E.g., 12/02/2023
E.g., 12/02/2023
Norway: Migrant Quality, Not Quantity

Norway: Migrant Quality, Not Quantity

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Norway's migration policy is similar to its attitude towards the European Union (EU). Though it has not joined the EU and remains outside the reach of most EU policy, many of its independent decisions — particularly regarding its relationship to European borders and migration policy management — have a uniquely European character.

The country's carefully regulated effort to allow only selected migrants to be admitted, together with its commitment to ensuring social equality for those who arrive, closely fits the model to which many other European countries (with varying degrees of success) aspire.

In addition to its wealth, Norway has many advantages as a destination country for immigrants and refugees. It has maintained a robust labor market despite recent recessions, and has demonstrated its commitment to humanitarian protection by accepting a number of refugees from the former Yugoslavia.

Its high standard of living — so high that the UN Human Development Program has named Norway the world's country with the highest standard of living for four years running — provides a distinct incentive for the country to avoid being lumped with greater Europe.

But it is no coincidence that elements of the nation's migration policies have converged with those of Europe, especially in terms of border management and asylum.

The future of Norwegian immigration will continue to be tied to Norway's level of integration with EU immigration and asylum laws. Further integration could liberalize Norwegian-EU border policies or strengthen Norway's management of migrant settlement.

A Brief History of Norwegian Migration

Norway, which received its independence from Sweden in 1905, was first known not as a destination country for immigrants, but as a population prone to emigration. Nearly 850,000 Norwegians emigrated to foreign countries between 1825 and 1945, putting Norway second only to Ireland in terms of emigrants as a percentage of the population.

By 1890, most Norwegian emigration was temporary labor migration to the United States, and as many as 150,000 may have eventually returned to Norway for permanent settlement.

Norway gained a worldwide reputation for humanitarian assistance when the Norwegian Arctic explorer and diplomat Fridtjof Nansen became the League of Nation's (now United Nations) first High Commissioner for Refugees in 1921. Nansen was also the inspiration for the Norwegian Refugee Council, established in 1946 to help refugees from World War II.

Despite its refugee work, Norway maintained a relatively homogenous, largely white Christian population until the 1970s, with most immigrants in the 1960s coming from its Nordic neighbors. These flows stemmed from a common labor market, established in the 1950s, between Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland (Iceland joined in 1982).

A common passport-control area was added in the late 1950s, allowing citizens and foreigners to travel freely between the Nordic countries. The homogeneity in the region made immigration a non-issue; net migration from 1966 to 1970 only totaled 853 persons.

In the late 1960s, a combination of a booming economy and a population shortage led Norway to accept a number of labor migrants from Morocco, Yugoslavia, Turkey, and particularly Pakistan. These guest workers, though expected to be temporary, remained in the country and were eventually followed by other migrants, including refugees and family reunification candidates.

Stories of migration mismanagement from other European countries, coupled with the threat of sudden flow increases from immigrants from developing countries, motivated the government to enact an "immigration stop" in 1975. It was the first legislation to formally restrict immigration to Norway.

This "stop," which was very similar to actions taken around Europe at the time, shifted migrant applications to other channels such as asylum and family reunification. World events also led to a greater reliance on refugee admissions.

For example, while Norway only received 223 refugees between 1960 and 1970, it received 1,680 refugees between 1978 and 1979 alone, more than 1,300 of whom were "boat people" from Vietnam.

Policy Shifts in the 1980s

The Norwegian public reaffirmed its support for curbing immigration in the 1980s. There were public protests over the growing numbers of asylum seekers, whose numbers peaked during the decade at 8,600 in 1987. Electoral support for the anti-immigration Progress Party confirmed xenophobic tendencies at this time; after receiving only 3.7 percent of the parliamentary vote in 1985, the party received 12.3 and 13.0 percent of the vote in 1987 and 1989, respectively.

While the Norwegian government also took into account the concerns of the native population, it also aimed to treat immigrants and native Norwegians equally, a founding principle of post-1970 immigration policies in Norway and anchored in the Immigration Act of 1988. The act provided permission of entry, a border and internal control mechanism, and a "sanctions system" for the cancellation of permits, rejections, and expulsions.

Accordingly, foreigners were required to have visas to enter the country; however, the law also allowed many exceptions. Those who wished to become employed in Norway required a work permit. The Immigration Act only exempted certain categories of workers who meet the requirements from the "immigration stop" legislation established in 1975.

The 1988 act also regulated the adjudication of applications, permanent expulsion, and subsequent deportation. Finally, the legislation instituted a settlement permit, given to individuals with three continuous years of residency.

Norwegian citizenship is difficult to obtain, requiring migrants to have had permanent residence in Norway for seven continuous years and a record of good conduct. Norway-born children of two foreign parents must wait until age 18 to apply for citizenship. Exemptions to these rules are made for former Norwegian nationals and individulas married to Norwegian nationals. Nordic-country nationals may, in some cases, be exempt from the requirement concerning length of residence.

At the end of the 1980s, a government effort to reduce the residency requirements failed. However, the citizenship law is currently under revision.

Norwegian Migration Patterns

Immigration to Norway, which today has a population of 4.6 million, has increased gradually since the late 1960s. Norway defines the "immigrant population" as persons having both parents born abroad, even if they themselves were born in Norway.

The stock of the foreign-born population as a percentage of the total population grew from two percent in 1970 to seven percent in 2002. As of 2001, most of the immigrant population was from Pakistan, Sweden, and Denmark, though new flows in 2004 largely came first from Sweden, then Russia, Denmark, and Poland.

In 2004, Norway accepted nearly 12,800 persons for family reunification and 33,000 for work permits. With the exception of 2000, over 10,000 individuals were accepted for family reunification in every year from 1999 to 2004.

As a result, net migration — meaning the balance between emigration and immigration flows — was negative until the mid 1960s, but has steadily increased, peaking at 44,000 annually during the 1995-2000 interval.

The age and gender trends of immigrants to Norway have not varied substantially. In four of the six years from 1996 to 2001, more female than male immigrants entered Norway.

More significantly, the largest age group of arrivals between 1996 and 2001 has been people between 20 and 35 years old, a distribution that contrasts sharply with that of the aging Norwegian population.

Finally, the employment rate for migrants (55.6 percent in 2003) remains lower than for the population at large (64.9 percent), though the difference has decreased significantly since the early 1990s.

Though more immigrants are taking part in higher education and many non-Western immigrants are more educated than their native counterparts, the participation in higher education among first-generation immigrants still lags 11.4 percent behind that of the general population.

Migration in the Nordic Context

Because Scandinavian countries have a rich history of intra-regional migration, Norwegian and greater Scandinavian migration interests are tightly linked. Among Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Iceland, Norway remains in the middle of the pack (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: Inflows of Foreign Population to Selected Scandinavian Countries, 1995-2001
(Salt 2004)

In 2001, 6,800 individuals or 20 percent of all immigrants entering Norway were from other Nordic countries.

Unsurprisingly, national-level migration policy changes within the Scandinavian region have led to tensions among the Nordic countries. For instance, substantial increases in the migration flow to one Scandinavian country, especially those resulting from economic improvements or policy liberalizations, can have "second order" migration effects on Norway.

Similarly, if one Nordic country implements a more restrictive immigration law, migrants may choose to settle in other Nordic countries. For instance, when Denmark drastically cut back its numbers of asylum seekers in 2003, both Sweden and Norway saw substantial increases in the number of migrants arriving at their borders — and sharply criticized Danish policies as a result.

However, this does not mean that restrictive Norwegian policies can necessarily prevent an increased supply of migrants. If the Nordic area becomes more desirable compared to Europe and other parts of the world, Norway might experience a substantial increase in migrant flows as a spillover effort, almost regardless of unilateral policy changes it might institute.

Norway and the EU

As migration flows to Norway and greater Europe increased in the 1970s, Norwegian opposition to membership in the European Economic Community (EEC) — now the European Union — took shape. This opposition coincided with the "immigration stop" in 1975.

Because Norway strongly emphasizes both humanitarian values and "equal treatment" for migrants within the country's borders, the anti-EU movement believed that EU membership would weaken these principles.

In 1994, after rejecting EU membership, Norway joined the European Economic Area (EEA), which allowed Norway and other countries to participate in the internal market without taking on the full responsibility of EU membership.

After Sweden and Finland joined the EU in 1995, Norway subscribed to the Schengen Agreement to maintain the Nordic Passport Union. The Schengen Agreement, which includes all EU members except for the UK and Ireland, facilitates the free movement of persons by abolishing checks at common borders of EU Member States.

The agreement entitles Norway to take part in Schengen-related policy discussions as they evolve.

Since April 1, 2002, Norway has also implemented the Dublin Convention, which helps to determine which European state is responsible for determining an asylum claim. Norway also adopted rules of the so-called Dublin II regulation on September 1, 2003. As a result, Norway has introduced the new Europe-wide electronic systems for case processing, including a new computer system (DUF), the DubliNET inter-country information transfer system, and the Eurodac fingerprinting collection system.

Thus, while Norway continues its unique political position as a non-EU Member State, its immigration and asylum control policies are becoming increasingly aligned with those of the EU.

Characterizing Norway's Migration and Integration Policies

Norway's modern migration policy is based on the idea that the welfare state, the thread that ties Norwegian society together, has limited resources. Hence, two basic principles have remained consistent throughout Norway's development into an immigrant-receiving country: 1) immigration must be limited; and 2) all immigrants who are admitted to Norway should have equal legal and practical opportunities in society.

This latter point deserves additional description, as the concept of integration has changed over the past three decades. Every White Paper since the 1970s has emphasized a respect for immigrants and their language and culture. However, over time the government has emphasized more strongly immigrants' duty to participate and learn the Norwegian language.

In the White Paper presented in 1980, Norwegian integration is focused not on assimilation, but on both adaptation to the Norwegian culture and protecting immigrants from the forces of assimilation. Another White Paper from 1988 emphasized "respect for immigrants' language and culture."

By the White Paper of 1996-1997, the concept of integration included the obligation to participate, partly to achieve a successful multicultural society, and partly to improve the success of the welfare state. In practice, this includes measures specifically aimed at immigrants, including language training, labor market integration, and initiatives to prevent racism and xenophobia.

The two major underpinnings of Norwegian migration policy — restrictive admissions and equal treatment — have been present throughout the development of Norway into a significant reception country for migrants and asylum seekers. The result is a policy based on values that balance entrance controls with generous integration and social services for immigrant populations.

Recent Norwegian Migration Policies

Since the Immigration Act of 1988, a number of policy decisions have substantially changed the structure and enforcement of Norwegian migration policy, particularly with regard to immigrant integration. A few of the major policy changes include:

  • The Aliens Decree of December 21, 1990, which slightly liberalized the provisions for obtaining asylum and work permits;
  • A 1997 law creating the principal model for integration in Norway, focusing primarily on job and language training programs;
  • Changes to regulations in order to ease the difficulties in obtaining work permits. These provisions permitted applicants with "skills" (as opposed to "higher-level skills") to receive a job-based work permit, and facilitated entry for other skilled and specialist workers to search for jobs within Norway;
  • The 2003 Introduction Act, which requires the active participation in integration programs for targeted refugees between the ages of 18 and 55 by settlement municipalities;
  • The establishment of transitional rules for the countries of the European Union that acceded in May 2004; and
  • The expected revisions of the definition of refugees for the Immigration Act, as a result of the work of the legal committee which proposed additional revisions to the act in October 2004.

In addition to changes in national policies, Norway also became more integrated into the European community in the past decade, a fact that has had substantial impact on Norwegian migration policy.

Labor Migration

Work permits, which include seasonal workers, specialists (skilled workers), au pairs and trainees, increased by approximately 10,000 between 1999 and 2003, reaching a peak of 33,000 in 2004.

Yet, the number of specialist and seasonal work permits dropped significantly in 2004. This decrease can largely be attributed to the fact that many of the nationals who used to receive specialist and seasonal work permits were from the 10 new EU countries, which joined in May 2004.

Indeed, in 2004, 74 percent of all Norwegian work permits were given to nationals of new EU countries. The work permits they received after May 1, which the Norwegian government labels EEA permits, are not distinguished as "seasonal" or "specialist" permits.

The reason that citizens of eight of the new EU countries—Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Hungary — must obtain EEA permits is because they are subject to transitional labor-migration rules that require them to hold both residence and work permits to work in Norway. They are allowed to search for work for up to six months without a permit.

These rules, similar to ones in EU countries like the Netherlands, are in effect until 2006, when they will be reevaluated; only Cyprus and Malta, two of the new EU members, are exempt. The citizens of the remaining EU countries, as well as Switzerland, Iceland, and Lichtenstein, continue to be able to freely work and live in Norway.

Before EU enlargement, seasonal work permits reached a high of 17,900 in 2003 (these permits composed 70 percent of all Norwegian work permits). The vast majority of seasonal workers were from Poland and Lithuania, and mainly worked in agriculture. Because these countries joined the EU in 2004, the number of seasonal permits decreased 73 percent in 2004 to 4,854.

Specialist permits are reserved for skilled workers and allow for permanent residence after three years. In 2004, nearly 25 percent of the 747 specialist permits went to workers from the U.S. and Poland.

Almost 400 fewer specialist permits were granted in 2004 than in 2003, but the decrease occurred mainly because Norway accepted 250 fewer applications from Poland than in the previous year. Presumably, skilled Polish workers applied for EEA permits instead of specialist permits.

Over 20,500 EEA permits were issued between May 1 and December 31, 2004, which accounts for over 60 percent of all work permits in 2004. It is not known what sort of work these individuals performed; however, it is suspected that the majority performed seasonal work, as 75 percent of the permits were granted for a period of six months or less.

Norway recognizes its aging population will affect the size of its labor force. It will most likely need immigrants to replace workers in occupations currently held by older workers, and to maintain the workforce density in key, fast-growing low-skilled occupations — particularly if jobs opportunities in those fields continue to expand.

The country may yet need to adjust its labor migration policies to counter these trends, but since the majority of workers come to Norway from the new EU countries, the end of the transitional work period for these nationals could provide sufficient replacement labor.

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

In 2003, Norway resettled 1,630 refugees that had been accepted through a resettlement agreement with UNHCR. Among the 16 countries worldwide that have such agreements with UNHCR, Norway received the fourth greatest number of refugees in 2002.

Because of the number of asylum applicants, the government reduced its quota for resettlement candidates to 750 (including 50 alternative slots) in 2004. Liberia and Myanmar were the largest source countries for resettlement refugees in 2004.

While asylum applications in Norway increased steadily from 1997 to 2002 after hitting a low of 1,500 persons in 1995, that trend appears to have reversed itself. In 2002, about 17,500 people applied for asylum in Norway, but only 7,950 applicants were received through the end of 2004. The top three sending countries in 2004 were Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Russian Federation, with Serbia and Montenegro a close fourth.

As applications have decreased, though, Norway has granted a higher percentage of applicants asylum. In 2003, Norway set a record by offering nearly 600 applicants asylum out of 15,600 applications, an acceptance rate of just under four percent. This record occurred despite the fact that nearly 40 percent of applications were entered into the "differentiated processing procedure," introduced in 2001, to decide groundless cases of asylum.

These are cases (primarily from Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation) where the applicants are assumed to have no need for protection because the countries of origin are generally "safe." Beginning January 1, 2004, a case processing time of 48 hours was introduced for groundless cases.

In 2004, only about 460 persons were granted asylum. However, nearly 40 percent of cases examined were granted some form of protection (asylum or otherwise), as opposed to 29 percent in 2003.

Undocumented Migration

Historically, undocumented migrants have not been a concern for Norway. The country's geographic location is one reason, but the structure of its labor market has made it difficult for the undocumented to get jobs or benefit from the health and education systems without a national ID number. However, undocumented migrants have become a larger problem in the past decade, in part due to the opening of borders as a result of the Schengen accord.

Though little data is available on undocumented migrants in Norway, many undocumented migrants in Norway today are rejected asylum seekers who have yet to leave the country. In January and February of 2004, 233 illegal immigrants were stopped in Norway, as opposed to 109 interventions in the same period in 2003.

Smugglers or criminal networks may be involved in the transfer of as many as 80 percent of asylum seekers, and Norway has also become a transit country for migrants aiming to reach the United Kingdom or the United States.

Looking Ahead

Compared to many of its European neighbors, Norway is better equipped to handle contemporary migration flows. Its immigration system is more comprehensive, and it has maintained a well-established refugee resettlement program. The government has exhibited a strong commitment to and has in place a thorough strategy for promoting immigrant integration, and there are simple, if limited, procedures for admitting economic immigrants.

The country also reaps the management benefits of cooperation on migration with the EU through Schengen, although it has limited ability to influence EU policy development on the issue.

However, to simultaneously maintain the high standard of living in Norway and the measures of equality so important to the country, Norway will need to take into account a number of trends. These include:

  • The competition for both highly skilled migrants and those who are willing to perform undesirable work. Norway is already a player in this game to recruit the most desirable migrants, through both its seasonal and specialist work permits. However, as other European nations make their own work programs more lucrative, and as the standard of living rises in the new EU countries (a traditional source of labor for Norway), Norway may need to adjust its policies.
  • The growth of illegal immigration and trafficking. Norway is now a destination for a small but growing number of women trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation, and also serves as a transit space for illegal migrants across borders. As opportunities for migration to Europe through legal mechanisms become scarcer, trafficking and illegal immigration are likely to increase in years to come.
  • The shift in populations of humanitarian concern. Norway already has a robust system for protection and residence on humanitarian grounds. However, it may not be prepared for the potential influx of persons from unsustainable environmental systems and man-made disasters. These flight motives are quite distinct from the persecution and other humanitarian causes for displacement of persons in need of refugee protection in the traditional sense.
  • The parallel influence of the European Union. Norway's relationship to the EU can head in three possible directions: convergence, divergence, or maintainence of the status quo. Although the divergent scenario seems rather unlikely, maintaining the status quo may eventually cause Norway to diverge in an ad-hoc way as the EU becomes more unified and gains longevity. On the other hand, convergence may lead to greater labor market and border policy integration. No matter which way the country leans, Norway will need to be mindful of the migration consequences of each option, and construct policies that allow it to maintain a good working relationship with the EU while managing migration to its own advantage.


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