July 6, 2006
Visa-free Norwegian islands a haven for migrants
By James Kilner
LONGYEARBYEN, Norway -- Thais may not have a distinguished polar history but they are among the biggest ethnic groups in Norway's snowy Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.
600 miles from the North Pole is the only place in Western Europe where migrants from developing countries do not need a visa or permit to work and live.
"If you're able to find a job you have the right according to the treaty to come here," Norway's governor on the archipelago, Per Sefland, told Reuters in an interview at his office on the outskirts of Longyearbyen, Svalbard's biggest settlement with about 1,800 residents.
A 1920 treaty signed by the First World War victors in Paris gave sovereignty over Svalbard to Norway on condition that their nationals enjoyed equal rights -- and this meant no barriers to entry.
The treaty stands today and the visa-free rule has been extended.
"It has been a chosen policy so far that we haven't made any difference between the treaty citizens and those from outside the treaty," Sefland said.
Two young Thai women strolled between the brightly painted wooden houses in Longyearbyen wearing branded Western winter clothes to keep out the cold.
"We are here for work and because we don't need a visa," one said in good Norwegian.
Like other Thais to whom Reuters spoke, they declined to be identified.
Another who has lived in Longyearbyen for many years explained that, in the 1970s, Norwegian coal miners brought back Thai wives from holidays in Thailand. The Thais told their villages about the good salaries they could earn and word spread.
Svalbard had been an Arctic no-man's land populated by hunters, whalers and coal miners from Scandinavia, North America, Europe and Russia.
They lived in isolated wooden hunts through winters when temperatures dropped to about minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 40 Fahrenheit), the sun never rose and polar bears roamed the snow and ice.
After the First World War, the world powers decided an authority was needed to regulate the island where a handful of permanent coal mines had sprung up, and they chose Norway.
However, there were conditions.
"The nationals of all the High Contracting Parties (signatories) shall have equal liberty of access and entry for any reason or object whatever to the waters, fjords and ports of the territories," Article Three of the treaty states.
Any country can ratify the treaty at any time and those on the list include Chile, India, China, Romania, Venezuela and landlocked Afghanistan, but not Thailand.
Longyearbyen, named after the American coal miner John Munro Longyear who founded the town in 1906, lies in a glacial valley on the edge of a fjord. It has diversified and now has a university, hospital and school as well as hotels, restaurants and shops.
And economic migrants.
There are about 60 Thais in Longyearbyen, second only to Norwegians according to official figures, most employed in the cleaning business.
Plane is the easiest way to reach Svalbard, which is about 600 miles north of the mainland, and to make the trip you just need a transit visa for customs in Oslo.
East Europeans live and work in Longyearbyen and the local pizzeria is run by Iranian brothers. In all, there are about 25 different nationalities living in the town.
"If an asylum seeker is refused residence in Norway he can settle in Svalbard so long as he can get there and is able to pay for himself," the head of the legal unit at the Norwegian government's immigration department, Hans-Henrik Hartmann, said.
In the past, immigrants who have failed to win a visa for mainland Norway have moved to Longyearbyen, lived there for seven years and been awarded Norwegian citizenship.
However, there are two hitches to Svalbard life -- the harsh Arctic weather and limited social services.
The governor has the right to throw people off the island if they cause trouble or can find no work or place to live. This has happened before, but Governor Sefland has not had to use these powers, yet.
"It's not a good idea to spread the impression that the people coming here have found their lucky life. It's too cold and too difficult to find a job," he said.