15 January 2016

How Norway went off immigration


Few people outside Norway will have heard of Hege Storhaug. She’s the fiery Norwegian writer and human rights activist who has been warning for years that attempting to integrate so many Muslim immigrants is a danger to her country’s harmonious way of life and democratic traditions.

A former athlete and now feminist activist, Storhaug runs the Human Rights Service, an independent foundation in Oslo. For the last decade or so, she has been investigating the problems faced by the woman and children of immigrant ethnic communities– mainly Muslim women and children – and pointing out that many are still being forced into marriages, female genital mutilation and subject to honor killings.

At the same time as forcing such tricky subjects into the open, Storhaug and her think-tank have been helping these women and children, risking the wrath of their families and local imans, as well as proposing policy changes to the government.

Indeed, it was Storhaug’s work and TV documentaries – she lived in Pakistan for several years – highlighting some of these human rights abuses that led to the government ban on forced marriages. Even so, Storhaug has been regarded by most of the Norwegian liberal political elite as an extremist, criticised for exaggeration and whipping up anti-Islamic sentiment. Even those on the right have found some of her most severe comments on Islamic culture mores hard to stomach, certainly publicly.

Until now. Today Storhaug is being hailed by many as a modern Joan of Arc; brave and courageous in daring to talk about a topic that has been closed down for discussion by politicians, academia and the media, who have continued to promote multi-culturalism as the way to integration. Open any Norwegian newspaper or turn on the TV channels, and Storhaug is either writing or being written about or taking part in feverish national debates, quoting David Hume, Churchill and Voltaire to make her point about civil liberties and how they don’t fit into the latest of Muslim thinking.

Over the last few months her latest book,  “Islam: The 11th Plague” – has sold more than 27,000 copies and tops the best-seller lists. (The book’s title is a play on the work by Arnulf Overland, a Norwegian poet who was tried and acquitted in 1933 for blasphemy after writing, “Christianity: the 10th plague”). At a book-signing just before Christmas in central Oslo, Storhaug needed police protection.

What’s changed? Well, Norway’s simmering refugee crisis that saw more than 31,000 refugees enter the country last year, the biggest number ever in one year. Then came fresh warnings in December from the UDI – the Directorate of Immigration – that another 60,000 refugees may be coming this spring, said to include another 8,000 UN-registered Syrians who have been offered sanctuary over the next three years.

Interestingly, it wasn’t the sheer numbers of migrants arriving from the south that appears to have prompted the latest discontent but those arriving by bicycle from Norway’s most northerly border. Something finally snapped in the national psyche last autumn when more than 4,000 migrants – many of them young and male Afghans and Iraqis – poured across the country’s Arctic border with Russia, says Thomas Olsen, a journalist with the leading newspaper, Aftenposten, who has been covering the crisis.

“Seeing the migrants pouring over the northern border in the autumn changed the mood. These people arriving weren’t refugees running away from war but people who have been working for years in Russia and were encouraged to come here because of our generous welfare system and work.”

Then there were the stories in the press that many of the Syrians refugees were complaining about the awful Norwegian food – what some described as rotten fish – and the lack of wifi in the ski-hotels and reception centres where they were being kept, only added to the unease. Even Norway’s monarch, King Harald, has intervened. Not one to shy from controversy, he used his recent New Year’s Eve to praise the many Norwegians who have been helping in the reception centres, giving food and clothing.

At the same time, the hugely-popular monarch urged them to continue greeting refugees with respect, reminding them of Norway’s extraordinary wealth and resources. He quoted the Swedish children’s literary heroine, Pippi Longstocking: “Those who are very strong must be very kind.” And they have been extraordinarily kind. Since the 1970s, Norway has been the most generous of hosts to political asylum seekers, as well as migrants, and about 220,000 of Norway’s 5.2m population are from overseas; the majority of whom are of Pakistani, Eritrean and Iraqi origin. It’s also of the world’s biggest donors of international foreign aid in the world, giving 1.07% of GNI or $5 billion in 2013.

The Norwegians have always gone out of their way to be compassionate to newcomers, preferring to be inclusive and tolerant than judgmental.  After a series of rapes in Stavanger a few years ago, the country’s social and voluntary services were the first in Europe to offer classes to immigrants on sexual customs, attempting to teach that forcing someone to have sex with them is banned even in marriage.

Now the Norwegians are being torn between a traditional generosity of spirit and a more existential fear of foreigners – or ‘fremnedfrykt,’ says Olsen. “Many fear that if the numbers get out of hand, this will threaten our social cohesiveness. Nor is this an issue between the left and right parties. It’s far more profound. I’ve not seen anything like this before. Most people don’t know how to react.”

But the ruling Conservative minority government did react, and quickly, to recent events. Within weeks of the caravan of people arriving from the North, Prime Minister Erna Stolberg’s Conservative minority led Coalition put through emergency new legislation in December to cut future immigration, and to make it harder for those seeking to apply.

Unusually too, Ms Solberg was able to muster support from the smaller left parties, usually more tolerant of newcomers although they have been accused of speaking with two-tongues, as well as the anti-immigration Progress party. It’s the fastest piece of legislation ever signed off in Norway’s Storting.

The border with Russia is now closed, while the border with Sweden has been tightened since the Swedes also closed the bridge to Denmark. Once in force in two yearstime, the new legislation means Norway will have Europe’s strictest immigration policies; in theory.

Ms Solberg has also created a new role of immigration minister, one given to the straight-talking Sylvi Listhaug, from the Progress party, which has been campaigning for tougher laws for the last 30 years.

Few are sure how the measures will turn out, but there are reports that up to 5,000 – including Syrians – of the 31,000 asylum seekers who arrived last year will be returned to other countries under the Dublin Regulation. (Norway is not a member of the EU but it is part of the Schengen agreement.)

Along with the King, the Prime Minister has been trying to make peace with an increasingly nervous, if not anxious, population. In her New Year address, she also urged Norwegians to respect and co-operate with refugees while calling on the newcomers to follow the country’s laws and its traditions, and to make efforts to integrate into society.

No wonder: Solberg is under pressure. Since October, support for her rivals in the Progress party has surged to 17.7% while Conservative support has fallen by 3% to 20%. And Storhaug continues to hog the opinion pages of Norway’s press with her boldness; her latest warning being that after the sexual assaults on women in Cologne and other cities, Europe should be under no illusion that we are witnessing a clash of civilizations.

Margareta Pagano is a financial journalist who writes for The Independent.