Members of the Sub-Committee taking part in the visit were Lord Haselhurst, Lord Jay of Ewelme (Chair), Baroness Janke, Lord Ribeiro, and Lord Watts. Staff supporting the visit were Pippa Patterson (Clerk), Megan Jones (Policy Analyst), and Vanessa Ivanov (European Affairs and Trade Policy Adviser, British Embassy Oslo).
The Committee was welcomed by Jøran Kallmyr, Minister of Justice and Immigration, Siw Lexau, Deputy Director General, Magne Holter, Assistant Director General, and Senior Advisers Anne Thea Eger Gervin and Kathrine Lund Brinch. The UK Ambassador to Norway, Richard Wood, was also present.
It was noted that Norway was a ‘pull’ country due to its strong economy and extensive welfare system. Although the cost of living in Norway was high, it offered good social security benefits, which meant that some immigrants who earn lower salaries could be worse off in work than they would be on benefits. Low-skilled immigrants could find it hard to integrate into Norway’s highly-skilled economy. The immigration system in Norway needed to be strict but fair because too many people coming to Norway and living on benefits would put a strain on its welfare system.
The number of people arriving to make asylum claims in Norway differed substantially from year to year—in 2018 and so far in 2019 the number was fairly small. Norway also had a resettlement programme—with refugees identified by UNHCR—with a quota of 3,000 people in 2019. In 2019 most of these refugees were Syrian, Congolese and South Sudanese and were resettled out of Lebanon and Jordan, Uganda and Ethiopia.
On handling asylum claims, it was noted that the process took on average 3–6 months to reach an initial decision, with 65% receiving permission to stay. Claimants denied asylum could appeal, and, if unsuccessful, ask the Norwegian courts to consider whether the Government’s finding was valid. Asylum seekers presenting a clear form of ID were allowed to work while their application is being processed. It was suggested that this right to work was a benefit which encouraged people to be open with the Norwegian government, and that asylum claimants genuinely in need of protection were happier to identify themselves.
Very few unsuccessful asylum seekers were granted leave to remain in Norway on other humanitarian grounds e.g. health. Since 2013, the Government had operated a proactive policy of returning those who don’t have permission to stay in Norway - such as people refused asylum - as quickly as possible.
Norway had an ‘introduction programme’ to support refugees at a cost of approximately £100,000 per refugee. This was a three-year programme to enable adult refugees to learn Norwegian and receive work education and training, and included a small salary of approx. £1,500 per month. Refugees under 18 were included in the regular educational system, including pre-school care.
On distribution, Norway spread refugees throughout the country by asking municipalities to accept a proportion of overall numbers. If the refugees moved away from their designated municipality (to Oslo or other cities), they might no longer receive financial assistance as this was normally tied to the municipality where they were placed. It was noted that children of immigrants could struggle with the feeling of inequality compared to others whose families have lived in Norway for many years.
Generally, the Norwegian people were welcoming towards asylum seekers because the numbers were low and there was confidence in the management of the border, but there was some concern about certain groups being less willing to integrate. It was explained that public opinion in Norway towards asylum seekers and refugees had begun to change in 2015 when large numbers of asylum seekers entered the EU and Norway and there was a public perception that the government was losing control over Norway’s borders. Parliament was then able to change legislation on asylum procedures in just one week, which was unprecedented. The political discussion on the question of when Norway would lift its temporary reintroduction of Schengen border controls was ongoing.
While maintaining the principle that the first safe country which asylum seekers reached should take responsibility for their asylum applications, it was noted that this placed a disproportionate burden on countries like Greece and Italy. Norway was open to the idea of relocating asylum seekers across the EU, so long as this was official EU policy and most Schengen countries took their fair share. If only Germany and the Nordic countries, for example, agreed to relocation, there would still be a ‘pull’ factor as asylum seekers would know all they had to do was reach the EU and then they would be sent on to these countries. This factor would be reduced if all countries took part as people could not be certain which EU Member State they would end up in.
Norway supported reform of CEAS but it was noted that EU Member States had many different opinions on how to handle asylum making progress on reform difficult. There needed to be a balance between resettling refugees in the EU and supporting them to stay in their region of origin by investing in improving conditions in refugee camps. Norway’s answer was to try and do both–resettling some refugees and then giving financial support to countries like Turkey and in international aid to try and address the root causes of irregular migration like conflict and instability.
The main imperative for Norway joining Schengen was to maintain the free Nordic passport area, and participation in the Dublin System and Eurodac was a necessary part of Schengen association. Norway valued its Schengen association and would not seek to diverge from the acquis. If it did, it could be thrown out of Schengen according to timescales set out in its membership agreement, known as the ‘guillotine clause’.
On influence over EU policies, it was noted that Norway took part in Schengen co-operation based on an association agreement which provided a good level of influence. Norway also had good allies among EU Member States (especially the UK and Northern European countries) who helped to make sure Norway’s views were heard and reflected. This type of influence was described as ‘decision shaping not decision making’, with Norway successfully developing a ‘soft’ approach to influencing EU policy. This would be much harder for the UK to follow, as a bigger country used to having Member State status. Key to Norway’s success was having strong arguments on the table about policy implications or consequences, and building alliances with like-minded EU member states. However, Norway would like to have a greater voice on country of origin reports. It was noted that Norway has flexibility on asylum because it is not bound by all CEAS legislation but is still indirectly influenced by EU jurisprudence.
The Committee was welcomed by Pål Nesse, Senior Adviser, and Martin Hartberg of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s London office and given an overview of the history and work of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
The NRC used its international expertise to contribute to public debate on asylum seekers and refugees at the national level in Norway, providing a global perspective and advising on how many refugees to resettle. Norway was a small country but a ‘superpower’ on humanitarian issues, and it was important to demonstrate positive domestic action on asylum seekers and refugees to maintain legitimacy on the international stage. For example, in 2015 Norway sent search and rescue ships to support Italy and Greece in dealing with migration crisis as a positive gesture of international cooperation.
The NRC was concerned about the impact of recent criticisms of the Norwegian asylum policy on support for the UNHCR. The UNHCR considered that Norway had violated the Refugee Convention by:
The NRC believed that Norway should continue to support and engage with UNHCR both internationally and domestically.
The NRC wanted a better balance to be struck between seeking to control immigration and honouring international protection commitments: a long-term view rather than reacting to short-term negative public opinion about refugee numbers. Municipalities were seeking, or already had, more places available for refugees than were being admitted to Norway. In particular, NRC were concerned by changes to immigration laws pushed through the Norwegian Parliament in 2016, over one weekend, in response to a swing in public opinion over the 2015 refugee ‘crisis’.
The Norwegian Government had been able to describe asylum seekers as a threat and a burden, rhetoric which made it harder to be a refugee and to successfully integrate in Norway. Surveys on Norwegian attitudes showed there was much support for refugees, but this was not the same for asylum seekers. There was a misperception that most asylum seekers were not genuine refugees, when in fact 70% of asylum seekers were granted protection in Norway. In comparison to the UK, there was no national debate and very little media coverage of refugee issues in Norway.
The NRC explained that Dublin IV had stalled holding up the whole package of CEAS reforms. Due to the need for consensus, the attitude of some EU countries towards relocation and burden-sharing was preventing the EU and reasonable like-minded Member States (a ‘coalition of the willing’) from reaching pragmatic solutions. This left Greece and Italy standing alone, damaging European solidarity and hardening attitudes towards asylum seekers in these countries. EU countries were not able to ‘cherry pick’ among the benefits and responsibilities of membership and the NRC questioned whether this should be the same for EU refugee policy. However, it was noted that refugees were unlikely to have a good quality of life in countries that were forced to take them but clearly didn’t want them there. They also believed that it was hypocritical when countries like Norway urged countries that shared borders with crisis areas, such as Turkey and Jordan, to keep their borders open while Norway was increasing border controls, leading to an unfair burden on neighbouring countries.
The NRC considered that the idea of externalising the EU’s asylum responsibilities had no merit. They questioned what law would apply and how rights could be protected. Refugees could be stuck in camps for many years with no international assistance and the numbers of people resettled to Europe and the US from these camps was going down. Countries hosting these camps would eventually lose political will and so there was a need to establish better returns procedures, increase aid to and dialogue with countries of origin, and ensure there were safe and legal migration routes for refugees to take.
The NRC believed that, at the working level, the UK Department for International Development was well-respected as a partner in international dialogues on asylum and migration issues. At the political level however, there was a lack of willingness in the UK to publicly acknowledge the relatively good level of support it provided internationally. As a result (combined with the UK’s weak domestic resettlement programme and mostly negative political rhetoric around asylum seekers) the UK had lost its moral authority on asylum cooperation internationally. It was also noted that the unwillingness of governments in Europe to frame the granting of asylum or protection for people in desperate situations as a positive story (something to be proud of) had given a free platform to anti-migration voices to shape the narrative in terms of a threat and something to fear.
The Committee was welcomed by Heidi Nordby Lunde MP (a Conservative member of the Norwegian Parliament), and Senior Advisers Margrethe Saxegaard and Per S. Nestande.
Heidi Nordby Lunde said that Brexit would affect Norway’s relationship with the UK, not Norway’s relationship with the EU. Norway had tried to be a helpful partner for the UK in the Brexit process, supporting constructive dialogue. There may be some additional trade barriers between the UK and Norway after Brexit but, ultimately, the strong bilateral relationship was expected to continue.
It was noted that the experiences of Norway and the UK with regard to the EU were very different. Norway was a small country which was (largely) positive about its relationship and alignment with the EU, as long as full membership was not discussed. The UK, on the other hand, was a large country which had been dissatisfied with its EU membership and wanted more freedom and less alignment with the EU.
The EEA had contributed a lot to the Norwegian economy. In Norway, most EU legislation was seen as sensible and non-controversial: 98% vs. 2% negative, mainly to do with energy and labour market, such as Workers’ Rights Directive and ‘social dumping’. Eurosceptic parties and politicians raised these issues publicly but, despite some concern, good standards of living in Norway (happiness, education, social security, rights) demonstrated to Norwegians that there had been little negative impact from Norway’s relationship with the EU.
Although migration issues could be controversial and there was some disagreement between the political parties on this, migration was seen as a national rather than a European issue. From 2015, Norway had implemented temporary reintroduction of border controls (to ferries from Sweden, Denmark and Germany) and other measures which had been credited with reducing numbers of asylum seekers. Ms Lunde considered that this reduction in numbers could also be attributed to EU-wide measures and strategy.
There was room for improvement in Norway’s refugee integration programme, for example in language and literacy skills for adult women and mothers. Norway was very aware of the importance of integration support to ensure young male asylum seekers were not vulnerable to radicalisation. Generally, Norwegians were happy to invest in integration support because, when refugees were able to work and fulfil their potential, they contributed to the economy and helped to maintain the welfare state, which was good for all Norwegians. As in the UK, there was some suspicion that, if child refugees were able to enter Norway and sponsor their families to join them, this would incentivise parents to send their children ahead unaccompanied on dangerous migration routes. It was noted that it was very difficult to verify whether there was any evidence to support this suspicion through research done so far.
There was no sense that the EU had exerted pressure on Norway to do its ‘fair share’ with regard to asylum challenges. Norway had a strong record on humanitarian issues, and it had been a natural response for Norway to voluntarily accept refugees and make a fair contribution to EU rescue and safety operations in the Mediterranean. Norway proactively engaged in discussions on CEAS and the EU’s response to the 2015 refugee crisis which ensured it was fully involved in these operations and discussions on CEAS reform. It was noted that Norway took on a burden disproportionate to its population size in terms of resettling refugees and providing international aid to countries hosting refugee camps, but felt a responsibility to do so due to its wealth and resources.
The Committee was welcomed by Frode Forfang, Director General, Tor-Magne Hovland, Head of International Section, Analysis and Development Department, and Mi Hanne Christiansen, Senior Adviser, Asylum Department. UDI representatives gave a presentation on the structure of immigration administration in Norway, the role of UDI, and the process for seeking asylum in Norway.
Norway maintained a list of countries whose citizens were deemed to have no reason to need international protection. The processing of asylum applications for people from these countries was prioritised to ensure those who were likely to receive a negative decision could be returned as quickly as possible (a 48-hour processing time). UDI said this removed the incentive for people from countries with visa-free travel to the Schengen zone to try their luck at claiming asylum in Norway.
Norway’s investment in a dedicated police unit to handle returns had led to a good system and a relatively high number of returns e.g. to Afghanistan. On the policy of internal flight (or relocation) alternative for asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Norway’s assessment of the safety of parts of Afghanistan was similar to that of other European countries. Nonetheless, Norway differed from other countries in that it had removed the word ‘reasonable’ from its legislation on internal flight alternative.
Like the UK, Norway had experienced difficulties with the question of how to verify the age of unaccompanied refugee children. Medical tests had been used but there were ongoing questions over their reliability.
For those who are granted international protection, there was an average wait of six months between a positive decision and being relocated to a municipality which was then responsible for administering the introduction programme. During these six months, refugees started language lessons, and asylum services had time to prepare them and the municipality for their arrival (to account for differing needs depending on e.g. whether the case was a single person or a family group).
Municipalities were given a fixed sum of money over five years for each refugee they accepted, providing an incentive for municipalities to support refugees into work and financial independence as quickly as possible. Municipalities were not allowed to pick and choose refugees to resettle based on nationality but could refuse people on certain health grounds, such as mental health, if they felt unable to provide the person with the support they needed. The question of how to incentivise municipalities to accept the small number of refugees with very complex support needs—so they were not stuck in asylum reception centres for extended periods—remained unresolved.
UDI monitored the success of municipalities at integrating refugees to ensure lessons learned and best practice could be shared. Under-performing municipalities would not be allowed to take further refugees. The system of distribution operated on consensus, with municipalities volunteering to take specified numbers of refugees. Although there was no way to guarantee that a refugee would stay in their assigned municipality, the level of permanent geographic spread was higher due to initial efforts to distribute refugees across the country. Refugees who had settled and integrated well into a community were also less likely to seek better opportunities elsewhere. There was also a financial incentive to complete at least the period of the introduction programme, because refugees would lose financial support if they left their municipality and also because they could not get permanent leave to remain without completing a minimum number of language lessons.
On EU cooperation, UDI said that they participated in EU meetings at an operational level and attended EASO meetings three times a year. In terms of exercising influence, they believed it was not the size of the country that mattered but what you brought to the table, or the quality of what you had to say.
The Committee was welcomed by Ann-Magrit Austenå, Secretary General, and Andreas Furuseth, Senior Legal Adviser, who gave a presentation on how the Norwegian Organisation for Asylum Seekers (NOAS) supports asylum seekers and refugees in Norway before taking questions.
Since 2015 the approval rate for asylum claims in Norway had been 66–75%. NOAS thought Norway had one of the strictest asylum systems in Western Europe and pointed out that the EU-Turkey deal and temporary introduction of border controls had contributed to lower numbers of asylum seekers coming to Norway. Under Norway’s asylum system, residence permits for refugees were generally granted for three years, and then people could apply for permanent or longer-term leave to remain. Unaccompanied refugee children were assigned dedicated legal representatives and housed in different special reception facilities, depending on age. Unaccompanied children received advice from NOAS in age-appropriate formats—in general, NOAS only gave regular information and legal advice to the 15-18 age group. NOAS also tried to follow up with these children after they were fostered.
Norway did not now allow asylum seekers to make a claim at the border with Russia. No one was allowed to cross into Norwegian territory unless they had a valid visa to Norway or to the Schengen zone. NOAS saw this as a breach of the Refugee Convention. Those turned away at the border might be detained and deported by Russian authorities, and others who were released might remain in Russia with no legal status. After recent changes to legislation, Norway was no longer required to determine whether someone had a reasonable chance of accessing asylum procedures in another country before turning them away. NOAS said this was a further breach of the Convention.
NOAS was also concerned about police treatment of people refused asylum who were awaiting return, for example, proper processes not being followed and heavy-handed treatment. Despite recent improvements, concerns remained over political level instructions on how police should handle returns cases i.e. to try and disincentivise asylum applications in Norway. NOAS criticised Norway’s failure to establish an independent body for monitoring forced returns, in violation of the EU Returns Directive which was transposed into Norwegian law in December 2010. EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos criticised the failure to establish such a body in a letter to the Ministry of Justice in May 2015.
It was noted that strict family reunion criteria meant that men did not make the dangerous journey to seek asylum alone because they could not be sure they would be able to bring family to join them later. As a result, more people were facing danger because men were bringing their wives and children with them on the crossing.
The Committee was welcomed by Atle Leikvoll, Brexit Coordinator, and colleagues Mathias Rongved, Siri Sletner, and Mari Owren. The UK Ambassador to Norway, Richard Wood, was also present. Mr Leikvoll gave an overview of Norway’s relationship with the EU and how Norway sought to shape EU legislation as a third country member of the EEA and Schengen Area. Mr Leikvoll also set out the work undertaken by the Norwegian Government to maintain UK-Norway trade and protect citizens rights after Brexit, including steps taken to mitigate the impact of a ‘no deal’ Brexit scenario.
209 Note by the witness: The size of the quota is decided each year by the Storting (Norwegian Parliament).
210 Note by the witness: The introduction programme supports all refugees, those who have come through the resettlement scheme and those who have arrived spontaneously as asylum seekers.
211 Note by the witness: The municipalities refugees want to relocate between may agree to share expenses/government grants and continue the introduction programme.
212 Note by the witness: Children under 15 are housed in care centres run by child care authorities under the Ministry of Children and Families. Children aged 15–18 are housed in reception centres run by UDI, with less rights, fewer professional caretakers and less care secured. This unlawful discrimination of the unaccompanied minors of 15–18 years (since 2009) has been criticised by NOAS, Save the Children in Norway, UNHCR, UNICEF, The UN Children’s Committee in their 2018 assessment of human rights standards and practice in Norway, and by the Norwegian Institution for Human Rights, which reports to the Norwegian parliament on the situation for human rights in Norway.