It’s no surprise a political debate about “anchor babies” might get ugly but, as with so many things, Svalbard’s fighting it out like nowhere else.
Conservative politicians are enthusiastic about them. The left-leaning Labor Party is denouncing their counterparts for promising to seek changes in immigration laws that will never happen, perhaps winning a significant number of votes from foreign residents in last week’s election in the process.
Seeking a change in Norway’s immigration laws so children born in the country to foreigners living exclusively in Svalbard can become citizens was part of the local Conservative Party platform in this fall’s municipal election. The Svalbard Treaty states Norway is obligated to grant equal entry and residency to Svalbard for citizens from all signatory countries, therefore the Norwegian Immigration Act does not apply in the archipelago.
The pledge led Helga Pedersen, deputy leader for the national Labor Party, to submit an inquiry about it to Minister of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion Solveig Horne.
“The main rule (is) foreigners cannot accumulate rights to Norwegian citizenship by only living in Svalbard,” although some people are exempt such as former Norwegian citizens, Horne wrote in a reply at the agency’s website. “It is not necessary to make changes in these.”
Øyvind Snibsøer, head of the local Labor Party and among those elected to the new council, said on Election Night the Conservative Party should apologize to foreign residents for making a futile pledge during the campaign. In a subsequent interview with Svalbardposten, he said it goes beyond being merely ambitious.
“We often promise a lot and not all of it we manage to keep,” he said. “But there is an essential difference to promise that you’ll be working for a new way and to promise citizenship.”
Torgeir Prytz, the top-ranked Conservative candidate, retorted in a message this week on the party’s Facebook page by noting the Labor party’s position is at odds with their pledge to “reduce social inequalities.”
“We will work to get a solution for this problem,” Prytz wrote. “We should be working for us who live in the same city to have the same rights and we will highlight this challenge to top central authorities.”
Local residents had mixed reactions on social media to the idea.
“Had it been so easy to acquire Norwegian citizenship, Longyearbyen would have been flooded,” wrote former Svalbardposten Editor Birger Amundsen in a post on the newspaper’s Facebook page. “This is an old issue that Conservatives are never going anywhere with. And we should be glad about that.”
Haakon Sandvik, a Longyearbyen School employee, disagreed.
´“Given that they will be dealing with the problm of children and young people born to foreign parents in Svalbard, I have a little trouble seeing that we are going to be ‘flooded’ by foreigners who want to use a ‘back door’ so that grandchildren perhaps can get some rights when they grow up,” he wrote.
The Conservative Party gained two council seats in last week’s election, while the Labor Party lost two – along with the plurality of seats that made them the ruling party. Several local politicians from differing parties have said the Conservative’s appeal to foreign voters – who comprise 25 percent of the city’s population – may have been a factor.
(Editor’s note: This story has been revised from a previous version, which incorrectly stated citizenship is not allowed for those living exclusively in Svalbard because residents are exempt from paying taxes related to Norway’s social welfare system.)