Resettlement in contemporary Norway – lessons from a discourse analysis of the Norwegian debate on the Syrian refugee crisis

The issue of resettlement was at the core of an intense political debate relating to Norway’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as the global refugee situation more broadly. Norway has a strong tradition within the field of resettlement, which for many Norwegian actors has been a central aspect of Norway’s humanitarian policies. In particular, the symbolic role of resettlement as a representation for the value-based conflict between different political “camps” in the migration field became evident in the “should we help them here or help them where they are”-debate that long characterised Norwegian politics as actors were attempting to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015.  At the core of the debate was the question of whether to help more Syrians by only providing financial aid to Syria’s neighbouring countries, or prioritising providing a smaller number of Syrians with a “durable solution” to the refugee situation by resettling up to 10,000 of them in Norway in addition to financial aid.  This debate highlighted two aspects of the resettlement debate in Norway: first, the prominence of resettlement as a “go-to” policy in refugee crises; and second, that the debate about resettlement is particularly symbolic in the sense that it highlights broader, value-based differences between actors.

Three discourses in the Norwegian refugee and asylum field

By identifying the discourses that dominate the Norwegian refugee and asylum field, it is possible to analyse the implications of the debate on the Syrian crisis for resettlement policies in Norway more broadly. Arguably, all Norwegians in the migration field are influenced by these discourses – they cannot act or think completely independently of these discursive structures. As a consequence, these discourses shape, to a large extent, the political space for resettlement policies in Norway. During my research on the Norwegian debate following the Syrian refugee crisis, I conducted a critical discourse analysis of extensive media material and articles published on political party websites, in addition to conducting interviews with key informants in the field. Through this analysis I was able to identify some core ideas that characterised the debate, and thus also constitute the main discourses in the field. In turn, I was able to identify the following three discourses (Reklev 2015):

  • The ‘humanitarian’ discourse: draws heavily upon norms and ideas embedded in the international humanitarian and human rights regime. It promotes a notion of international solidarity and is deeply rooted in the idea of Norway’s heritage as a humanitarian nation. Consequently, the humanitarian discourse deliberately widens the scope for political action in the field, in particular by emphasising the importance of developing new and innovative measures in refugee protection.
  • The ‘cost-and-capacity’ discourse: is made up by a mix of political and economic ideas. In particular, the cost-and-capacity discourse rests upon notions of ‘rationality’ and ‘efficiency’, and a priority given to costs and benefits-considerations in all refugee protection initiatives. Thus, the discourse frames a very limited and specific set of refugee protection policies as possible and desirable, and costs will often take priority over human rights and humanitarian principles.
  • The ‘nation-state’ discourse: is characterised by a strong emphasis on internal national affairs, the preservation of national culture and togetherness, and a focus on Norway’s role as an independent nation-state. In turn, the discourse limits the political space for refugee protection initiatives. Particularly as the discourse includes a strong anti-immigration element, it outright seeks to hinder Norway’s involvement in physical protection initiatives, including resettlement.

My research found that the Norwegian political field since autumn 2015 has been heavily defined by the cost-and-capacity discourse, and in part also by the nation-state discourse, following a short uprising for the humanitarian discourse in August and September 2015 in the wake of the “sudden” refugee crisis at the borders of “Europe”. This is largely due to a politically heavily conservative government. Since late 2015, the humanitarian discourse has been marginalised in the field, despite retaining support among most civil society actors. I found that this has had consequences for the potential for Norwegian resettlement initiatives when it comes to the Syrian crisis and predict it will largely have the same consequences also in the future, if the current discursive structures remain.

Discursive consequences: implications for resettlement in practice

Norway’s special role in resettlement has been emphasised by a number of civil society organisations, politicians and academics influenced by the humanitarian discourse, yet it also touches upon points of contention within the humanitarian discourse itself. For instance, some have criticised the strong focus on resettlement noting that it is difficult to justify from a purely humanitarian viewpoint this focus on helping a select few refugees, when you could help many more with the same resources in the nearby region (Reklev 2015: 110). This reveals some of the hegemonic power of the cost-and-capacity discourse. Nonetheless, most humanitarian actors in Norway stress that resettlement is an effective and necessary protection tool for the most vulnerable. However, resettlement is a costly protection mechanism. As such, it is a policy area where factions of the humanitarian and the cost-and-capacity discourses conflict with one another, and where the dominant role of the cost-and-capacity discourse has had significant implications on the space given to resettlement, because this discourse emphasises economic rationality and cost efficiency (Reklev and Gabrielsen Jumbert 2017).

Further, there has been a fear among certain political actors influenced by the cost-and-capacity discourse and the nation-state discourse, that (increased) resettlement will further promote Norway as a country of asylum (Reklev 2015: Official, Ministry of Justice [interview]). Following the large arrivals of asylum seekers to the country in autumn and winter 2015, there is still a perception among many political actors, and the public, that the system is stretched to its limits in terms of capacity and resources. The political hegemony of the cost-and-capacity discourse is thus likely to result in a prioritization of ordinary asylum processes – which Norway in the end cannot strictly control – over more extensive resettlement initiatives, as the combination of the two is seen as too costly (Reklev and Gabrielsen Jumbert 2017).

Finally, the debate on the Syrian crisis has highlighted how particularities of a refugee crisis can at least contribute to define the extent of the resettlement programme that may be implemented. Indeed, the crisis showed that special resettlement schemes are likely to be established in Norway in times of crises, also under a conservative government heavily influenced by the cost-and-capacity discourse. However, the cost-and-capacity discourse prioritises resettling those refugees who are “most easily integrated”, meaning that who the refugees are matters. This was evident as the integration of Syrian refugees was approached differently to that of the Bosnian refugees in the 1990s – who were European and consequently more easily integrated in Norwegian society and labour market. This implies that the scale of resettlement initiatives in situations of mass influx to a certain degree will depend on where the refugee crisis takes place and who the refugees are (Reklev 2015).

Resettlement, relocation, or both?

The dominant role of the cost-and-capacity discourse also has implications for another pertinent issue relating to resettlement that has emerged in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis, namely that of relocation – resettling refugees from one EU country to another instead of accepting the refugees directly from third countries. Although Norway is not a EU member, the Norwegian government has agreed to participate voluntarily in the EU relocation scheme and accept 1,500 refugees from Italy and Greece during 2016 and 2017 as a way of showing “a political will to contribute to European solutions within the field of migration” (Regjeringen 2016). The implications of this for future resettlement initiatives in Norway are thus twofold: on the one hand, the new European system of relocation enables a potentially much more extensive resettlement system than what has previously been the case. In this way, the relocation system could represent the beginning of an asylum system that is based on resettlement to a much greater extent. On the other hand, there is a danger that relocation will replace, rather than supplement, the traditional resettlement initiatives. As the current political climate in Norway favours a cost-and-capacity influenced approach to refugee and asylum policies, which promotes a very careful approach to resource-spending, the combination of the resettlement and relocation may well be viewed as too costly and ambitious.


It is evident that resettlement – simply due to its long tradition as a prominent policy solution in the Norwegian asylum field, as well as constituting one of recognised durable solutions for refugees according to the UNHCR – remains the most obvious way for Norwegian policy makers to contribute in a refugee crisis situation and “taking their share of the burden”. However, the current dominant position of the cost-and-capacity discourse, as well as the significant influence of the nation-state discourse due to the Progress Party’s current position in government, implies that resettlement initiatives in Norway will remain limited – at least as the status quo – for the time being. In order for Norway to engage in more extensive resettlement policies, the political field must change and the humanitarian discourse must gain a stronger position.

Finally, the issue of resettlement has seemed to somewhat define the Norwegian debate on the Syrian crisis, largely being framed in the mainstream debate as the only physical protection alternative to supplement financial contributions to Syria’s neighbouring countries. In turn, it overshadowed other alternative solutions that were proposed by humanitarian actors in particular, such as the implementation of temporary protection schemes, humanitarian visas, etc., and thus prevented a possibly fruitful debate on how to utilize all, and perhaps even develop new, protection tools. In turn, the strong resettlement tradition in Norway risks preventing further policy developments in the humanitarian field.

This blog post is largely based on a Master’s Thesis by Linn Marie Reklev submitted at the University of Oslo on 18 December 2015 and a forthcoming book chapter by Maria Gabrielsen Jumbert and Linn Marie Reklev in an edited volume by Adèle Garnier, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Liliana Lyra Jubilut on resettlement and humanitarian governance under contract with Berghahn books.

Linn Marie Reklev holds a BA in Politics and International Relations from the University of York, UK, and an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Oslo. She has previously worked for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Permanent Mission of Norway to the United Nations in Geneva. She currently works at UDI. This post is written in a personal capacity and as such does not reflect the views of her current employer.


Regjeringen (2016). Rundskriv: GI-12 /2016 Instruks om relokalisering av asylsøkere fra Italia og Hellas, jf. Norges deltakelse i EUs Relokaliseringsprogram. Available at: (Accessed 10 September 2016).

Reklev, L.M. (2015). Helping them were? A critical discourse analysis of the Norwegian debate on burden-sharing following the Syrian Refugee Crisis.  MA thesis. University of Oslo. Available at

Reklev, L.M. and Gabrielsen Jumbert; M. (2017). International norms, humanitarian crisis and national discourses: shaping the political space for burden-sharing. The case of Norway. (Working title).In Adele Garnier, Kristin Bergtora Sandvik and Liliana Lyra Jubilut (eds.) Forthcoming, Berghain books.