European Migration and Asylum Policies for the Future – Nordic perspectives

Speech by Prime Minister Erna Solberg at FAFO's conference European Migration and Asylum Policies for the Future – Nordic Perspectives, in Oslo 21 October 2016.

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Academics, researchers, policy makers and other stakeholders,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to address today’s conference. It is a great pleasure to start off these highly relevant and important discussions. Migration policy is one of the most important policy area in today’s society. The challenges extend beyond national borders, and all leaders have a responsibility to work towards a common solution.

At the end of 2015, more than 65 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide.

European cooperation has developed and deepened over the last 60 years, but last year it was confronted by one of its most serious crises ever. The scale of irregular arrivals of migrants and refugees caused large sections of the European population to question their leaders’ ability to manage the situation. Many saw the European cooperation as the cause of the crisis, not its solution. 

Like other European countries, Norway received a large number of asylum seekers in 2015 – a total of 31 145 applications. The Norwegian asylum system was put to the test as it implemented urgent measures to handle the extraordinary situation. Best efforts were made. Looking back however, we can see that some things could have been done differently.

Meanwhile, migrant influxes to the European continent remain high, and almost 1 000 000 irregular migrants have reached the continent (EU+) this year. The migration flows must be expected to continue for some years to come.

I have recently returned from New York where I took part in the High Level Meeting to Address Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants. Here we agreed to work towards a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration by 2018. The meeting stressed the importance of distinguishing between refugees and migrants who are not in need of international protection. We also discussed the need for sound mechanisms to ensure that those in need are protected as well as better responsibility-sharing mechanisms.

At the High Level Meeting, I highlighted four areas of particular importance for the Norwegian Government:

Firstly, we must distinguish clearly between refugees and economically motivated migrants. Otherwise we will undermine our ability to protect those who qualify for protection, and we will undermine the institution of asylum.

Secondly, we need closer cooperation on the return of people who do not qualify for asylum or protection. Countries must readmit migrants who return home – voluntarily or otherwise. 

Thirdly, we stress that international law already provides a solid legal framework for the protection of refugees. What we need is better implementation of existing instruments and standards.

Fourthly, we must address the root causes of migration. Norway will maintain its high level of development assistance with this in view. It is also crucial that we all work together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. In this effort, closer cooperation between humanitarian and development actors is vital.

While it is important to distinguish between refugees and irregular migrants, both remain a concern. In our cooperation with third countries, we must take the particular interests of sending, transit and receiving countries into account. In this respect I welcome the Agreement to make the International Organization for Migration (IOM) a “Related Organization” of the UN. This closer relationship between IOM and the UN will strengthen cooperation and enhance their ability to fulfil their respective mandates for both migrants and refugees.

The High Level Meeting also underlined – a fact that we already knew – that the refugee crisis is a global crisis that no country or region can handle alone.

The total number of applications for asylum in Norway has been significantly reduced in 2016. The same applies to the other Nordic countries.

Nevertheless migration will continue to affect the Nordic societies in the future, with ripple effects on politics, policy making and academic research.

There are differences between the Nordic countries when it comes to migration in terms of the number of arrivals, their nationality, the reception system, the adjudication process, integration policies and public attitudes. However, there are also many similarities.

The Nordic countries share a long tradition of cooperation on various matters, and our research collaboration on this topic has been particularly rewarding. Although last year’s migrant crisis presented a huge challenge to all of us, we have benefitted greatly from information sharing, dialogue and common policy.

The Nordic welfare model is dependent on a high level of participation in the workforce. This means that it is essential for immigrants to enter the labour market as soon as possible.

The Nordic societies also have highly organised labour markets. This has served us well. With large numbers of migrants arriving in Europe, and low return rates for those who are not granted asylum, there is a risk of more people falling into the hands of unscrupulous employers and the irregular economy. This is another reason why I have been so clear about the need for more effective return policies.

There is also a risk of large groups of people becoming dependent on benefits. It gives particular cause for concern when these groups follow ethnic lines. This leads to serious financial and social problems both for the individuals concerned and for their families. At the same time, tax revenues are reduced and the welfare system comes under pressure.

There are areas in some Nordic cities where living conditions are very difficult, with large numbers of people outside the labour market who scarcely participate in society at all. Some of these areas also have a very high crime rate, which affects the residents both directly and indirectly. For example residents in such areas generally have little confidence in key social institutions.

We urgently need to build a new social cohesion in a multi-ethnic society if we are to meet these challenges. Civil society will have to play a more prominent role in this work. Religious communities, for example, have a key role to play in supporting democracy and human rights.

We will not overcome the refugee crisis by building walls, but by working together towards common solutions. In the end, this will be in the best interests of everyone.

I truly believe in a common Nordic approach to the challenges we are all facing with migration to our countries. And this conference is an excellent opportunity for us to learn from each other, and to exchange information and experience.

Thank you for your attention.