Norway gives generously to refugee assistance throughout the world so what was going on in Norway on April 26th when at 10:30 PM, Norwegian police picked up sixty-three Ethiopian asylum seekers from an Oslo city “camp,” where they had been staying pending a decision on their asylum case, and transported them to five different isolated areas outside of Oslo and simply left them there?
This is the culmination of months of standoff between Norwegian immigration authorities and Ethiopian refugees who have failed to reach some kind of consensus about how to apply the new and stricter refugee law that just passed in January with refugees who have been living and working in Norway for many years. There appears to be fault on both sides.
For sure, the new law has sent shockwaves through the Ethiopian refugee community in Oslo; particularly impacting those who never completed all that was necessary to gain permanent resident status; however, before this, an overall acceptance of refugees created a more permissive atmosphere. When most of these refugees first entered Norway, they were given work permits; allowing them to freely carry on independent lives within Norwegian society. They learned the language, found jobs, set up bank accounts, bought homes and cars, raised families, paid taxes and integrated into Norwegian culture.
Since the adoption of the new bill, their cases have become a real challenge to the Norwegian system. Now, up to two hundred Ethiopian refugee seekers, living in the country for five, ten or more years, are not been grandfathered in under some special status as people who have been living in the country, but are being treated like new refugees and must start the process all over again.
In early 2011 they were told to inform their employers that they longer would have working permits and to deal with any financial or community obligations immediately so they could report to authorities for assignment to “camps” where they would be housed until a determination of their status could be made. This included a decision as to whether or not they would be deported back to Ethiopia.
Those affected decided to take refuge in a church to voice their opposition to this plan. Church leaders mediated between the refugees and authorities; which led to reaching a temporary agreement to be moved to a camp location within the city of Oslo. Since that time, authorities have told them to move outside the city to different assigned locations, but they have not responded; wanting to remain together as a negotiating group. They now have a lawyer who is willing to represent at least thirty of the strongest cases.
Problems began on Tuesday morning at 10:00 AM April 26, 2011, when police officers came to their residence; telling them that regardless of their previous refusal to go to the countryside locations, they still had to evacuate the premises. Two girls and one man refused. They were then handcuffed and detained. One of the women fractured her leg in the scuffle and is now in the hospital after falling or being pushed to the ground. The other woman has a bruise on her arm from being held too tightly.
The man was not injured, but was detained by the police for five hours before being released. Their bags with all their belongings were placed on the side of the street.
They were told they should find a place to go, but when evening came, they still had no place to go, so they returned to the same “camp” where they had been housed. At 10:30 PM, over twenty police officers in at least ten vehicles, a helicopter and dogs came and surrounded the house. They told the people to get out and to get into the police vans. All willingly left the premises; carrying their plastic bags holding their possessions and got into the vehicles. Each police vehicle drove their passengers in different directions.
According to the testimonies of the people, when they reached more isolated areas outside Oslo, some with forests surrounding them, they were told to get out. When they were bewildered about where they should go, they asked what they were supposed to do. They were told they were not wanted at their previous location and should go find their own places.
Through their cell phones, they phoned each other to find out the location of the others; some not even knowing their own location as they were in unfamiliar places. They were able to reach others in the Ethiopian community who were permanent residents with cars. These Ethiopians searched the outskirts of the city before finding them. They all agreed to meet in front of the church where they had originally taken refuge. Finally, around 1:00 AM, all arrived at the church compound and by 2:00 AM they had set up tents. This is where they are now. The police came back and saw them, but have taken no action.
This is a problem that will not go away without all parties actively seeking some kind of agreement; even if it means an agreement to give them refuge until peace comes to Ethiopia. Since the time they left Ethiopia, the country has even further deteriorated into a repressive authoritarian state; known for widespread human rights crimes, repression of all civil rights and a closing off of all political space.
Following the 2005 national election, widely perceived as fraudulent, nearly two-hundred peaceful protestors were shot in the head and killed; similar to what is happening in Syria. Many more were wounded and some 30,000 to 50,000 protestors were rounded up and sent to detention camps. In 2011, high levels of intimidation, imprisonment and harassment targeted any perceived opponents. If deported back to Ethiopia, these refugees will likely face higher levels of suspicion, scrutiny and persecution.
Those Norwegian government officials, refugees and their representatives who are involved should work to come up with a durable solution; however, even if these refugees are given permanent status, their lives have been traumatically interrupted and will require that they repeat some of the same steps to rebuild the independent and productive lives they had previously achieved.
One girl was crying as she shared, “I cannot believe this. I feel like a new refugee arriving in a foreign land, but I have been here for twelve years; working hard all those years, saving money. I had a car, a home, a full time job, but now I am homeless and have not slept all night. I have no bed; nothing. I am just here sitting on the ground. I cannot believe it!”