‘No One Is Illegal’ Campaign aims to protect Norway’s ‘paperless’ refugees

Norway correspondent Synne Hall Arnøy – WNN Features

Maria Amilie's book cover contrasts Norway's Parliament building
A voice of hope for Norway's 'paperless' people on the footsteps of the Norwegian Parliament. Image: Synne Hall Arnøy

(WNN) OSLO, NORWAY: This year for 2010 marks Norway as the highest ranked nation on the recent United Nation’s global Human Development Index (HDI), but the country is facing a human rights challenge. The November report shows that an average Norwegian can expect to live 81 years, attend school for 12.6 years, and earn $58,000 annually; but are these conditions available equally to all people, especially the women living in Norway?

Not every woman today in Norway is given the benefits of equality in Norwegian society, even though the northern state is known for its advocacy for gender equity. Current facts show that numerous immigrant refugee women are actually slipping through the cracks in Norway’s system of human rights.

“There are more than 40 million refugees globally; still the wealthiest country in the world goes catastrophic when a small fraction of them arrive,” admits Kari Helene Partapuoli, Director of The Norwegian Center against Racism and Discrimination, in a recent interview with Women News Network.

“For how long should you be able to be illegal in a country? When is enough enough? …I am careful about making general statements, but one has to remember that laws are made to protect people – people are not made to protect laws.” – Norwegian immigrant, author and rights activist, Marie Amelie

This fall many organizations in the country will be working to raise public awareness about the vulnerable group of ‘paperless’ people living in Norway. A majority of paperless people in Norway are asylum seekers, especially its women, who despite rejections, have stayed to live inside the country.

“Norway has one of the strictest policies towards this (paperless) group,” Partapuoli sighed. “Asylum policies must adapt to a more humane outlook, but unfortunately that is not a political winner.”

‘Illegally Norwegian’

Twenty-five year old, Maria Amelie, and her parents, fled from Northern Caucasus during the ethnic apartheid tied to the region. They escaped to Moscow, but faced further struggles. Later they went to Finland, then on to Norway to build a new life. Amelie was a minor when she arrived in ‘the land of the fjords’. Eight years and a master’s degree later, Maria still remains an unrecognized ‘illegal’ in Norway.

With her recently published book, Ulovlig norsk (Illegally Norwegian), Maria gives a powerful personal contribution to the growing public debate on Norwegian asylum policies. Speaking out publicly may put her and her parents in greater risk of being deported to Russia, a country where she and her family fear for their lives.

“I realized that I cannot live a lie anymore,” said Amelie at a conference on paperless people at the Oslo House of Literature in October. “The book (Ulovlig norsk) became a voice of hope. Hope that someone will understand that the feeling of home in your heart takes a long time to build.”

More Than a Piece of Paper

Initially, upon their arrival in Norway, Maria and her parents were sent to live in a number of Norwegian institutions for asylum seekers. “The atmosphere in those institutions is tense, and I felt degraded. It was through making friends I learned that ‘I too’ am a human being. I am more than an asylum seeker, more than a piece of paper,” Maria reflected.

On the rejection of her family’s asylum application they felt they had nowhere safe to go. “If my parents had accepted the rejection (and left) there is a chance I would not be alive today. Life is not black and white, and the laws are not always supporting the weakest,” she emphasized.

Maria has lived a life that on the outside does not seem to differ much from everybody else’s. “I have lived without an official permit to exist for almost as long as I can remember, so the reality of not having an ID number or a bank account was not really an option,” she explains.

But some aspects of her reality entail constant anxiety. “I was scared of telephones with new rejections,” admits Amelie.

Recently, Maria has applied again for a residency permit from the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI), but does not know whether she or her parents will ever receive status as ‘legal’ immigrants. Still her smile is remarkably genuine. “It is important to see the good also when things seem hopeless,” she shares.

— excerpt from WNN interview with immigrant activist, Maria Amelie —

WNN: Norway is known for its well functioning welfare state and a judicial system that respects human rights. Has the system protected you?

Maria Amelie: I have published a book without existing, which is a paradox in itself.

WNN: What would happen if you were sent to Russia?

Maria Amelie: I do not even know if I would survive getting off the plane. It is in Norway I became a person. It is here I became me.

As a Norwegian ‘illegal,’ Maria has not dared to seek medical help in fear of being deported as she confirms, “Norwegian people have taken care of me and given me hope. The system has not.”

Eternal Fear

Despite very different backgrounds, Maria Amelie shares similar fears with another woman in Norway, an Ethiopian who calls herself ‘Kenna.’ Kenna is Oromo, an ethnic group that makes up almost half of the Ethiopian population. In spite of their numbers, the Oromo are still subject to severe ethnic persecution.

After facing personal violence and torture, Kenna was only 18 when she came to Norway. While no one is forcibly returned to Ethiopia’s totalitarian regime, many Ethiopian women in Norway remain ‘paperless’. Kenna’s father was killed in Ethiopia.

“Words cannot describe how painful it is,” she says faintly.

The murder of Kenna’s father was connected to her father’s involvement in politics. During the crisis, Kenna’s brothers escaped as Kenna and her mother were tortured in prison for refusing to reveal their relatives’ hiding place.

Kenna’s uncle helped her flee to Norway. Almost 12 years later, Kenna speaks Norwegian but is illegally employed. Despite the number of years she has been in the country she is still seen as ‘illegal’ in Norway, with little option given to her to join fully in Norwegian society.

Today Kenna lives with an ongoing ‘eternal fear’ of being deported to a country that activates traumatic memories. Although she has ‘absolutely no rights’ in Norway, she feels connected to the country where she has now spent most of her adult life.

“Unfortunately the government fails to listen to those who have the experiences,” explains Kenna. “They need to understand; people do not live illegally somewhere for 10 to 15 years for no reason. I also think they should recognize the specifics in Ethiopians’ situations.”

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