Why Norway deported its 'Norwegian of the year'
- 30 January 2011
- From the section Europe
Norway has arrested and deported a young Russian woman who was crowned "Norwegian of the year" after writing a book about her life as an illegal immigrant.
Her fate prompted nationwide public protests against the asylum laws, and the centre-left coalition government has been left shaken.
Maria Amelie, 25, real name Madina Salamova, captured the hearts of many Norwegians with "Illegally Norwegian", a book describing her fleeing the Russian republic of North Ossetia as a child and going underground with her parents when their asylum application was rejected.
Maria Amelie somehow managed to evade Norway's immigration authorities for eight years while learning fluent Norwegian, getting a university degree and then writing her best-selling book.
"I was born in the Caucasus but I have spent more than half of my life fleeing," she told Norwegian media when it was published last autumn.
"A large part of my life I have spent in Norway, so I feel Norwegian and my friends call me Norwegian. I feel this is where I belong."
Maria Amelie calls herself a paperless immigrant - someone whose asylum application has been denied and consequently has no papers and no citizen rights.
Her frank book and remarkable integration into Norwegian society endeared her to the Norwegian people and media.
A weekly news magazine awarded her the title "Norwegian of the year" in 2010 but the book also blew her cover.
Many of the people demonstrating against her deportation argue that paperless immigrants should be granted the right to work, pay taxes and access Norway's public health service while they appeal for their situation to be resolved.
Solomon from Ethiopia demonstrated in Oslo earlier this week. He says he has been a paperless immigrant in Norway for 10 years, and that Maria Amelie's book has helped throw light on his and many others' situations.
"It was a tremendous boost," he says.
"She's a voice for the voiceless - those who are living in hiding themselves and living in a very, very difficult situation."
Maria Amelie was 12 when her parents fled North Ossetia, after her father's business empire crumbled when he backed the losing party in the 1998 parliamentary elections.
Their lives were suddenly at risk from creditors and gangsters, they said, and it was not enough to get asylum.
Her parents are still in hiding.
Marie Amelie's lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes, feels Norway's immigration authorities fail in their mandate to also consider human factors.
"The obvious human factor in this case is that she came as a child, and a child should not be responsible for what her parents have done," he told the BBC.
"Another factor is that her integration into society is obviously unique. Her opponents say we can't treat her differently because of this but this is not the correct legal argument because the law actually does want to reward this kind of argument."
Yet Norway's Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, has stood firm throughout this case. Speaking on national television, he said he understood why people were demonstrating.
"But my task is to make sure we execute a fair refugee and asylum policy, so we have to treat people on an equal basis, [so] that those who are in need of protection are the ones who are allowed to stay," Mr Stoltenberg said.
His Labour Party faces a right-of-centre opposition ready to attack any sign of weakness on immigration. The government's minority partner, the Socialist Left Party, is keen to ease immigration laws, and this has led to serious tensions within the government.
But critics say the government need not have bent any rules to allow Maria Amelie to stay.
John Peder Egenaes, head of Amnesty International Norway, said: "Norway is one of the few countries that have not at any point had any kind of regularisation of these people's situations.
"I believe six million people have undergone so-called regularisation in Europe.
"It basically means their status as illegal is changed to legal. And this has never happened in Norway. We are just creating a paperless underclass right now."
Maria Amelie's supporters hope she will now be able to apply for a work permit from Russia and return as a legal Russian immigrant worker.
Meanwhile thousands of other paperless immigrants in Norway will continue their fight for more rights and what they see as a fairer hearing for their cases.