No way in, no way out?
A study of living conditions of irregular migrants in Norway
by Cecilie Øien and Silje Sønsterudbråten
The asylum application process: from asylum seeker to irregular migrant
“”The question is therefore whether migrants have access to information about rights and about possible outcomes to their application – also what a rejection could entail“”
“” .. Based on available information (e.g. Zhang 2008), most irregular migrants in Norway are rejected asylum seekers. Understanding the application process is therefore central in understanding how people become irregular migrants. In this section, we give a brief introduction to the way the asylum process is formally supposed to take place.
It is at the end of this process that migrants either are granted asylum or have their applications rejected and thus get residence permits, leave the country or stay on and become irregular. Presenting the details of this process in a few words is therefore a step towards explaining both how people become irregular migrants and the challenges they face afterwards.
Upon arrival, migrants are expected to register their asylum applications with the police. It is the Police Immigration Service (PU) that is responsible for the registration of asylum seekers. During registration, applicants submit their passports and other necessary identity documents to the police, who also take applicants’ fingerprints and ask about their identities and how they have travelled to Norway. Immediately after such registration, applicants are sent to the transit reception centre in Tanum, outside Oslo. After two weeks, while awaiting their interviews with the immigration authorities (UDI), they are sent to other transit reception centres. After the interviews, while waiting for their applications to be processed, they are transferred to regular reception centres. The asylum interview is a crucial part of the asylum process and takes 3–5 hours with a translator present. The case-processing time is not uniform but in July 2010 an average application took fourteen months to process, whereas appeals against rejections took five months. Cases of uncertain identity and those in which applicants lack ID may take longer. Staff at both transit and ordinary reception centres are responsible for informing applicants of the asylum process and their rights and obligations. However, the Norwegian Organisation for Asylum Seekers (NOAS), an NGO working for the rights of asylum seekers in Norway, provides information to asylum seekers within three days of their arriving at the transit centre.
Accommodation in reception centres is free of charge to asylum seekers while their applications are being processed. Those with relatives or friends in Norway can choose to take up private accommodation but they then lose the financial support they would get in centres. Those who get residence permits are settled in municipalities. Economically independent people can themselves choose where to live.
Each applicant who receives a rejection can appeal the decision twice. For the first appeal, the asylum seeker has the right to free legal aid to write a complaint to UDI. This has to be sent to UDI within three weeks of receipt of the rejection. If UDI does not find that there is any reason to reverse its decision, the case is referred to another state agency, the Immigration Appeals Board (UNE). If UNE reverses the decision, the applicant gets a residence permit. If UNE rejects the appeal, the decision is final and the migrant is expected to return to the country of origin. However, even after the rejection from UNE, it is possible to send a revocation request if new documents or information relevant to the case can be provided. Finally, rejected asylum seekers can take their appeal cases to court. This is an expensive option with very uncertain results. There are three options for return. A rejected applicant has a three-week window to leave voluntarily for his or her home country or any other EU or Schengen country where he or she may have registered first. The second option is voluntary return: the applicant can seek help from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to arrange the journey home. The IOM then pays for the ticket and migrants are transported by civilian police. This is called assisted voluntary return. Finally, if a person does not leave Norway by the specified deadline, there is the option of forced return. This entails the police’s obtaining travel documents and tickets for the return journey and then escorting each person in question to his or her country of origin.
The respondents in this study had become irregular migrants after their asylum
application had been rejected. The change in legal status had had implications for their living conditions. Since 2004 until July 2010, rejected asylum seekers were not entitled to live in the asylum reception centres (see Brekke and Søholt 2005; Aarø and Wyller 2005). Exceptions were made for families with children, unaccompanied minors, seriously ill people and those who cooperate with the authorities as regards returning to their countries of origin.
The intention behind cutting the support for rejected asylum seekers was to worsen the living conditions in Norway for this group of migrants, in order that more people would leave the country voluntarily, or, alternatively, to increase these migrants’ interest in cooperating with the authorities so that ultimately return would be the outcome (Brekke 2010: 26). This was also a matter of ‘sending a message’ to potential asylumseekers: that the immigration regime had become stricter. Two new centres were established to house people who had received final rejections. These centres were called ventemottak or, in direct translation, ‘waiting reception centres’. The standard of these centres in Lier and Fagerli was basic or even poor, as the intention was to motivate the residents to undertake return (see Valenta et al. 2010). It was not uncommon for people to stay in these centres for 2–4 years. UDI reviewed the situation following protests against the poor living standards that culminated in one centre’s being vandalised and the other’s being set on fire. It decided to close these centres since they were not seen to be motivating migrants to undertake return as intended. In the summer of 2010, both centres were closed. As an alternative to these waiting centres, the government decided to create so-called ‘return centres’ for people who had received final rejections. These centres will open in 2011. However, since July 2010 UDI no longer withdraw the offer of accommodation for rejected asylum seekers and all irregular migrants in this category are offered to stay in ordinary reception centres pending the opening of the new centres. However, both before and since the closure of the waiting reception centres, most irregular migrants have lived outside the state-sponsored centres without receiving financial benefits from the state. By the end of October 2010, there were 16 941 people living in reception centres in Norway. Of these, 3 970 or 23 per cent had received final rejections and had what UDI calls a ‘duty to leave’ (utreiseplikt). This group was not included in the 2008 estimate.
Irregular migrants have limited rights in Norway but they do have formal entitlements (Aarø and Wyller 2005; Brekke and Søholt 2005; Kristiansen 2008; Ottesen 2008; Hjelde 2010a, 2010b). The question is therefore whether migrants have access to information about rights and about possible outcomes to their application – also what a rejection could entail. It has not been one of the objectives of the study return as such, but irregular migration and the issue of return are no doubt connected. It was a recurring theme in interviews with respondents’ something which is reflected the report. .. “”