Integration Key to Combating Radicalization: A Q&A with Solveig Horne, Norwegian Minister of Children, Equality, and Social Inclusion
Migration Information Source Editor Zara Rabinovitch and MPI’s Director of Communications Michelle Mittelstadt recently had the opportunity to sit down with Norway’s Minister of Children, Equality, and Social Inclusion, Solveig Horne, and Barbro Bakken, the Ministry’s Director General, to discuss an array of integration-related topics, including combating extremism, the resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers, and Norway’s leadership in protecting vulnerable immigrant women. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the Minister’s comments.
Zara Rabinovitch (ZR): Like many countries in Europe and beyond, Norway is facing the question of how best to address the issue of radicalization and returning foreign fighters. In February, estimates of the number of Norwegians traveling to Syria to join jihadist groups were revised from about 40 to 150. What role does your Ministry play in combating this trend?
Solveig Horne (SH): Radicalization and extremism are high on the government agenda in Norway. In addition, it's not only me, but also nine ministers who last year launched an action plan against radicalization and violent extremism. I am the Minister of Inclusion and my responsibility is integration policy. I think that one of the most important things we can do to succeed, and also to prevent radicalization and extremism, is to have a large focus on integration—how to integrate people who have a residence permit in Norway.
I also believe that the key to success to prevent radicalization is working with families and young people settling down, feeling they are a part of and belonging in the community and are taking part in the labor force. This is one of the biggest issues I am dealing with right now.
ZR: Fears about extremism are often conflated with concerns about the rising number of refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Europe. This is an area where Europe has struggled to find consensus, with countries like Sweden and Germany taking the lion’s share and calling for more equal distribution of humanitarian protection placements. How has Norway addressed these flows and the integration of this population?
Box 1. The Immigrant Introduction Program
SH: When I became a minister [in October 2013], there were more than 5,000 people with a residence permit in Norway sitting in reception centers waiting for a municipality to welcome them, and then go on with their lives learning both the language and civics through the Introduction program (Editor’s note: see Box 1 for more on the introduction program). In Norway, asylum seekers are in reception centers before settling in a municipality. The refugees who come in through the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] system get established directly in the municipality. We need the local communities to do a good job accepting, resettling, and integrating immigrants. As I said, when I took over there were over 5,000—with a residence permit—who had lived for a long time in the reception centers. It was very important for me to reduce this number, and get people as soon as possible to move into the local communities. I wrote a letter to all the mayors and asked them to give some extra focus on settling refugees in their community. We also raised the budget, and the government now covers almost 90 percent of the costs that the municipalities have settling refugees.
Michelle Mittelstadt (MM): How long does support for resettled refugees and asylum seekers continue? In the United States, for example, refugees are expected to become economically self-sufficient within a period of months and federal support is of short duration. Are you finding that the existing support programs are proving successful for integration into Norwegian society?
SH: The support to the municipalities for each refugee lasts for five years. The introduction program for the refugee lasts for two years, and within five years they can learn the Norwegian language for free. Last year we, the municipalities all over Norway, resettled 20 percent more [refugees] than in 2013. It was the highest number since 1990, so that was a very good job done.
There are of course still improvements to do. It is a great concern of mine that newly arrived families and young people succeed. Around 60 percent of the participants in the introduction program have gone on to further education or work one year after finishing the program. But there is a big difference among the municipalities in how they succeed. A special concern for me is the low rate of women participating in the labor market and in education. I think that the key for successful integration is language training. Language is the key to education and later on to work. In Norway, we also need to better acknowledge the qualifications and the education that some of the refugees bring to Norway. The government is working very hard on this.
ZR: The European Union is in the midst of a debate on how best to distribute refugees and asylum seekers across Member States. How is this question playing out in Norway, which is not an EU Member, but is party to the Dublin Regulation system of asylum application processing?
SH: We have an ongoing discussion about how many refugees we should accept from Syria, it is a very big political debate in Norway. The government is a minority government but we [the Progress and Conservative parties] have an agreement with two other parties in the Parliament, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals. Together we have the majority. We have decided for 2015 to accept 2,500 refugees through UNHCR—2,000 from Syria and 500 from other places. The discussion whether we should accept 10,000 refugees is ongoing. My concern is that we need to do a good job resettling and integrating both the refugees that we already have committed to and the ones we decide are coming in the future.
MM: How long do asylum seekers remain in the centers?
Barbro Bakken (BB): I think the average of those who are settled now have been in the reception center around nine months after they got their residence permit, and that they might have been there a couple of years before they got it.
SH: And that’s a long time, because we know that it is important to get started with a new life in their new community. I am especially concerned about families with children that need to attend kindergarten and school; it is not the best for them to sit in the centers. It’s to live out in the community and have a house.
ZR: Do they have access to the introduction programs and language training while they are in the centers?
SH: Yes, they have access to Norwegian classes, but we are planning to look into how to be able to use the time in reception center more effectively and as a start for the integration process.
MM: Turning now to a different topic: The treatment of unaccompanied minors is a major concern for many receiving countries. Where do those in Norway come from, are they following the same routes as other migrants, or being brought by smugglers? Does Norway have a special system for dealing with child migrants?
SH: Some of them are refugees, and they are following different routes. They are mainly coming from the Middle East.
BB: Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Eritrea. It’s not the same routes, there are a lot of routes to get into Norway, but many of them use smugglers in one way or another.
SH: For children under 15 years coming unaccompanied, the child welfare service is by law responsible. These children go directly to the reception center that the child welfare service is handling. Then they also find foster care for them.
I also have to mention that the largest immigrant group in Norway is labor immigrants. Around 50,000 labor immigrants have been coming every year for the last few years.
ZR: Norway has seen a marked increase in labor migration since the expansion of the European Union in 2004, and Poles now constitute nearly 14 percent of immigrants in Norway. In 2013, employment was named as the reason for immigration for 43 percent of immigrants to Norway. What are the integration challenges for this population?
SH: It’s the Polish, Lithuanians, and Swedes, and they are handling themselves on their own. We are also looking into how to better integrate the labor immigrants because we see that some of them bring families, and most of them don’t know the language. They have to pay for language training themselves. If they lose their job, instead of going back to their home country, they stay in Norway and have social benefits. There are also some problems regarding language, especially for women, coming as family immigrants.
MM: You’ve outlined a number of challenges facing humanitarian, labor, and family migrants. Do you see the integration situation as it is right now as being more challenging than it has ever been before? Or is this just more of the same in terms of challenges, but with heightened attention because of the visibility of the crossings in the Mediterranean and the shipwrecks?
SH: I think it’s more challenging for many countries, especially in Europe. The crisis in the Middle East is one that we don’t know what will bring for the future. We see the boats arriving outside Italy, and I believe that we in Europe are doing as best as we can to handle this. It is also a challenge for us in Norway, but I think if we should succeed or take more immigrants to Norway, we need to be concerned about the people who already have a permit to stay in Norway. We need more focus on how to integrate these people in the best way and I think if we succeed with that, it’s easier also for the politicians in the local communities to say “Okay, we are good on this, we can accept more refugees to come.” Norway needs labor force; it’s good for our economy, and it will be [good] I think for economic development in Norway to have immigrants who can work. And [knowing that we have so many] labor immigrants, we need to have the same focus on the refugees or the other immigrants to [give] them the language training and educate them and also to get them out to work. I think immigrants have resources that we could better acknowledge and make use of.
MM: Moving to another topic, you and your government have placed a priority focus on addressing the issues of forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), of particular concern among immigrant communities. We understand women’s issues in general are topics dear to your heart.
SH: I made a speech for the Commission on the Status of Women in New York last month [March] and that was one of my points: These issues are important because they happen also in Norway. It’s so important that we clearly said both to the Muslim and other communities that no religion or culture should be an excuse to use forced marriage or FGM. It’s a criminal act in Norway and the government has done much on this issue. We have four immigrant counselors abroad in Islamabad, Amman, Nairobi, and Ankara helping young people who are forced to marry or [undergo] FGM.
ZR: These are Norwegians of immigrant background who have traveled back to their countries of origin?
SH: Yes, and we have migration counselors at the high schools to give information and help, especially to girls who are afraid that their parents will take them out on holidays and go to the home countries [where they will be forced to marry]. We also have a special program for when women are coming back to Norway and they need to be secured because they can’t stay home with their families. So I am working on a white paper on gender equality where this issue will be discussed. Norway is giving a lot of money through the UN system to special programs on forced marriages and FGM.
MM: And this is because you see a leadership role for Norway in promoting women’s rights?
SH: I think this is important that Norway take a leadership in this work because gender equality is one of the biggest issues, and forced marriage and FGM are still happening in 2015. In addition, I believe it’s important that government and also the politicians are very clear and have a strong voice saying to the parents that this is not something that we allow in our country. So therefore, this is very important also for me to raise this topic.
ZR: You mentioned before that you are seeing low rates of women in integration programs and language training, making this a priority area. At a speech, you gave in New York earlier this year you also said that you think women are very key to preventing extremism in immigrant communities. Can you talk about the role of women in combating radicalization?
SH: I think it is very important to raise the question about women when you are talking about integration. For women to be equal and self-sufficient, they need language, education, and work. We see there are too many women in Norway who have been in the country for 20 years—and they still don’t know the language. I just met some women a few weeks ago, who told us that after they got divorced they started with the language training, having been in Norway for many, many years. I think it’s so important that when we are discussing gender equality, it’s about using all the resources that we have. I think it’s so important that we focus on the women. We see that girls with minority background now are taking higher education in Norway and that’s very good, but we still see that we have a way to go for their mothers. Also for new women coming to Norway, especially for family reunion, it’s important to give them information on which rights do you have, about good parenting, as you see there is a huge amount of minority families in the child care service.
MM: It seems like when people are talking about extremism and looking at countries in Europe and elsewhere that the focus is often on young men and not women. Radicalization is often viewed as being more prevalent among the young male population, which in some countries tends to have higher unemployment rates, less education, etc. Do you think you stand a bit differently with the focus on women?
SH: We have the 1325 action plan, [the United Nations resolution] on Women, Peace, and Security. And when Norway is contributing through development money, we have a focus on education. Education is the key to human rights and to health care, and women have to be more aware of their rights and about their health situation. We see some places that girls are taking education up to 5th grade, primary school, and we see that they for different reasons are not allowed to go to higher levels. The Norwegian Prime Minister [Erna Solberg] is a member of the UN group that’s working with development education—she’s chairing that group.
We’re also talking about extremism. I am working on a parenting program because we see that parents are, not afraid, but they are worried about their kids and therefore we need to have special programs and training programs for them so they can know what to do when they are afraid, when their children are going into the wrong environments.
MM: Europe and Norway face a range of challenges including rising and mixed migration, humanitarian needs, radicalization, and extremism. When you look at that picture and the efforts you have underway in Norway, are you optimistic from an integration policy and from an overall integration perspective that these challenges can be met?
SH: No. I’m a little bit worried, because I am not sure that we see the whole picture yet. I think it will increase with the situation that we see in the Middle East, and therefore it is so important that we also focus on helping refugees in the neighboring countries in the region. Not all of them can come to Europe, or to Norway, because there are so many people. So we need to help them. Some of the poorest people are back in the camps in the neighbor countries and we know that the situation there is horrible. I know there are many NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] that are doing education, health care in the camps [but] I’m not optimistic, I’m a little bit worried. We will do as best as we can to help them in the neighbor countries. We will also do the best we can to integrate the people that come to Norway and give them the security they need. It’s important also for the reduction of radicalization and extremism that when people come and are permitted to stay, that they get well integrated and feel that they belong and are being taken good care of. I will do my best to give these people the keys they need to be self-sufficient so they can contribute to the society. I believe most of them want to contribute.
ZR: Minister, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today on these important topics.