how she and others from immigrant families suddenly found themselves wondering “what’s wrong with me” and whether they should live in Drammen, since only western European refugees are now deemed acceptable. She clearly claimed that the decision promoted mostly by Progress- and Conservative Party members “goes against our values regarding inclusion, solidarity, fellowship and cultural enrichment.”

Jon Helgheim has been accused of trying to polarize debate or even just grab attention through his effort to restrict settlement of refugees in Drammen. His right-wing Progress Party has a long history of trying to limit immigration to Norway. PHOTO: Fremskrittspartiet

Helgheim, a former Member of Parliament until he lost his seat in the last national election, and local Conservative politicians were even challenged by Conservative leaders at the national level including Jan Tore Sanner, who accused Helgheim of wanting to cause trouble and polarize the debate. “You should be praising Drammen (for all it’s done in taking in refugees over the years)” instead of criticizing it, Sanner said on the debate program after Helgheim had been cut off by moderator Fredrik Solvang.

Helgheim was hired as communications chief for for the Progress Party after he lost his seat in Parliament. Dag Inge Fjeld of Kristiania College in Oslo told NRK that he thinks Helgheim and the party itself is using Drammen as a “test balloon” of sorts, to see if it can also restrict settlement of refugees elsewhere in the country.

Bajalan remained disgusted and committed to continue working towards inclusion and integration. She acknowledged challenges tied to integration but doesn’t want to give up, and was reaping lots of support for her views.

Tor Bang, a professor at business school BI, said he doesn’t think Drammen’s reputation, which has been greatly improved in recent years, will be damaged by the City Council flap. Others fear it can cause problems for Ukrainian refugees who already have been favoured over most others. They’ve been allowed to travel back to Ukraine without losing their collective protection status, they received free public transport passes that other refugees never had, they could bring pets with them into Norway and are allowed to live where they choose, while refugees from countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Iran are assigned housing and lose their rights if they leave designated asylum centers.

The extremely close 29-28 vote to accept only 125 Ukrainian refugees was also criticized by Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and the president of the Norwegian Parliament who comes from Drammen himself. Its legality will now be determined by the local county governor, since it remains unclear whether local communities have a right to reject refugees sent to them.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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