A request for 4.5 million kroner in emergency unemployment assistance has been sent to Norway’s Parliament by the Longyearbyen Community Council, citing Svalbard’s high number of residents exempt from public assistance to those affected by the coronavirus epidemic on the mainland. The city is also seeking compensation for reducing fees for muncipal services.
“This group does not have rights and it will be contrary to Norway’s Svalbard policy to introduce them on a permanent basis, but right now we must set aside principles and provide assistance,” states the letter, first obtained and reported Wednesday afternoon by Svalbardposten. “This is the local government’s clear recommendation.”
NRK reported Wednesday that 90 percent of Longyearbyen’s tourism workforce is facing layoffs and about 300 of the estimated 500 people affected are exempt from benefits because they are from non-EU/EEA countries.
The request includes reimbursing the city for fees covering services such as electricity, heating, and roads and other infrastructure, which will total abut 23 million kroner in April, according to Svalbardposten. Fredrik Ekens, owner of a company providing 88 apartments to Longyearbyen residents, told the newspaper Wednesday he could potentially reduce monthly rentals by an average of 1,300 if city fees were waived.
Svalbard residents are exempt from the mainland’s 25 percent value-added tax and the archipelago’s income tax rate is generally 16.8 percent compared to the 28.2 percent on the mainland, which is why some public welfare services are reduced or don’t exist for everyone. In addition, non-Norwegian citizens are ineligible for general benefits if not employed by Norwegian companies, and those from non-EU/EEA countries are exempt from the modified coronavirus-related unemployment and health insurance benefits being offered – meaning, among many other things, testing/treatment for the virus is not covered nor guaranteed.
Extra-strict quarantine restrictions, including a ban on all visitors and the exile of those already here, have been enacted for Svalbard due in part to a lack of facilities to house the large number of tourists typically arriving during the spring. Officials also emphasize Svalbard remains free of known coronavirus cases, and preserving that is vital given the limited health resources and remoteness of the archipelago.
That has brought tourism and much of the local service activity to a standstill, and major setbacks are expected to continue during the summer cruise ship season, meaning a high percentage of the revenue from peak activity this year will be lost, the city states in its letter. Tourism accounted for about 900 million kroner in total activity last year-