ESCAPING THE ‘END OF AMERICA?’ Is Svalbard still the easiest refuge for U.S. residents fleeing because the ‘wrong’ person won the election? And can ‘both sides’ find a happy haven?

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Regardless of the bold “Biden wins” headlines, the official winner of the U.S. presidential election won’t be known for weeks (because lawsuits and “the process”). But one certainty is it’s “the end of America” if the wrong guy wins – in the mindset of an unhealthy percentage of both those on the Trump train and Biden backers.

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Longyearbyen is a fully modern small town despite being isolated on an island about 760 miles from the North Pole. But the extremities of Arctic wilds impact most aspect of life for better and worse. Photo courtesy of The University Centre in Svalbard.

Plenty are again talking of fleeing for places they’ve heard of such as Australia and Canada (where a guy in a viral TikTok video goes on a tirade telling Trumpers the many reasons to “stay the f— away”). But relatively unknown is the “doomsday refuge” of Svalbard, a pristine Arctic cluster of islands with some of Earth’s most specular scenery and adventure that traditionally is easiest place for foreigners looking to become residents of a new country.

That was certainly the case four years ago, but is that still the case due to drastic changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors? And can it be a happy haven for “very fine people on both sides” since both are pondering the possibility?

(Spoilers: 1) yes, but also kinda not and 2) more than you might think.)

Setting aside the more fun-to-read “lifestyle” dilemmas such as polar bears, isolation and extreme cold (dealt with in the next section below), here’s the mundane must-known details about the legal/feasibility aspects:

1. How easy is moving to Svalbard compared to 2016?
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Elizabeth Bourne, a Seattle native who moved to Longyearbyen in early 2019, leads a Black Lives Matter rally at the miner’s statue in the town center in July. The statue is a common gathering point for demonstrations on a wide wide variety of local and global issues, as well as the gathering point for many local celebrations. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Moving here during normal times is basically as easy as buying a plane ticket (and you wouldn’t even need a passport if there were some way to bypass mainland Norway) due to the century-old Svalbard Treaty that allows citizens of any signatory country to reside and work here within a few limits.

But one of those limits is the ability to be self-supporting economically and otherwise, which at the moment is a serious impediment for those not independently wealthy because Svalbard is suffering the worst economic impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic of any region in Norway.

Tourism and related companies in Longyearbyen laid off 90 percent of their employees at the onset and, while the reductions are closer to 60 percent now with a limited resumption of visitors, prospects remain pessimistic for the peak spring and summer tourism seasons in 2021.

Practically speaking, that means most people – especially non-Norwegians shouldn’t even think about trying to get a job here for at least a year and likely beyond. While U.S. residents might indeed be able to relocate to Svalbard without too many difficulties compared to 2016 – mandatory COVID-19 quarantine on the mainland and any related restrictions aside – their time might amount to little more than an unsatisfying vacation.

“It’s easy to move here, it’s hard to stay,” Dina Brode-Roger, a social science researcher who grew up in Massachusetts and since 2017 has been studying societal impacts in Longyearbyen due to factors such as climate change, stated in an online interview.

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Benjamin Vidmar, center, a Florida native who moved to Longyearbyen in 2015, guides a tour inside his “world’s northernmost” greenhouse that’s made him one of the town’s most famous residents. He also is a chef who prepares the school meals for students and the operator of an “Arctic tapas” tour bus. Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor.

Certainly some U.S. residents have established their own businesses here, including a Florida founder of a novel greenhouse/local food project, a New Yorker who launched a company selling “ultra premium” bottled iceberg water for $100 per 750-milliliter bottle and a Seattle photographer/painter whose landscape works here have won international acclaim. All three have gained global notoriety to the point they are among Svalbard’s more famous residents despite their relatively short presence compared to Norwegian miners and others who’ve been here for decades.

 

And in terms of finding more traditional employment some no-vacancy exceptions might be construction workers and certain highly-specialized professions with Arctic-specific skills/experience – but one of those professions may appeal greatly to the heart of U.S. heartlanders: coal mining.

Longyearbyen was founded in 1906 by coal prospectors (and named after a U.S. resident who started one of the first operations) and for nearly a century was a “company town” until diversifying into tourism, higher education and scientific research. But miners remained the economic and societal backbone of the community until 2014, when a crash in global coal prices triggered a financial collapse of The Company that resulted in nearly all the miners laid off and the government mandating nearly all mining structures be dismantled. But a small bit of mining continues near town to feed the local power plant and the dismantling will take a few more years, so U.S. residents bemoaning Trump’s “the coal industry is back” is just another lie by politicians will find plenty of spiritual brethren – and maybe even work prospects if they have exactly the right skills to help the shutdown.

In addition to scant job prospects, there are other cold realities besides the climate that might make it hard for foreigners to reside for long after they arrive.

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Members of Longyearbyen’s Thai community host a cultural/holiday celebration at The University Centre in Svalbard. Thais have for many years represented the largest non-Norwegian population in Longyearbyen with well over 100 of the town’s 2,400 residents. They and other notable groups of foreign residents, such as Filipinos and Russians, regularly celebrate their culture other community events such as variety shows and food festivals. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

There are 22 U.S. citizens among the roughly 2,400 residents of Svalbard’s Norwegian communities in Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund. The foreign population overall has increased from about 14 percent in 2009 to 35 percent now, despite Norway’s government frequently declaring it wants to maintain a strong Norwegian population and suggesting in recent years it might enact rules/incentives to further that goal.

The Svalbard Treaty means there isn’t much “hard” legislation the government can enact to prevent U.S. residents from moving here, so as with the COVID-19 limitations it’s about making the choice less desirable before and while living here.

Some of the “second-class” treatment of foreigners is being highlighted by the pandemic, as much of the crisis aid being provided to Norwegians in the form of unemployment pay/insurance, grants and loans isn’t available to non-citizens – especially those outside EA/EEU countries. Such residents in Svalbard aren’t eligible for unemployment aid during normal times, and pleas from such residents and local leaders for an exemption due to the pandemic resulted only in short-lived and limited assistance grants in late spring. The government has since rejected further assistance for those hoping to remain here, instead approving temporary “travel home” grants that about 15 people have received leading up to the Nov. 15 application deadline.

Another indicator is the only physical bank brach in Longyearbyen is scheduled to close on Dec. 31. That will almost certainly make it harder or impossible for foreigners to do a number of things ranging from obtaining mortgages to getting “Bank ID” numbers used for a variety of publicly available services (although workarounds for the latter are possible). Local leaders are calling upon Parliament to take some of remedial action – possibly even a threat to withdraw government accounts from the bank – but nothing of substance has occurred and bank officials have stated they are firmly committed to the closure.

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Tourists and other non-residents of Longyearbyen board a bus in March to take a flight to mainland Norway after being exiled from Svalbard due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Svalbard is one of about 10 regions in the world with no diagnosed cases, due to extreme measures to restrict access – especially of non-Norwegian citizens. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Setting aside the “extraordinary” considerations, one particular longtime sticking point for foreigners with enough money in the bank to move here regardless of whether they get a job is finding housing. In theory vacancies are relatively plentiful due to the large number of layoffs and the fact Longyearbyen is in its traditional “slow season” for tourism until late January/early February.

But finding them can be problematic for those not “in the know” or who “know the right people.” Also an ongoing issue is rents (like a lot of things) are rather expensive compared to most other places. Figure on $1,000 a month for the most frugal of one-room barracks-type housing and perhaps $2,000-$2,500 for a one/two-bedroom apartment suitable for couples with perhaps a small child…not including extras like electricity, internet, etc. which can also be quite costly especially during the cold months.

One other legal reality to keep in mind: the self-sufficiency requirement applies to physical and mental issues as well as economic ones. Which means substance abuse (or even recreational marijuana folks), mental illnesses, serious/terminal illnesses and certain handicaps are legitimate grounds for exile. So while everyone is from somewhere else (since expecting mothers must go to the mainland weeks before delivery) and plenty are obviously peculiar personalities to favor such a place, it’s not an anonymous sanctuary for those looking to flee their inner demons.

2. Trump vs. Biden – whose supporters would vote for Svalbard?
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Longyearbyen residents at Longyearbyen Library watch U.S. President Donald Trump give a speech about the 2020 election returns Wednesday morning. Up to 20 people watched returns during the come-and-go gathering much of the day, with little cheering or comments in favor of any particular candidate. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

OK, now the fun stuff: which “losers” are more likely to find a happy haven in Svalbard? (After which we’ll explore the “on this all sides can agree” topics like whether you’re among the frozen chosen who don’t mind polar bears and more than three months of continuous night every year).

Outsiders assuming most locals are anti-Trump are right, but Svalbard is also more diverse and independently minded than the rest of Norway so supporters of him and, more commonly, conservative politics even by U.S. standards. Backers cite issues relevant to the area such as getting European countries to pay more toward NATO, take greater responsibility for their own defense and skepticism about the Paris climate agreement, in addition to various aspects about his presidency that his U.S. fans highlight.

But to understand the general political mentality, know there’s bipartisan consensus about the dominant comment heard in the months leading up to the U.S. election.

“I think it’s interesting that a country with almost 330 million citizens are unable to find better candidates than Trump and Biden,” lamented Tommy Vigestad Rogne, an aviation expert and trade union activist.

Team Trump temptations

For all the Republican talk of socialism if Biden wins, the form of it that exists in Svalbard might be more idyllic than they envision thanks to unique aspects of life such as kinda-mandatory gun ownership, low taxes, a passion for coal mining and the near-total lack of “welfare.”

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One of two polar bears visiting Longyearbyen and a cabin area near it several times during the Christmas holidays last year is observed on a road near the center of town. While it was a first in terms of a bear wandering into the central part of town in modern times, they generally show up in cabin areas at several points during the year. Photo by The Governor of Svalbard.

The gun thing is due to one of the most infamous (and fake news) boasts about Svalbard having more polar bears than people. While people vastly outnumber the native predators, the latter are a legitimate (if rare) anytime threat that means anybody leaving settled areas much carry sufficient protection. Legally something that fires blanks/flares to intimate bears is OK, but both increasingly ineffective and far less likely to save your life than a rifle (and, no, bringing your concealed carry handgun up isn’t going to cut it, so to speak, with those bears). Sure, the gub’mint has various “infringements” such as not allowing you to tote your rifle into coffee shops, stores and such. But the community mindset is such that even the most pacifists greenie/libtards find themselves taking lessons at the shooting range and nobody blinks at all the open-carry folks with rifles all around town.

The same “frontier” mentality means Svalbard also has a sizeable hunting/fishing/trapping population for local game such as reindeer, foxes and other critters. Doing so means venturing forth far into our “pristine” wilderness areas with snowmobiles and ATVs (and dogsleds for the hard-core traditional/greenie types).

Furthermore it’s a good thing you can shoot your own food because there’s no EBT cards, or virtually any other form of “welfare,” if you’re a U.S. citizen living in Svalbard. As mentioned above, Norwegian citizens get all those great “welfare scheme” (they actually call it that) goodies like full health insurance, 18 months of paid maternity leave and lengthy unemployment dole. But you’ll get to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.

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Employees of Store Norske, Longyearbyen’s cornerstone coal mining company for nearly the town’s entire existence,  search for familiar names on a memorial listing those killed in the line of duty during an unveiling ceremony on the company’s 100-year anniversary in 2015. The anniversary coincided with the beginning of a near-total shutdown of mining operations due to a collapse in coal prices that crippled the company’s finances. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

But that’s due to treaty stuff that means – score! – lower taxes. While people living on the Norwegian mainland pay 28 percent flat income tax rate plus a 25 percent value-added tax on purchases, in Svalbard the flat tax income tax is a mere eight percent and there’s no VAT.

However, foreigners  working for a Norwegian employer also have pay an additional 8.2 percent to be a member of the Norwegian National Insurance program, Still, that should be a decent-size reduction for the vast majority of U.S. folks – especially since it includes universal health coverage as long as they remain employed. (A big caveat, however, is U.S. citizens working aboard may be subject to paying taxes back home, so be sure to research the potential hit there.)

U.S. residents who love their cars might also hear vehicles are insanely expensive in Norway because of added fees/taxes – and they are – but again those don’t apply to vehicles purchased here as long as you don’t move to the mainland. Also, while gas is costly like most places in Europe, Longyearbyen has only 42 kilometers of road so a tank of gas will last a very long time. The only long-distance driving is by snowmobile and those sip a small amount of fuel in comparison.

Conservatives might instinctively put off knowing Longyearbyen may be the world’s most prolific example of a “diverse” community since citizens of more than 50 countries reside here – and, yup, generally they’re plenty “woke.” But the non-PC reality (expressed frequently by the right when Norway is cited as a successful socialist country, so don’t vent your rage at us) is there are very few Muslims, Mexicans, blacks (African-American isn’t exactly fitting here) and “others.” For what it’s worth, another stark reality is some local prejudice does exist – such as negative assumptions about Chinese tourists, to name an example cited by social researchers – as well as some stereotypes towards other “groups” such as cruise ship visitors.

Speaking of non-PC social stuff: As mentioned in the practical aspects above, coal mining was long the heart of the town until recently, so a sizeable percentage of the population is grousing about Stupid Government Bureaucrats robbing them of their livelihood and souls. While someone in a MAGA hat might not get a “hell, yeah” greeting at a pub, sharing sad stories of shovel and soot days now past will surely find sympathetic ears.

Biden backers bait

Certainly Svalbard seems (and probably is) a more idyllic match for the typical Biden (or Bernie) supporter, even if nearly all are tightly clustered in a few east/west coast megalopolises while Real America is real scattered across real rural regions. All the more so compared to four years ago due to rapid advances in the foreign population (and their non-mining, pro-green tendencies), climate change awareness and appealing occupations whenever the pandemic is past.

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Longyearbyen is home to a lengthy “world’s northernmost” list, including the northernmost gathering during a global climate strike in March of 2019. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Longyearbyen is gaining fame as the town where Earth is warming faster than anywhere on Earth (up to seven times the global rate and even twice that of other Arctic areas, according to studies during the past year). So while it’s possible to find skeptics about man-made climate change here, they largely have no voice in actually shaping public policy and opportunities for education/research/entrepreneurial projects are plentiful for the long term. (A notable exception at the national level is oil drilling, which we’ll get to below.)

The “open borders” policy and relatively short average stay of residents (four to six years) means newcomers of all races, religions, economic classes (besides homeless), sexual/gender preferences and such are warmly welcomed by most locals. This being Norway, people don’t blink using multi-person unisex public bathrooms, seeing mothers breastfeed in public or seeing kids exposed to profane music lyrics and on-screen nudity (violence, however,  quickly triggers “adult” movie ratings).

Obviously the pristine wilds are a primary lure for nearly all residents and visitors, and safeguarding them is a big thing even among locals who love consuming/extracting the area’s vast natural resources. Dogsledding and skiing are growing in popularity when it comes to recreational excursions, with plenty of areas closed to motor vehicle access, and cabin and camping trips are frequent for those fully embracing their Greenie inner being.

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Local residents clad in crazy costumes dash from starting line of an annual relay race each September that’s part of a month of events to raise funds for a nationwide telethon to benefit a designated cause (reducing/clear ocean trash this year – a major issue in Svalbard where thousands of tons wash up on even the most remote shores every year). Svalbard has for many years been the largest per-person donor to the telethon of any region in Norway. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Community activists will find meaningful causes to contribute to including a variety of public and private entities talking about Longyearbyen’s long-term economic/societal future to replace coal mining, alternatives for replacing the ageing coal-fueled power plant, and ways the area can serve as a research/prototype center to cope with the coming decades of climate change. There’s also more widespread actions such as Greenpeace and its allies trying to halt Norway’s Arctic oil drilling in a “lawsuit of the century” currently being heard in Oslo.

Folks here strongly support “government schools” – there’s no private/religious/homeschool alternatives – and the city generously funds a variety of sports and cultural programs for youths (school funding is lower than the mainland due to lower taxes, however, so there are fewer high school offerings and students at that level do a significant amount of self-study). Other public facilities such as the library and city-operated sports hall, plus a wide range of community clubs/activities, also are a strong presence – and arguably a rather necessary one to give everyone stuff to do during the long dark season.

United state of Svalbard

Anyone of any nation thinking of moving to Svalbard needs to ponder a few possible problems, although most discover Longyearbyen is a far more “normal” town than the rumors, stereotypes and popular media suggest. There’s plenty of government and other common-sense FAQs, but here’s the biggies for those inclined to plunge deeper into the matter:

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Among several infamous Svalbard polar bear encounters resulting in fatalities due to negligence in recent years is when a member of a Czech tour group was attacked by a bear in the spring of 2015. The man sustained only modest injuries, but the bear was killed by officials who tracked it down after the group wounded it. The leader of the group was fined 10,000 kroner for violations including insufficient precautions at the campsite and failing to properly report the attack quickly. Photos by Hakon Mosvold Larsen and The Governor of Svalbard.

Polar bears: This is usually the big thing that gnaws at people, so to speak. The past year has offered plenty of reminders they’re a deadly threat at any time due to several appearances in/near Longyearbyen around New Year’s and during late summer/early fall, and most starkly when a polar bear fatally attacked a manager at Longyearbyen Camping in his tent during the early morning hours in August. But, no, people don’t live in day-to-day terror of bears while in town or even venturing out into the wilds. Common-sense precautions, which visitors and newcomers are sadly lacking knowledge of sometimes, ensure the relative rare encounters on land end safety for both species.

Weather, avalanches and other natural hazards: Another legitimate lethal threat in and outside of town, most recently when two people in a snowmobiling group were killed by an avalanche in February. Deaths have also resulted from snowmobilers crashing through thin sea ice, aircraft/ship/vehicle accidents caused by storms, calving glaciers swamping tiny boats that ventured too close and other obvious Arctic elements. As with bears, common sense is the simple solution to the “extreme lifestyle” except for the most unexpected tragedies.

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Former Led Zepplin frontman Robert Plant performs one of the most “intimate” concerts of his career at Longyearbyen’s Kulturhuset in June of 2019. An audience of a mere 175 got a close-up experience few will ever witness, prompting the rock legend to quip “I’ve been to bigger weddings than this.” Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Isolation: Being stuck on an island several hundreds miles north of the mainland means it’s not possible to drive to the big city when you’re looking for more than what’s offered by the one supermarket, single movie shown once or twice at week at the theater, dentist’s office and computer store. Understandably that’s not something a lot of people crave long-term, hence the relatively short average residency as people crave a return to more connected lifestyle for themselves and their kids. But unlike many remote Arctic communities where depression, alcoholism and other problems are rife, Longyearbyen might almost be called cosmopolitan. The supermarket offers dedicated sections with vegan/gluten-free food/etc. food, there’s a couple of decent espresso cafes, and lots of stage shows and concerts (mostly locals, although some big names have experienced some of their most uniquely eccentric gigs here). Internet service is almost certainly far better than that of your evil megacorporate provider (contrary to many conservatives’ thoughts, government far outdid private industry here thanks to a worship-worthy subsea telcom cable provided by NASA).

Language: Befitting Svalbard’s climate, the situation here is chill. Nearly everyone speaks English, aside from a few of the remaining coal miners and other long-term residents. There’s also an effort by various locals, albeit a bit inconsistent and disorganized, to ensure Norwegian lessons are available for English-language speakers. Those hoping to secure employment should assume fluency is a near-must, but it also helps if you’re proficient in one or more other languages such as Russian, German, French, Chinese and others places that account for sizeable numbers of visitors here.