Does Norway need affirmative action for immigrants?

On the EDGE: An opinion column about current issues in Norway and the United States
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Shane Murray - affirmative action

Photo: Shane Murray
Speed Friending at Hallingdal International Club, circa 2015.

Shane Murray
Oslo, Norway

There are nations that have immigration woven into the fabric of their history and those that don’t. As the joke goes:

In America, it takes about three years to become an American.

In Sweden, also about three. Three generations, that is.   

For Norway, it is much longer than America but not quite as bad as Sweden.

Norway did not allow Jews into the kingdom until 1851. Prior to the ban being lifted, there was a fear that Jews would flock to Norway. It turned out that only a very small number of Jews came; the fears were unfounded. That fear or suspicion of the outsider is still alive and well in Norway. That should not come as a shock coming from a nation under the thumb of its neighbors for 600 years, being invaded by Nazis only 35 years after independence, and being founded on the notion of national romanticism… When you look at it that way, it’s a bit of a wonder Norway lets anyone in at all.

The number of immigrants in Norway has rapidly risen from 4 percent of the total population in the early 1990s to around 17 percent today. Norway has yet to fully adjust to a new reality of shifting from a largely homogenous to increasingly heterogenous society. Immigrants are usually spoken about or to in the media, and there is no legislation that ensures immigrants have a voice. While Norway has made significant progress in increasing the number of women in leadership via affirmative action, there is no legislation that provides equitable access to work or political life for immigrants.

No affirmative action for immigrants is evident at the national and local political levels. Nationally, there are only seven parliamentarians with an immigrant background out of 169; if there was proportionate representation, that number should be 28. One rural region, Hallingdal, has a population where 15 percent of the population is foreign-born or Norwegian-born with two foreign parents, yet less than 2 percent of the politicians come from an immigrant background.

There are several studies that demonstrate that Norwegians with immigrant backgrounds are often discriminated against in the labor market, based on their name or background. When I was living in a rural district in Norway, there were many refugees, immigrants, and even Norwegians who felt isolated. I saw there was a need to bring people together and started a networking and socialization club. At first this was met with skepticism by the status quo, but finally even the local unemployment office admitted it was a good idea. In their words, “It’s not easy for people with strange-sounding names and dark skin to find work here, and networking can only help.”

What I found often to be the case is that Norwegians are generally good-hearted people who want to do the right thing but don’t know always know what the right thing to do is. Immigrant leaders can serve as bridge builders between Norwegians and immigrants. However, immigrant leaders need enabling mechanisms to hasten immigrants’ access to the trust and democratic and egalitarian benefits most ethnic Norwegians experience by default. Affirmative action should send a clear message throughout society on what is the right thing to do.

There are many types of affirmative action, also known as positive discrimination. My proposal is that any organization with over 50 employees ensure that at least 17 percent of positions at all levels in the organization are staffed by immigrants, and the policy should extend to politics. There would be some exceptions in areas requiring high-level security clearances, time to adjust, and a mechanism for organizations to apply for waivers on a case-by-case basis. Training programs in language and skill gaps should be part and parcel with affirmative action and paid for by the state as an investment in Norway’s future.

Why is affirmative action important for the future of Norway?

Norway is dependent upon immigration if it wishes to maintain the same quality of life for its aging population over the long run. If immigrants are good enough to be stewards of Norway’s past, then we should be good enough to play an equitable role in determining the future of the country. Equity for all in Norway falls in line with Norway’s long egalitarian and democratic traditions which should be extended fully to all who live here.


Shane Murray holds a master’s in environmental management and policy from the IIIEE, has served on the board of Expats in Denmark, is a co-founder of Dentists Without Borders (Tannhelse Uten Grenser), and has worked to improve the lives of immigrants and refugees in Norway. He has lived or worked in the three Scandinavian countries and is a dual citizen of Sweden and the United States.

This article originally appeared in the February 22, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.