No way in, no way out? A study of living conditions of irregular migrants in Norway, (2011)

The objective of this project is to explore different aspects of the living conditions of irregular migrants in Norway, with the main focus on the experience of living without legal residence status.

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No way in, no way out? A study of living conditions of irregular migrants in Norway (pdf, 904 kB)


This report is based on qualitative interviews with 29 irregular migrants of various nationalities and ages, who all had experienced having their asylum application rejected.

The objective of this project is to explore different aspects of the living conditions of irregular migrants in Norway, with the main focus on the experience of living without legal residence status.

As part of our analysis of the living conditions of irregular migrants in Norway we include a brief account of their legal rights, focusing on the right to health care and basic needs such as shelter and food. Irregular migrants’ rights represent a complicated terrain where law and practice sometimes diverge. While certain fundamental rights for irregular migrants are outlined by international conventions as well as in national legislation, several factors at the national, local and individual levels limit the degree to which irregular migrants actually benefit from the rights they have.

Our findings show that irregular migrants in Norway are assured of rights to emergency health care from the specialised health care services and the municipal health care services. They are not, however, entitled to financial support to cover the expenses of most medical treatment, which effectively reduces the access to such health care services. Also, migrants’ knowledge of where they can turn for help and their rights differ, as does their access to information.

Since the financial situations of most irregular migrants are precarious, access to health care services depends on the willingness of health personnel to treat patients pro bono. This has created an arbitrary health care system for irregular migrants in Norway. The exception to this is the establishment of the health care centre in Oslo that the Church City Mission and the Red Cross run. This centre offers a range of health care services free of charge and forms the backbone of health care for irregular migrants in the Oslo region.

Common limitations to access to the services we list in the report are the fear of using them, and of being reported to the police and subsequently deported if they contact medical personnel.

We were in touch with people with a variety of health problems and needs. The links between irregularity and health problems are complex and multidimensional but a recurring aspect of our interviews was how irregularity created and exacerbated health problems. Health professionals who are familiar with the situation of irregular migrants emphasise that the migrants endure prolonged periods of stress and that their health consequently deteriorates.

One of the most common kinds of health problem that came up in conversations with our respondents was mental health problems. This could manifest itself through constant fear, a lack of sleep, being afraid to go out and about in the city or avoiding spending time in public spaces altogether, having trouble sleeping and finding space where they could relax.

We also explore the importance of family, friends and networks for the living conditions of irregular migrants. Not having legal residence affects irregular migrants’ social lives in multiple ways. Almost all the respondents relied on their networks to meet their basic needs. Friendships and networks can be a blessing and an initial source of support, but dependence on others puts irregular migrants in asymmetric power relations that can be hard to resist, since migrants need all the support they can get.

Living in an irregular situation brings specific challenges, whether migrants are single or whether they have children or other relatives they have responsibility for in Norway. While some do not have children of their own, they are thinking ahead – avoiding becoming pregnant; wanting to have children but not daring to, because they see that their situation is not one in which they want children to grow up; or not having relationships, because they feel their situation prevents them from doing so. The impossibility of forging intimate relationships and a family was a central existential problem for many a respondent.

Family welfare, maintaining good health, getting help with illnesses, having an income and securing the education of children and siblings are key concerns for the people we have met during the project. The situations of families without legal residence differ greatly from those of people who are alone as this affects their living conditions, in view of the special resources and needs related to bringing up children. In an irregular situation, the parent–child relationship is a demanding one. There were people who had children who had been born before they came to Norway, and some have more children during the periods when they are irregular. Living irregularly with children is something that has caused a lot of distress for most of those to whom we have spoken. Parents expressed frustration at the fact that they had minimal resources, describing how for children not being able to go on a holiday, school trips abroad or to celebrate birthdays like their friends and school mates, were some of the things that was particularly difficult about living as an irregular family.

For some, loyalty and a sense of duty towards relatives already in Norway were reasons for why they continued living in Norway after the final rejection of their asylum application. One implication of having children while being an irregular migrant is that people reported that returning to the country of origin or moving on to another country would be easier if they did not have their children’s future to consider. Similarly, having responsibility for parents in Norway or in the country of origin may be a reason
return is experienced as impossible. Ill or ageing parents, who would suffer greatly from returning to the country of origin, can be an incentive to stay in Norway irregularly for young adults who could otherwise manage life somewhere else.

It was particularly when we discussed housing with our respondents that the vast differences found among irregular migrants in Norway became evident. In our fieldwork mapping out NGOs assisting irregular migrants, and through conversations with irregulars, we found that no NGO or other institution could assist irregular migrants with shelter. Most respondents had to rely on networks for accommodation and, they had had to for shorter or longer periods, to live with friends. 

All the interviewed respondents who lived in ordinary reception centres lived there because they had children or because they had the right to live there for other reasons. Parents were ambivalent about living in reception centres, but stayed there because it offered them a basic living standard and security.

The waiting reception centres for asylum seekers with a final rejection to their asylum application were closed during the project period of this report. Many irregular migrants did not consider these centres a real option. The low standard and the reputation of these centres as places of passivity, subversion and criminality were among the central reasons our respondents gave for choosing to decline the shelter offered. None of our respondents had experienced permanent homelessness, but several had, for shorter or longer periods, experienced not having shelter. While the fear of not having shelter is constant for many irregular migrants, this is not the case for all of them. Some of our respondents had been able to secure safe housing of a good standard. The ability to pay rent or pay off loans was logically linked to access to work.

The social mobility associated with the work and education accessible to the majority of the Norwegian population is not shared by irregular migrants, who have very limited access, if any, to such resources. Being irregular has a very direct effect on the kinds of jobs people can get and often on their working conditions as well. In general, migrants whose access to legal work is denied have three options: they can take up work in the informal labour market; they can engage in income-generating activities that are criminal offences in Norway, such as prostitution, begging and selling drugs; or they can choose not to work at all. Choosing not to work is impossible for those living beyond the reception centres, for whom getting the basic necessities and somewhere
to sleep requires a modicum of resources.

Irregular migrants are in a vulnerable situation in the labour market, as, in general, they can only get work through informal channels. This is clearly a risk for irregular migrants, as they have to meet the demands of the informal labour market and poor conditions
and exploitation are quite common, which is, of course, a serious concern. The levels of education and political engagement varied greatly among the respondents, who ranged from illiterates to university-educated people and from people who had never been involved in politics to people who had fled their countries of origin owing to persecution resulting from their political engagement. There are irregulars who manage to access both upper secondary school and higher education. When they manage to do so, it seems that their success depends on a combination of others’ irrepressible efforts and their own. Yet, while it is possible for irregular migrants to obtain college or university degrees, the majority cannot reach such goals.

Work and education are also ways to contribute to and participate in society – ways to feel useful and valuable. Life without access to work or education was experienced among our respondents as passive and devalued or, as one person put it, like living in
the shadow of society. For irregular migrants, the lack of access to education and the labour market marks their exclusion from Norwegian society.

Ending up with irregular status is not simply a result of unwillingness or incapability on the part of migrants to return to their countries of origin but also descriptive of the complex causal relationships in migratory and asylum processes. Nor is the choice to stay in Norway without legal residence is seldom as straightforward as the authorities may see it. The respondents’ experiences revolved around feeling trapped – a sense of having no real choice but to stay. The way out of irregularity is tricky: the majority of those we interviewed felt they were stuck in situations in which they could neither get legal residence nor find a way out of their irregular status. Most of them also saw returning to their countries of origin as an unfeasible option.

We found that the most important determinant of irregular migrants’ perceptions of their living conditions: the lack of legal residence. For respondents, securing accommodation and having work or access to health care services were very important indeed for the overall quality of life. As alienating as many people find the process itself, the rationale and the options related to their rejections, the future appears to be at least as challenging.

The living conditions of irregular migrants in Norway are, as this report illustrates, best characterised in terms of variation. While our focus has been on the situation of rejected asylum seekers, we are of the opinion that the recommendations we give potentially will have positive outcomes for other groups of irregular migrants, too. The recommendations we make are therefore general and focus on areas that were dominant in our empirical data. Recommendations are fully described in Chapter 8, and summarised here:

  • Irregular migrants’ living conditions would generally improve if their access to health care and shelter were more organised than it is today.
  • The implications for individuals, organisations and health personnel providing help to irregular migrants must be further clarified.
  • The situation of the children of irregular migrants should be evaluated with a view to ensuring that their legal and human rights are granted.
  • It is suggested that possible solutions be looked into for long-term irregular migrants for whom return is unlikely

Carried out by: Fafo

Commissioned by: UDI

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