Is Norway a multicultural country?

Whether the nation qualifies or not depends on how one defines “multiculturalism”

Photo courtesy of Sarpsborg Kommune Is Norway multicultural? It appears to be a matter of perspective and definition.

Photo courtesy of Sarpsborg Kommune
Is Norway multicultural? It appears to be a matter of perspective and definition.

Leslee Lane Hoyum
Rockford, Minn.

Having grown up in the United States, I generally view our nation as a melting pot, populated by new immigrants over hundreds of years. Our forebears were among them. We understand what it is like to live in a multi-ethnic, multi-color, multi-faith, and multi-language country. But in Norway, this phenomenon is overwhelming and new.

The ideas associated with multiculturalism vary from country to country. So, for the purpose of this article, I will use two simple ideologies:

• First, accepting multiculturalism as a science measured by specific accomplishments, such as employment rates, university enrollment, competitive wages, home ownership, and so forth, as compared with the dominant population; and

• Second, seeing multiculturalism as a “human factor,” as I call it: a society that encourages interest and respect for many cultures within a society rather than only one dominant culture.

I had the pleasure of attending a lecture at the University of Oslo International Summer School entitled “Immigration and Integration in Norway” presented by Timothy Szlachetko, most recently of the Integration and Diversity Directorate and now with the Norwegian Ministry of Local Government and Modernization. He is an Australian of Polish descent who has lived in Norway for 12 years: therefore, an immigrant himself.

Szlachetko said that the Norwegian definition of “immigrant” embraces two categories of individuals:

• People who immigrated to Norway but were born abroad to two foreign-born parents and four foreign-born grandparents; and

• Persons born in Norway but whose parents and all four grandparents were foreign born.

Nearly 750,000, or 16.3 percent, of Norway’s 5.2 million residents meet the aforementioned immigrant definition. That number is expected to soar to 20 percent within 10 years. They come from 223 countries, but the four most highly represented immigrants in the first generation came from Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, and Somalia. Thirty-nine percent came because they had family in Norway, 33 percent came to work, 22 percent sought asylum, and 5 percent wished to pursue higher education.

The Norwegian-born generation as previously defined looks somewhat different. Its top four groups include persons with Pakistani, Somali, Polish, or Iraqi backgrounds. Together, the two immigrant groups now compose 32.5 percent of the population in Oslo and 28.5 percent in Drammen, although there are immigrants in all Norwegian municipalities.

Photo: Leslee Lane Hoyum The ideas associated with multiculturalism vary from country to country. Timothy Szlachetko presented the Norwegian scientific viewpoint.

Photo: Leslee Lane Hoyum
The ideas associated with multiculturalism vary from country to country. Timothy Szlachetko presented the Norwegian scientific viewpoint.

Szlachetko also said that Norway was founded with two basic societal groups: Norwegians and Sámi, but he would argue that ethnic and religious minorities always have lived in Norway. They include:

• Kvens, who are descended from Finnish peasants and fishermen;

• Persons of the Jewish faith who can be traced to 1492, when they were expelled from Spain and Portugal. More than 300 years later, a section of the 1814 Norwegian constitution banned Jews from entering the country;

• Forest Finns, who were Finnish immigrants from Savonia and Northern Tavastia in Finland, who settled in Norway during the late 16th and early-to-mid 17th centuries; and

• Roma/Romani/Travelers, a traditionally nomadic ethnic group originating from the northern regions of India.

However, were they consequential immigrant groups, and are they significant today, since most of them are now assimilated into modern Norwegian society? That is probably a rhetorical question. Nonetheless, today Norway’s immigration story is more extensive than ever before and has somewhat complicated Norwegian society.

Modern immigration to Norway began in the 1960s, when many traveled from Pakistan, Turkey, and northern Africa to find work. Society and the government thought they would earn money and return home; they did not. Instead, they stayed and brought their families. Then in 1975 the government created an “immigration stoppage” to control its labor market and the influence immigration labor held. That eventually led to the 1991 Immigration Act requiring non-citizens to hold valid work permits.

In the late 20th century, the reasons for immigration to Norway changed from seeking employment to seeking refuge or asylum, family reunification, as well as Norway’s participation in the Nordic/European Union labor migration agreement, specifically freedom to travel.

Norway has seen a significant increase in immigrants from the Baltic and central and eastern European countries. Norway’s generosity is no secret throughout the world, but it exploded last year when more than 31,000 refugees arrived. That created an immigration crisis, which spurred a dramatic change in immigration and integration policies.

By autumn 2015, the Norwegian government knew its refugee situation was out of control. Parliamentary discussions included proposals to secure borders and control arrivals and contain immigration and integration costs, all of which caused polarizing debates among political parties. But one thing was clear—follow-through was of utmost importance regarding integration policy. Measures were needed to incentivize participation in the workforce and community life. In other words, the goal was to ensure that everyone who lived in Norway found work or studied so that he or she ultimately became a taxpayer and a contributing member of Norwegian society.

According to the Norwegian Statistics Bureau, Norway is headed in the right direction with its integration policy. A total of 63.4 percent of able-bodied immigrants aged 15-74 are employed, compared with 68.5 percent of the able-bodied dominant population. Furthermore, in 2015, 43 percent of the 19- to 24-year-old Norwegian immigrant population born to two immigrant parents were college or university students. But are these the types of statistics that make Norway multicultural? Perhaps from a scientific viewpoint.

“We should remember,” said Szlachetko, “that even King Haakon VII was an immigrant. He was a Danish prince and his wife, Queen Maude, was an English princess.” Moreover, King Olav V was an immigrant under the current Norwegian definition. He was born in England to two foreign-born parents and had four foreign-born grandparents. Even his wife, Crown Princess Martha, was an immigrant, having been born in Sweden to a Swedish father and Danish mother. However, their backgrounds may not have been seen as dissimilar to Norwegians.

Students attending the lecture were asked whether they thought Norway was multicultural. They responded in similar voice.

A woman of color from the U.S. wearing a Muslim burka did not see Norway as multicultural compared with the U.S. “In Norway I see immigrants adjusting to the dominant culture, not keeping their ethnic identity.”

A black woman with great determination said, “No, no, no, no! If you don’t look Norwegian, you are not from here. During my interviews I have found this to also be true in second- and third-generation immigrant families.”

A man of color was quick to point out, “Look at the photo of your parliament’s cabinet. Where is the multiculturalism?”

Finally, a woman of Asian background said, “There may be some elements of multiculturalism, but you (Norway) are Christian based. Most holidays revolve around Christian holy days, not allowing for observations by other religions’ celebrations, such as Rosh Hashanah or Ramadan.”

The comments made by students illustrate the human factor to which I alluded earlier: a society that encourages interest and respect for many cultures within a society rather than only one dominant culture.

On which elements of multiculturalism, integration, and assimilation will Norway now concentrate? At this time, all government agencies have responsibility for immigrant integration. They concentrate on refugees and their families through rapid resettlement, community engagement, urban renewal, grants to private immigration organizations, and continued employment and housing support, as well as equitable public services, including interpretation services.

Is Norway multicultural? It appears to be a matter of perspective and definition.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 23, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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