UN’s top country to live in faces huge surge in asylum seekers

NORWAY is facing a surge in asylum seekers, often because a short stay at a refugee centre in what the UN calls the world’s best place to live beats living back home.

>“Some are tricked into coming. Others know they won’t get refugee status, but living in a refugee centre for a while in Norway is better than living as a Gypsy in a slum in eastern Europe,” Erna Solberg, the Norwegian government minister in charge of immigration, said yesterday.

She said the number of asylum-seekers coming to Norway increased to 18,000 so far this year, compared to about 15,000 in all of 2001, and 4,000 in 1997.

Ms Solberg said more than 70% of this year’s asylum-seekers would be denied permission to stay.

The increase gives Norway, a prosperous nation of 4.5 million, the second highest per capita arrival of refugees in Europe, after Austria. She said many of the refugees are from Sri Lanka, Iraq and Somalia, as well as Russia and other eastern European countries.

Norway is known for its generous welfare state, low unemployment, and strong protection of human rights. The UN Development Programme index currently lists Norway as the best country in the world to live for the second straight year.

“I think that can have an effect,” said Morten Tjessem, secretary general of the Norwegian Organisation for Asylum Seekers.

“An asylum seeker is looking for the best place to live.”

Norwegians are used to quiet isolation in northern Europe, with only 6.6% of the population of foreign origin.

Immigration has also sparked a furious debate. It was one reason why the anti-immigration Party of Progress had its best election last year, winning 26 seats in the 165-member parliament.

Last year, neighbouring Denmark toughened its own immigration laws, facing criticism, but also reducing by half the flow of refugees there through June of 2002.

Mr Tjessem said that with other European countries tightening their immigration rules, Norway becomes more attractive.

Life in a Norwegian refugee centre means clean beds, good food and a great deal of freedom, safety, clothing and even spending money.

Ms Solberg said Norway is now quickly deporting all those without grounds for asylum, and is considering insisting that refugees can support their families before bringing them.

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