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The Norway model: a new approach to immigration and asylum

Germany is this weekend seeing whether or not Angela Merkel will be able to form a government as she deals with the political fallout from her immigration policy. Quite a contrast from Norway, whose Conservative-led coalition recently entered its second term after taking a very different approach to refugees. Last week I met Sylvi Listhaug, who holds a recently-created position: Norway’s Minister for Immigration & Integration. She’s with the Progress Party, the junior partner in coalition. You often read about her being ‘outspoken’ or ‘controversial’ and I was interested to see what kind of radical views she holds. At the end of the interview, I was left wondering if her take on refugee policy is actually further-sighted and more morally defensible than the Merkel approach.

Norway’s approach has been different from the offset. When Sweden accepted 160,000 asylum-seekers in 2015, the Norwegians took in 30,000 – and this year, so far, it’s 2,000. No country has seen a sharper fall in refugees. In her interview, she outlined the following elements of the Norwegian model.

1) Norway starts by acknowledging that the rich world has a moral duty to help refugees, but it goes further. The tougher moral question, it says, is: how do you help them? With 65m on the move, accepting a few thousand at home will only ever be a token. And if you can help far more refugees in camps abroad for the cost of helping one at home, should you not do so? Britain is also thinking this way, although it tends to be less open about discussing it. Ms Listhaug had just met Brandon Lewis, her British counterpart, when I spoke to her. He’d given her a ratio: for the cost of helping 3,000 refugees who arrive in Britain, the UK government could help 100,000 refugees in camps overseas.

2). Norway spends huge sums (1% of its GDP) on foreign aid. Last year it was 36.6 billion krone (about £3 billion) or 1.1 per cent of its GDP. This is about double the EU average, and far above the UK’s 0.7 per cent (or Germany’s 0.5pc). In Syria, Norway has pledged a total of 10 billion krone (£920m) over four years. Of course, such largesse is easier for Norway given the trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund at its disposal.

3) Norway uses its foreign aid budget to help settle refugees in Norway. Helping refugees at home is a humanitarian mission, albeit one carried at home, so it is categorised as foreign aid. Any money saved from fewer refugees in Norway is spent helping refugees abroad.

4) Norway turns away economic migrants (ie, who are not in need of protection). She says her policy is unambiguous. ‘If you are an economic migrant, you are declined in Norway. We give protection for the ones that need that, that are in danger in their own country but we also spend a lot of money to return people that are declined in Norway, also by force’. Police are sent to look for illegal immigrants in restaurants and other places ‘where black [market] labour is common… if we find them we will send them out. That has also decreased the crime in Norway, that’s very good'”

5) Deportation works. ‘We send people back to Afghanistan if they are not in need of protection, we send them back to Somalia if they are not in need of protection’. I asked her if this is expensive. ‘Yes, but it’s well worth it’. It’s about the deterring message, she says, underling the futility of coming to Norway without proper cause. ‘So If I’m in Afghanistan and I want a better life, I should not pay a smuggler to get me to Norway because if I am not in need of protection I will be sent back.’

6) The dramatic fall in Norway’s refugee intake has led to a dramatic rise in money spent helping refugees in camps abroad. So over the last couple of years, Norway has upped its aid budget by about 4 billion krone (£370 million) as a direct result of the fall in the number of asylum seekers. And a sharp increase in foreign aid is expected next year as a dividend of its being able to control refugees.

7) Listhaug thinks the 1951 UN Refugee Convention is a document ‘for its time‘ and does not reflect the modern realities of people trafficking and globalisation. The 1951 Convention was written to stop a repetition of the 1930s and obliges signatories to help anyone with a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’. As the global total of refugees surges, this is problematic and creates an incentive for people traffickers.

8) Norway regards people trafficking as a modern evil that is being fed by the system of accepting whoever turns up. If you smuggle an unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan to Europe, they say it costs between $3,000 and $20,000.’ Young girls, she says, are sometimes sold to old men to finance such a journey. ‘Also, children are killed, or raped, on their way. So we need to have this under control…Why should we have a system that is for the ones that have money, while the rest of the refugees and people in need don’t have the money?’

9) Norway has learned not to care too much about international consensus. I asked Sylvi Listhaug if she is by now used to being called cruel and heartless and, if so, how that makes her feel. ‘I don’t give a damn, and that’s because this is the right thing to do. We should think about all refugees, do as much as we can for as many as possible. It is the wrong answer to have a policy to have a lot of people without need of protection coming to our countries as asylum seekers’.

10) Norway’s approach is increasingly shared by other countries. Anyone who thinks Sylvi Listhaug is radical should look up Inger Stojberg, her Danish counterpart, who uses a cartoon of Mohammed as her iPad screensaver. As Listhaug puts it: ‘A lot of countries in Europe are thinking more like us: like Denmark and Austria. Germany, as well… France has big problems right now with integration, as does Belgium. A lot of countries in Europe see that we need this under control.’

And all this matters to us because Norway’s policy is very similar to what Britain does (lots of overseas aid, restricting number of refugees taken). The main difference is that the Norwegians explain and defend their policy, while Tories don’t yet feel comfortable enough to do the same. But as Ms Listhaug says, the debate is changing, and the Norway model might end up being the new consensus.


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