Gunnar Stalsett, former General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation and former bishop of Oslo on August 19, 2019 | Photo: imago images/epd-bild/Norbert Neetz
Gunnar Stalsett, former General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation and former bishop of Oslo on August 19, 2019 | Photo: imago images/epd-bild/Norbert Neetz

A prominent former Norwegian clergyman is facing jail time for employing an undocumented immigrant from Eritrea as a cleaner. In Norway, which is known for its strict immigration laws, rejected asylum seekers are not allowed to work - even when by law, as is the case of this Eritrean woman, they cannot legally be deported by the state.

The former General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation and former Bishop of Oslo, Gunnar Stalsett, faces imprisonment. He's being accused of employing an undocumented migrant from Eritrea as a household help.

Norwegian media reported on Sunday that Stalsett needed to show up at Oslo’s district court on December 19.

In August, Stalsett had conceded to the Norwegian Christian newspaper Vart Land to have paid 55-year-old Lula Tekle for cleaning services twice a month. Tekle has been living in Norway for more than 19 years. Her residence permit was refused 14 years ago and yet, by law, the Norwegian state cannot deport her because they class Eritrea as being ruled by an oppressive regime. 

Stalsett said he’d take responsibility for his actions, which he called "civil disobedience." The employment was "directed against what I call an immoral order," he told news agencies like the German KNA. The duty to help a human being in distress was more important than an unclear legal system, he added.


Norway, which transitioned from one of the most liberal countries on immigration to one of the strictest, in response to the so-called refugee crisis, currently hosts over 22,000 refugees, more than all Nordic countries including the Baltic states combined.

To put things into context, however, that’s far less than Germany, for instance, which currently hosts some 1.06 million refugees. (Germany’s population is 15 times larger than Norway's.)

Support from clergy and politicians

In Norway, rejected asylum seekers are subject to an employment ban, even if they cannot be  deported by the state. According to Stalsett, this status applies to some 3,000 people Norway-wide.

The chair of the Norwegian bishops’ conference, Helga Haugeland Byfuglien, called Stalsett’s behavior "a courageous act that deserves respect" on Norway's state broadcaster NRK.

The former bishop also received support from some Norwegian politicians. Knut Arild Hareide, the former chair of the Kristeligt Folkeparti party, and Abid Q. Raja, member of parliament for the social-liberal Venstre party, told newspaper VG they were hoping that Stalsett’s behavior would lead to a law change in favor of "paperless" refugees.

Justice minister Jöran Kallmyr, on the other hand, argued for treating Stalsett’s case like all other lawbreakers. “Madam Justice is blind and makes no difference between those whom she judges,” Kallmyr told the same tabloid.

In an article published on November 28, Stalsett told the newspaper Vart Land that Norway's law should reflect mercy; which he feels is an important value to include in a legal system.

"Someone has to stand up for people living in a situation like Lula Tekle," Stalsett said. "This is not heroic, I see it as a Christian duty and a matter of conscience to do it my way."

In September, some pictures came to light which appear to show Eritrean asylum seekers attending a party for the Eritrean government. The ensuing debate highlighted the exiles’ fear of retaliation on family members still living in Eritrea. Human rights organizations describe the regime under President Isaias Afwerki as one of the most repressive countries in the world.

 

More articles