What is Norway up to? The question can be put directly to the country’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, because in his New Year’s speech he placed particular emphasis on the fact that it will be work that will make the difference in securing Norway’s future. Work, work, work – and now comes the news that criminal foreigners who serve more than a year in jail will henceforth automatically qualify for welfare. After three years in prison, they will have a right to a government pension and to health coverage. This will be the case even if they have come to Norway illegally. In other words, it pays for foreigners to come to Norway and commit serious crimes – and the more serious the crime, the greater the reward.
The word ”shocking” is hardly sufficient. Indeed, some news is so shocking that one hardly believes what one is hearing. This new development falls under the category of things that you just can’t imagine a country’s leaders ever coming up with. But I am not making this up. You can read all about it on the website of the newspaper Aftenposten: in order to qualify for welfare, foreign criminals will have to commit crimes that are serious enough to put them behind bars for a year or more. But if they are found guilty of even more serious offenses, so that they are sentenced to at least three years, they will also have the right to a basic government pension starting at age 67.
According to Aftenposten, a person who has spent three years in the can will receive a so-called 3/40 basic pension, which amounts to 455 kroner ($80) a month. I assume this means that somebody who has served seven years will get a 7/40 basic pension, and so forth. It is impossible to imagine a policy that would more clearly reward people for breaking the law. And unfortunately, this isn’t all. Because if the same criminal foreigners are citizens of countries belonging to the EU or the European Economic Area, such as Lithuania, Poland, or Bulgaria, they will also have a right to Norwegian pensions even if they have moved out of Norway. We can thus expect that in the years to come, the Norwegian welfare system will find itself paying out considerable amounts in health and pension benefits to felons living abroad.
We can also expect that the Norwegian “goodness industry,” as I like to call it, will soon be telling us that this new policy is discriminatory: why shouldn’t criminals from countries outside the EU or EEA have the same rights as criminals from Europe? For under Norwegian law, citizenship is not predicated on one’s land of birth: if a man is a Norwegian citizen, all of his children have the right to Norwegian citizenship as well, regardless of whether they are born in Norway, Lithuania, Pakistan, or Somalia, and regardless of whether their mother is wife #1 or wife #33. As Human Rights Service has noted repeatedly, if this is called equality under the law, there is something wrong with the law.
There is also something wrong with a law that encourages people to pursue lives of crime, and that in fact amounts to a gilt-edged invitation to come to Norway to commit serious crime. According to Aftenposten, we already have quite enough crime of this sort, thank you very much. As of January 2010, 1,001 foreign citizens are in Norwegian prisons. This amounts to 32 percent of all prisoners. Seven out of ten of these foreigners, moreover, are serving terms more than a year long.
According to Aftenposten, the background to this story is that there have been several cases in which disagreement has arisen as to the rights of foreign prisoners. For example, several of them have been denied hospital care in other than acute or emergency situations. Also, as recently as May of last year, the government stated, in the revised national budget, that a foreigner prisoner serving a sentence in Norway will not thereby earn the right to residency – and will thus not be entitled to welfare benefits. But who protested the government’s decision? Those who act more and more as if they are the real government of Norway – namely, the Norwegian civil service, the people who are supposed to administer the laws that the government is supposed to formulate. As Aftenposten reports,
Afterwards the civil service protested to then Minister of Health and Care Services Bjarne Håkon Hanssen and argued that the Minister of Labor should cover the bills [for foreign criminals in Norway]. As a result, the government revisited the question of the status of foreign prisoners and offered a new interpretation of the National Insurance Law.
In an e-mail to Aftenposten, the Ministry of Labor wrote that “Serving a sentence in Norwegian prisons in accordance with a legally valid judicial order should not be regarded as illegal residence. Persons with sentences of 12 months or more will therefore be regarded as members of the National Insurance Scheme under paragraph 2-1 of the National Insurance Law.”
Minister of Labor Hanne Bjurstrøm declines further comment on the matter.
Take a good look at that statement: A foreigner who is a prisoner in a Norwegian prison is not in Norway illegally. There are other ways to look at this situation – for example, a foreigner is a foreigner precisely because he didn’t have legal residency in Norway before he was imprisoned. The foreigner is not only a foreigner, he is also a prisoner. The individual who was in Norway illegally has done something illegal in Norway, and has thus become a foreign prisoner in a Norwegian prison. And now that this individual is behind bars, after his case has been investigated and evaluated, and we have spent mountains of money to protect this condemned criminal’s rights – the conclusion by the civil service, and consequently by the government, is that this very same person should now be treated like a legal resident in Norway. There are other points that the civil service could make, for example that this same foreign prisoner has not been granted the right to higher education, so the conclusion must be that the prisoner – who is, after all, legally in Norway – should also have this right. By the same logic, this foreign inmate should also have the right to family reunification with his wife, children, and parents.
Aftenposten reports, however, that the same prisoner won’t have a right to child benefits or cash support for his children, if those children do not live in Norway. The same goes for social security benefits related to work. But I’m not sure of this. The welfare rules and regulations in Norway are anything but simple, but I have often observed that persons who are considered to be qualified to receive welfare benefits are thereby accorded a number of rights. For example, I seem to recall that children of foreign nations who have Norwegian working permits have the right to cash support (even if the children are not in Norway) because earners of taxable income in Norway automatically qualify for welfare support. I plan to look into this.
Fortunately, several politicians have reacted to the creativity of the civil service and the government’s approval of its machinations. Both the Progress Party and the Conservative Party (two of the parties on the Norwegian “right”) have asked the government to rethink its decision:
“The new cabinet has to reverse itself on this one. It cannot be the case that if foreigners do something criminal that leads to a long prison sentence, they will automatically qualify for welfare.”
“It is unprecedented and unacceptable to give welfare benefits to hardened criminals who come to Norway illegally and commit extremely serious acts of violence,” says Robert Eriksson (Progress Party), head of the Parliament’s Labor and Social Committee.
“It seems entirely unreasonable to reward criminals with welfare benefits. We are talking about convicts who should be expelled from Norway, and who should be serving time in their own countries,” says the Conservative head of the Health and Care Committee, Bent Hoie.
Aftenposten concludes its report by mentioning that the government recently formed a so-called Welfare and Migration Committee under the leadership of Professor Grete Brochmann of the University of Oslo, which will examine the potential consequences of increased immigration for the Norwegian welfare and social security system. ”Increased immigration” would seem, in any case, have taken on a new meaning. Perhaps in the future we will see immigration statistics divided up into the categories of family reunification, asylum seekers, labor immigrants – and prisoner immigrants?
This article first appeared in Norwegian at the website of Human Rights Service, rights.no, and was translated into English by Bruce Bawer.