Eurozone crisis: Euro-refugees get cold reception in Norway

15 February 2012
El País Madrid

Francisco Zamora arrived in Bergen, Norway, in 2009 with 225 euros in his pocket
Francisco Zamora arrived in Bergen, Norway, in 2009 with 225 euros in his pocket

Fleeing unemployment, hundreds of Spanish are migrating to idealised Norway in search of work. Few have had much luck. Many have found only unemployment, cold and despair. Another chapter in the great crisis afflicting Spain. Excerpts.

"For a long time there’d been nothing to fall back on. My parents, who are already elderly, had been paying my mortgage of 540 euros for a few months. Nothing was working out, and my prospects were pretty dim. One night I was in a bar and the TV was on in the background. The programme was Españoles en el mundo, or “Spaniards Around the World”. A man came on who lived in northern Norway, and he said he was earning 4,000 euros. He seemed pretty happy. I said to myself, ‘Paco, you’ve got to get yourself up there.’"

Francisco Zamora, 44, of Alcantarilla (Murcia), is a quiet guy. He’s wearing a scarf wrapped three times around his neck to keep out the bitter cold. An electronics graduate, with experience in construction and factories, he was once earning 3,000 euros a month. But all that was left behind three years ago. Like him, hundreds of Spanish who have been without work for months left a Spain in crisis with their sights set on one of the richest countries in the world; the choice simply had to be a good one.

But once there, the myths crumbled around them. Lacking both qualification and languages, doors closed in their faces. The authorities don’t want to know anything about them. Some have spent all their savings and are barely surviving, and some are sleeping on the street.

Last August, Paco asked his parents for more money and bought a one-way ticket to Bergen. It was the first time he was out of Spain. In his pocket he had 225 euros. The first week he spent wandering around one of the most picturesque cities in the world.

“I carried a small rucksack that fit into the lockers at the train station. I paid five kroner (0.75 euros) to use the bathroom and I washed myself there. One day I met another Spaniard who told me about a shelter where I could go during the day for food and to get warm.

Polar cold, the language, and exorbitant prices

The Robin Hood Foundation occupies two floors of a wooden house in the center of Bergen. The hostel opened in 2003 "with the idea of giving shelter to the poorer Norwegian families who can’t afford four euros for a coffee in a bar,” explains Wenche Berg Husebo, the woman who presides over this private foundation (which is funded with 270,000 euros of public money).

It's Wednesday morning, and in Robin Hood the main language you hear is Spanish. Between 60 and 100 people pass through the house every day. Half of them, says Mark Amano, its director, are Spaniards. "Before it was Norwegians, Poles, a family of political refugees... But in March, the Spaniards started arriving," explains Husebo. “Since then 250 have come. At first they were men of all ages, and then single women in their thirties. Then parents, some with their children. Most don’t get a job because they don’t speak Norwegian or English."

Norway, with its oil, its enviable welfare state, its policies for reconciling work and family life, and above all, high wages and extremely low unemployment (at three percent) has seen a new breed of emigrant arrive in recent months, pushed out of Spain by prolonged unemployment and by progressive wage cuts. Norwegian newspapers have dubbed them “refugee workers of the euro”.

Norwegian prosperity and that television programme Españoles en el mundo (many name that programme when asked why they chose Norway; the last three recent episodes devoted to the country had between 3.5 million and 2.8 million viewers) have been a siren to a growing number of Spanish (the number registering at the Spanish Embassy has grown from 358 in 2010 to 513 in 2011, although many are not registered).

Once in the country, though, they run up against an impassable barrier consisting of three elements: the polar cold, the language, and exorbitant prices. To rent a room costs 600 euros; a litre-carton of milk, two euros.

“I have never seen such a distressing situation in Norway”

Although Norway has refused to join the European Union, it did sign the Schengen Agreement, which gives free entry to EU citizens. However, the country lacks the public infrastructure to support those who have arrived with nothing in their pockets. “The government doesn’t offer them housing, money or aid. That is left to Caritas, the Red Cross or the Salvation Army,” explains Bernt Gulbrandsen of Caritas Oslo.

The local media have been quick to collect stories of these new immigrants. In a country with only five million inhabitants, the news has had an impact. In Bergen (260,000 inhabitants), a prosperous city where there are few vagabonds, newspapers and radio stations have devoted several articles to the arrivals. “They fled the crisis in Spain, but life in Bergen isn’t like they had imagined,” says one headline. Or: “Many of the euro refugees live in poverty in Bergen”.

“I have never seen such a distressing situation in Norway,” says Astrid Dalehaug Norheim, one of the journalists who have covered this subject for the newspaper Vårt Land. “It reminds me of a visit I made to Moscow during the crisis of the late nineties, when Russians from rural areas began to migrate to cities looking for work, but ended up wrecked in shelters.”

The testimony of Tuna, one of the employees of the Red Cross in Bergen, shows how some Norwegians see the situation: “Before it was mainly Poles who came here, but then the Spanish started to arrive. They have no food or work and ask for help. We do offer support to political refugees, but not to those who come voluntarily.”

Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer

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