Paperless: Living in Limbo   Leave a comment

A defining practice of Western governments is to construct groups of outsiders as Other to restrict immigration.

In Norway one such group – which has no ethnic or religious boundaries – defined as Other are paperless immigrants who have lost their asylum status. Individuals who make up this group remain in the country illegally after the government twice ruled against their asylum applications; the problem for many of them is that given the situations they fled it’s not possible or is dangerous to return to their homelands.



Najah Alnasrawi, 46, an Iraqi asylum seeker, waits for the brother of a friend to drive her to a location where she has some of her belongings stored.


From 2000 until 2010 such refugees openly lived and worked in Norway. However, in 2010 regulations were changed which made it illegal for twice rejected asylum seekers to remain in Norway. Increasingly, because of nationalism in Europe, and North America, governments are unwilling to deal with challenges posed by asylum seekers. In Norway this is evident by its policy of doing less for asylum seekers to establish that the country is not a good place to come. Asylum seekers as Other are a liability, a threat, don’t belong.

Najah Alnasrawi, a 46-year old Iraqi, arrived in Norway in October 2015 and received her second rejection for asylum two years later. Consequently, she like other twice rejected asylum seekers adopted a nomadic lifestyle to avoid arrest, deportation or becoming a burden to friends. She lived for several days at a time (a week or two if lucky) at the homes of friends she made while assigned to Norwegian refugee camps; these are friends who received asylum. “I never remain at one residence too long for fear of wearing out my welcome,” said Najah. While she had an assigned room at a refugee camp, she – like others in her situation – did not sleep there for fear the police would show up and arrest her. An official at a camp confirmed it isn’t unusual for the police to show up looking for someone who immigration authorities have decided it’s time to leave.



Najah gathers her belongings from behind the sofa while chatting with Majda Awad, 62, left, a Palestinian from Turkey and Hafida Bazi, 30, from Morocco; the three friends met at a refugee camp in Norway – only Majda has been granted asylum. Najah, since her second rejection (in October) for asylum in Norway, has taken on a nomadic lifestyle; she lives for several days – a week or two if she’s lucky – at a time with friends she made at refugee camps. Here she’s at the apartment of Majda, who permits her to sleep on the sofa, where she stores her belongings on its side and underside. Majda has family visiting for the holidays from Sweden and told Najah that she needs the space.


Officially it is not known how many rejected asylum seekers live in Norway. A representative with People in Limbo, a Norwegian NGO that works on behalf of rejected asylum seekers, indicated their numbers were estimated to be in the thousands and difficult to determine because of the underground existence of such people. Rejected asylum seekers are also referred to as “paperless” – lacking residence or work permits.



Najah an Iraqi asylum seeker, moves her belongings into the home of a friend for another temporary stay; the microwave was given to her by a concerned and supportive friend. Before her second asylum rejection Najah’s room, at a refugee camp, contained several household items. However, given her nomadic lifestyle she distributed everything to friends – on this day she gave away the microwave.


The paperless have no opportunity to integrate into Norwegian society for fear of being caught, so are denied access to jobs and health care. Najah interacted almost entirely with people from Arabic countries – people who provided a sense of community as well as a place to stay. Interestingly, she received a small monthly stipend from the Norwegian government as long as she remained in the asylum seeker system; she did so by signing a register at her assigned refugee camp once a month.



Najah attends a party with friends from several Arabic countries. Despite her inability to safely socialize outside the Arabic community, Najah makes the most of her situation by performing in a local theater and volunteering at cultural and pro-immigrant events that are sponsored by non-governmental organizations.



Protesters (Norwegians and rejected asylum seekers) gather outside the Parliament to demand the Norwegian government address the needs of refugees who live paperless (lacking a residence permit that entitles them to be in Norway); without a permit asylum seekers can neither work nor access health care.



Haudar Hammodi, 45, center, a twice rejected asylum seeker from Iraq, and other protesters gather outside the parliament to demand the Norwegian government address the needs of refugees who live paperless. Haudar has lived paperless in Norway since 2008.


According to Najah, the Norwegian government viewed her as having fled a problematic domestic situation (which she admits to) and did not believe her story. She told immigration officials that she’d been in an abusive 20-year marriage, and after demanding a divorce the abuse became unbearable with her ex-husband claiming she’d bought shame to his name. She stated that the physical beatings and threats were such that she took a one-year leave of absence from work to avoid going outside. Eventually after fleeing to Turkey, she was forced to again flee (February 2015) because its largely Muslim population viewed her as not being respectable because she left her husband. A family member who traveled illegally to Europe convinced Najah to do the same. However, she discovered that contrary to what she’d heard Norway was not a favorable environment for asylum seekers. Its center-right government won a historic re-election during September 2017. It became the first right-wing administration to gain two full terms; it’s the most right-wing elected administration in Norway’s history and has been advocating both anti-immigration rhetoric and policies. Given the unwelcoming nature of the government twice rejected asylum seekers’ lives are filled with fear and uncertainty. Najah longed for the financial security and professional stimulation she enjoyed in Iraq as a journalist. As a mother of four she missed her children – ages 8, 18, 22 and 24; two are studying on scholarships in Hong Kong and Canada. A third is a dentist in Iraq.



With knowledge that the government is closing the Hurdal Refugee Camp, Najah returned to her room to begin removing some much needed items. As a twice rejected asylum seeker she – like others in her situation – does not sleep at the camp for fear of arrest and deportation.



Najah keeps photographs of her children and a handmade sign with the letters FYMK (which stands for the first initial of her children’s names – Forqan, 24, Yaqeen, 22, Mohammad, 18, and Karkash, 8) in her room at the Hurdal Refugee Camp.


While contemplating the mess her life had become Najah recounted a conversation she had with an immigration official: “I’m an educated woman who was working on a Masters in psychological counseling in Iraq. I had a good job. Why am I here crying everyday for my daughter (8-years old) who is in Iraq. You’ll give me money to return ($2,000 USD plus a paid flight). My ex-husband wants to kill me. I can’t return yet you tell me to return. I’m not lying. I told the truth. Here in Norway I have no job, no family and no money – I miss my daughter. You think I prefer to be in Norway. Well, then I’m crazy since I don’t have a reason to stay. Why am I here? You think I like this weather?”



Najah waits at a bus stop, near Hurdal Refugee Camp, along with two asylum seeker friends from Afghanistan – both have been twice rejected. The three arrived and met at a Norwegian refugee camp in October 2015. The younger of the Afghans (left) is 18-years old. He’s planning to “escape” Norway and seek asylum elsewhere.


She considered leaving but said it was not feasible. “Some people had told me that Norway is better for asylum, but I’m thinking about leaving. Many other rejected people have done so but it’s difficult, very hard. Maybe it’s easier without friends, without money if you’re a man. I’m a woman. If I go I’m lost again,” she stated. “I don’t want to be so vulnerable again. I’m scared. It’s difficult for me to trust anyone,” she said referring to the ordeal she endured traveling from Turkey to Norway. From the outset the journey was dangerous she explained: in Turkey a small rubber boat, carrying 30 to 50 refugees, took on water and began to sink; they were headed for a small island off mainland Greece. They quickly returned to shore and several hours later boarded another small rubber boat. She would travel through seven additional countries before arriving in Norway.

Najah’s options for going elsewhere were bad because Norway seized her passport. A common practice with many European countries is to retain the passports of asylum seekers to prevent them from “asylum shopping” (being rejected one place and going to another).



Najah listens as an elderly Iraqi man (as she described him), with Norwegian citizenship, offers her a solution to her status as a paperless person: “Marry me”. He has a pacemaker and needs a caretaker. At this hastily arranged meeting in a cafe he assures her, in front of five of his Arabic friends, that theirs would be a friends only relationship based on her having a permanent place to live and being his caretaker – no touching, intimacy or sex. She refused because as a rejected asylum seeker she’s not eligible to marry in Norway.



Najah views the landscape outside her window as Jocelyn Houghton, an official at the Dikemark Refugee Camp responsible for an information program, stands nearby.



Dikemark is a former psychiatric hospital which once held 800 patients in a complex of 20 buildings; a section of it is used to house asylum seekers.



Najah breaks down in tears after settling into her room at Dikemark Refugee Camp. She was not happy with the overall state of the facility, particularly the shared bathroom and kitchen. “This is the fourth refugee camp I’ve been moved to since I arrived in Norway (October 2015); I want to be treated like a human being; it’s unfair,” stated Najah. Like many other twice rejected asylum seekers, she will not stay at the camp. To do so invites arrest from the police who occasionally go to camps to remove – for deportation – twice rejected asylum seekers. She has a roommate (they haven’t met) who’d already checked into the room but who also sleeps elsewhere.



After securing most of her belongings in her room at the the Dikemark Refugee Camp, Najah  tearfully walks to a bus station to return to Oslo. There she will stay with a friend.



Najah reviews her asylum case with lawyer Ahmad Taha, a Norwegian born Iraqi; on this occasion she signed with him to represent her.



After a long day spent traveling to and from the Hurdal Refugee Camp, Najah falls asleep on the train to Oslo.


On Friday, 6 April 2018, at 4:00 a.m., two police officers used a key to enter Najah’s room, at a refugee camp, turned on the light and announced, “you’re under arrest.”

Two weeks before the arrest she lost her room at the Dikemark Refugee Camp, along with a monthly stipend from the government, because of her refusal to sleep at the camp. Shortly thereafter she was given a room at a different camp where the arrest took place three days after she moved in. Twenty-four hours after her capture she was placed on a flight to Iraq. However during a stopover in the Netherlands it was discovered that her paperwork wasn’t adequate to continue the journey, so she was returned to Trandum Detention Centre in Norway.

During the first five days of incarceration Najah was under the influence of valium, which was provided by a doctor at Trandum. The effects were evident as her speech was painfully slow and her facial appearance drowsy. After the shock of her arrest wore off she was able to decline use of the drug, and with a clear head reflect upon the uncertainty that had characterized 2-1/2 years of life in Norway: “It has been a hopeful yet painful experience. A return to Iraq means embracing – against my will – an environment that’s familiar, unwanted and dangerous.” Najah is now in Iraq.




Trandum where Najah was held before being deported.



Forty-eight hours after being arrested Najah (under the influence of valium) wearily shakes her head side-to-side in frustration inside the Trandum reception area.

Additional photos from Paperless: Living in Limbo can be viewed at


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