OSLO — When a suspect in one of Norway’s most elaborate illegal-employment schemes entered Oslo’s district court this month, he couldn’t stop smiling.

“I was very, very happy,” Arne Viste said, recalling the moment he was notified that he would be put on trial. “I’ve been working five years for this.”

Viste had sought to trigger legal action by hiring 70 undocumented migrants, reporting himself to police and updating authorities on a regular basis. He hoped a trial would force Norway to reconsider its policy denying legal employment to migrants living in limbo — those who have been rejected for asylum but cannot be deported.

On Thursday, those hopes suffered a setback. The court ruled against Viste, fining his company and handing him a one-year suspended prison sentence. But he is considering an appeal.

AD
AD

Authorities “know that he’s been looking for a fight,” said anti-discrimination advocate Rune Berglund Steen.

Many legal analysts expect the case could end up before Norway’s Supreme Court and, potentially, the European Court of Human Rights, sending a powerful message across the continent.

“This is a significant case, both politically and legally,” said Malcolm Langford, a law professor at the University of Oslo. “We haven’t seen that type of civil disobedience in Norway before — not on this sort of level.” 

Viste, 52, an engineer, says that everyone living in Norway has a constitutional right to work.

His stance resembles that of a French farmer in a landmark case last year. Like Viste, Cédric Herrou cited moral obligation as his defense after he helped hundreds of migrants cross the border illegally. France’s supreme court found in his favor, based on the country’s principle of “fraternity.”

AD
AD

Viste’s case has posed a similar moral quandary for Norwegian authorities.

“He is openly breaching the immigration law but at the same time for very humane and humanitarian reasons,” said Katja Franko, a professor of criminology at the University of Oslo.

Over the past 15 years, Norway has toughened its immigration rules, with moves that consecutive governments said were necessary to preserve the generous welfare state.

Previously, asylum seekers had been able to work in Norway even after having their applications rejected. But amid a broader clampdown starting in 2011, their tax cards — which are required to find work — were withdrawn.

Rejected asylum seekers often can’t be deported for logistical and political reasons. In some cases, they are stateless or claim not to have their passports, said Ann-Magrit Austena, secretary general of the Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers.

AD
AD

And so they stay on. But for most of these migrants, staying in Norway has meant being unable to work legally and having to live on less than $7 in daily benefits — in a nation where there is no general minimum wage but where even the lowest-paying jobs under a collective agreement fetch about $15 an hour.

“Without work, I felt useless,” said Iranian Nasim Alimoradi, 40. He said he tried to kill himself twice after losing his work permit in 2011.

When Viste hired him, he said, “I felt human again. It was a glimmer of hope.”

Viste had been living a “quite ordinary” life — focused on “my family, my church and my job” — when he and his wife invited a migrant family to join their Christmas celebration in 2012. Viste is a member of the Protestant IMI church, which has supported his legal fight.

AD

The migrant family’s plight moved Viste, who considers himself to be “pro- but not extremely pro-” migrant. He learned that the father of the family had been “pushed into depression and inactivity” by Norway’s decision to withdraw the tax cards.

AD

Viste began to research human rights. He sent queries to the government. He tried to take the government to court over his concerns. After his complaint was rejected, he concluded that he had to provoke the government to take him to court instead.

He began to employ an undocumented migrant part time without work authorization. Despite reporting himself to the police and tax authorities, he was not charged. 

AD

So Viste went further. From his home-based office in southwestern Norway, he began printing and distributing materials encouraging undocumented migrants to work, suggesting they had the right to do so. He hired a second rejected asylum seeker in December 2015. Then he hired more. 

Viste acted as a temp agency of sorts. He said he collected fees from companies that used his employees’ services — restaurants, a major car dealer, a church mission. He then transferred a total of almost $1 million in wages to the migrants, after withholding duties, as required under Norwegian law. Through that mechanism, Viste said, he hoped he could shield both the companies he cooperated with and the migrants from legal repercussions.

“He really changed my life,” said Farhad Ahmadsadeh, 28, a rejected asylum seeker from Iran whom Viste helped find a position at a car dealership. Being able to work, Ahmadsadeh said, had allowed him to learn Norwegian and adapt to Norway’s culture.

Viste’s lawbreaking won him acclaim within Norway’s civil society. He was awarded the country’s prestigious Zola award for individuals who protect “human dignity, democracy and the rule of law.”

AD
AD

His actions encouraged others to come forward, too. Gunnar Stalsett, a former vice chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, recently revealed that he employs an undocumented migrant — triggering a separate police investigation.

But Viste’s critics say that sanctioning what he has been doing would make Norway more attractive for migrants who do not qualify as refugees.

“We’re not helping anyone if we let rejected asylum seekers stay and work,” said Jon Engen-Helgheim, an immigration policy spokesman for the right-wing Progress Party. “They don’t need protection. They should go home to their country, and we will then be capable [of helping] people who genuinely need it.”

AD

Other critics have argued that vindicating Viste would come close to exonerating black-
market employers who let undocumented migrants work under dangerous and illegal conditions.

AD

“They are very vulnerable staying here,” said Hans-Petter Pedersen Skurdal, the prosecutor in Viste’s case, referring to the risks the unregulated labor market poses to undocumented migrant workers.

Viste’s employees reject the notion that his actions are contributing — directly or indirectly — to the systematic exploitation of undocumented migrants in Norway.

Alimoradi said that before he was employed by Viste, he and other migrants were offered drug-trafficking jobs or exploitative work.

AD

“But Arne Viste is doing the opposite,” Alimoradi said.

Viste had wanted the court to put him out of business by allowing companies to hire rejected asylum seekers without having to rely on his scheme.

Now, regardless of a possible appeal, he will have to decide: Will he continue to employ undocumented migrants and risk going to jail? Or will he shut down a business that has given migrants hope?

AD

Anders Wiig Letnes contributed to this report.

AD