When Angela Merkel invited refugees to Germany in 2015, tearing up the rules obliging migrants to seek asylum in the first country they arrive in, the consequences were pretty immediate. Over 160,000 went to Sweden, leading to well-publicised disruption. Next door, things were different. Norway took in just 30,000; this year it has accepted just 2,000 so far. To Sylvi Listhaug, the country’s young immigration minister, this might still be a bit too much.
‘We have a big challenge now to integrate those with permission to stay in Norway to make sure they respect Norwegian values,’ she says. ‘Freedom to speak, to write, to believe or not to believe in a god, how to raise your children.’ Also, she says, what not to do. For example: ‘It is not allowed to beat your children in Norway.’
It’s unusual for a European government minister to link immigration with child-beating, but the 39-year-old Ms Listhaug is accustomed to speaking plainly. The rest of Europe, she believes, is coming around to the Norwegian position.
After decades in opposition, her Progress Party entered government four years ago, junior partner in a Conservative-run coalition. Her party envisaged the problems of mass migration in the 1980s, she says, so was well ahead of the populist upstarts now haunting so much of Europe. ‘A lot of them are socialist parties but against immigration. We are a libertarian party. We want less government, so people should decide more over their own life. And we want a stricter immigration policy because that’s important for Norway in the long run.’
While Sweden and others saw the migration of 2015 as a blip caused by conflict in Syria and Iraq, she sees it as part of an irreversible demographic trend. ‘Africa is going to gain almost 500 million more people by 2030,’ she says. ‘Much of the Middle East and Africa is fragile. People have difficult lives but can see via mobile phones that life in the West and in Europe is quite different. So I understand why they would like our life, our kind of standards. But it’s not sustainable to integrate so many.’
Why not? Norway, with its oil–generated trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund, is one of the world’s richest countries — and hardly beset by integration issues. This, she says, is because they’ve been careful. ‘Many of the jobs here today perhaps will not be here tomorrow. Working in supermarkets for example — those kind of jobs that don’t need higher education. Those who come to Norway without any education — what are they going to do in the future if this continues?’
This is a big question in Sweden, where a high (but unofficial) minimum wage has served to price immigrants out of the economy. Many of those fleeing war or poverty in Afghanistan or Somalia are denied even a secondary education, let alone a degree, making it especially hard to find work. In cities such as Malmo, police talk about a violent and jobless immigrant underworld and politicians ask if it’s compassionate to leave young Afghan and Somalis in such conditions.
The case for limiting economic migration is clear. But about half of the registered asylum seekers in the EU last year were from countries that were struck by conflict. Can Norway justify taking so few? Ms Listhaug is a practising Christian (albeit sceptical of the ‘thoroughly socialist’ Church of Norway) and says her government’s immigration policy, when combined with its aid policy, is not just a moral response, but the most effective moral response.
‘For me it’s a moral issue as well. You can’t just help the ones you see. You have to think about the millions you don’t see and that have a very difficult life in the world.’
She’s referring to the refugee camps in Jordan, where both Norway and the UK send aid to help those displaced by war. Norway gave £23 million to its Jordanian mission last year, almost twice as much, per capita, as Britain. The cost of helping refugees at home is taken from its foreign aid budget, so as its influx subsides and costs fall, all savings are used to help refugees abroad. Some £370 million has been transferred so far, with more expected next year.
So to Ms Listhaug, it’s not a question of whether to help refugees, but how best to do so. We meet after she visited Brandon Lewis, her British counterpart, who gave her a striking statistic: ‘The immigration minister here in Britain said that for the price of helping 3,000 young people here, he could help 100,000 children in other parts of the world.’
She sees this as a modern way to help asylum seekers — and more practical than the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which obliges signatories to accommodate anyone with a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’.
‘It was an agreement for its time,’ she says. ‘But when people travel through 20 countries to come to a safe haven, I think people can see that this is not right. You could have a safe haven in your neighbouring country, so why go so far?’
Western countries that define their virtue by the number of refugees they let in, she says, also face a moral question: ‘Why should we have a system that works for the people who have money [to pay for the journey] while the rest of the refugees and people in need don’t have the money to go?’
People traffickers, she says, thrive on governments that follow the old rules and accept those who turn up on their shores. ‘If you smuggle an unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan to Europe, they say it is between $3,000 and $20,000.’ Young girls, she says, are sometimes sold to old men to finance such a journey. ‘Also, children are killed, or raped, on their way. So we need to have this under control.’
Being outside the EU, Norway does have a few more controls. Sweden’s foreign minister, Ann Linde, recently complained that it’s easier to ‘land on the moon’ than trade with Norway because of the red tape. Ms Listhaug disagrees. ‘We have a lot of people from Sweden coming to Norway; we are neighbours and have a good relationship,’ she said. ‘But of course we are a little bit concerned about the immigration policies they have. We see that they have big problems in some of the cities.’
Ms Listhaug provoked fury in Sweden a few weeks ago by visiting a suburb in Stockholm notorious for unrest among its young immigrant population. She called it a ‘no-go zone’ — a phrase that the Swedes angrily reject. But she doesn’t seem to mind causing a fuss, especially as she thinks her critics are coming around to her way of thinking. Nor does she mind using Sweden as a case study in what not to do. ‘A lot of countries in Europe are thinking more like us: like Denmark and Austria. Germany, as well… France has big problems right now with integration, as does Belgium. A lot of countries in Europe see that we need to have this under control.’
The Norwegian model, she says, is very different and very clear. “If you are an economic migrant, you are declined in Norway,” she says. “We send people back to Afghanistan if they are not in need of protection; we send them back to Somalia if they are not in need of protection.” Isn’t this a rather expensive process? “Yes, but it’s well worth it.” Police are also sent out to areas where illegal immigrants are suspected of living and working. “If we find them, we send them out. That has also decreased crime in Norway, that’s very good.”
I ask Listhaug if she is getting used to being called cruel and heartless. How does it make her feel? Her response comes quickly: ‘I don’t give a damn,’ she says. She thinks her approach is right, and the consensus is wrong. And, as she says, an increasing number of other countries think the same. A new consensus might well be in the making.
Sylvi Listhaug talks to Isabel Hardman.