Family (im)mobility during the holidays: The Norwegian government’s COVID-19 containment measures and the Facebook activism of families separated by borders
Mobility for international families has been affected by COVID-19 on a global scale. National border regimes impact the mobility or immobility of individuals and those regulations have become stricter due to the measures to contain COVID-19. For families who are separated by borders, these measures have an impact on their ability to travel and see one another, with implications for their prospects to celebrate the holidays together.
For residents in Norway, the government has been rather limited in terms of who has ‘counted’ as family during the pandemic and thereby has the right to visit their family members. On 14 May, the Minister of Justice and Public Security specified that residents of the Schengen area who have family members in Norway (specifically spouses, cohabitants, fiancés or fiancées, children, or stepchildren) are allowed to travel in. However, family members residing in so-called ‘third countries’ – or countries outside of Schengen – were banned, with no possibility of entering the country. In neighbouring Denmark, girlfriends and boyfriends, parents and children of all ages, grandparents, grandchildren, and siblings of Danish residents have had the ability to travel into the country since 27 June, without restrictions regarding the country they travel from, so long as they have a negative COVID-19 test result 72 hours before entry.
Facebook activism and expanding who ‘counts’ as family
The Facebook group Vi som ønsker våre foreldre fra ikke EU-land på besøk (‘We who wish for our parents from countries outside the EU to visit’), as well as the Facebook pages Oss med familie eller kjæreste i utlandet under Covid-19 2020 (‘Us with family or loved ones abroad under COVID-19 2020’) and La Familien Møtes (‘Let Family Meet’), have mobilised to advocate for family members of Norwegian residents – regardless of their citizenship or country of residence – to be allowed entry into Norway. The mobilisation organised on Facebook has resulted in demonstrations outside the Norwegian parliament, specific policy suggestions sent into government policy hearings, petitions asking the government to reconsider their policies, and contacts with different media outlets to shed light on the nuances of current restrictions.
One victory came on 15 July when ‘near family’ of Norwegian residents – defined by the Norwegian government as spouses, registered partners and cohabitants, children and stepchildren under 21, and parents and stepparents to children under 21, as well as girlfriends and boyfriends – were allowed to enter the country. Also on 15 July, Norway reopened for European tourism, something that felt discriminatory to those still waiting for family members – such as parents (if over 21) and grandparents – from third countries to be allowed to visit. Advocacy continued and a second victory occurred on 21 October when parents and stepparents to children of all ages, children and stepchildren of all ages, grandparents and step-grandparents, and grandchildren and step-grandchildren of Norwegian residents from third countries were allowed entry.
Quarantine hotels and renewed (im)mobility
With this 21 October victory, many residents became optimistic about spending the holidays in Norway with their parents and grandparents. However, amid a new wave of COVID-19 the government announced a policy of quarantine hotels starting on 9 November. Practically, this means that family members travelling to Norway to visit are bussed from the airport to a hotel for a mandatory ten-day quarantine. For individuals, the cost is 500 NOK or approximately 50 EUR per day; on top of the costs of the flight, in some cases a visa, and potentially multiple family members staying in the quarantine hotel, this additional travel expense may make the journey unaffordable for many. In this way, the measure disproportionately affects those who may not have the means to pay for such a stay when considering the already expensive cost of travel.
In addition, many have concerns about family members who do not speak Norwegian or English arriving in a foreign country, being rounded up and bussed to a quarantine hotel, and being isolated in a room for ten days without the language skills to communicate or understand exactly what is happening. Others are concerned at the possibility of COVID-19 outbreaks within the facilities and a higher risk of family members becoming ill. A newspaper report from 12 December described an overfull quarantine hotel in Oslo where multiple people were instructed to share a room, with at least one case of four unacquainted individuals lodged in the same room. While the authorities acknowledged this was a mistake and took actions to prevent it from happening again, it raises obvious concerns on behalf of those travelling to Norway. Some have arranged with employers to work remotely during quarantine, but the poor quality of internet connection at some of the quarantine hotels has stiffened their ability to work effectively. Those travelling with children worry about acquiring the supplies they need – such as diapers – to make it through the stay, when family members may not be in the region to drop these items off. Furthermore, there has been confusion about where the stay at a quarantine hotel occurs – whether it is in the municipality where family members first enter Norway, or at their final destination.
Despite the joys of finally being able to enter the country, these concerns have resulted in the immobility of some, making it harder for them to celebrate the holidays with their loved ones. The policy of quarantine hotels was originally established until 3 December; since then, it has been extended through the holiday season, adjusting some of the requirements in an attempt to make the policy fairer. Despite these modifications, many concerns remain and the advocacy that began on Facebook has continued, with a petition asking the government to reconsider the new rules on quarantine hotels and specific policy suggestions for the government published under the initiative #SlippOssInn (‘#LetUsIn’).
Border regimes, immobility, and COVID-19
Among these challenges, other family members continue to face immobility due to the limited description of who ‘counts’ as family. Siblings from third countries, for example, remain unable to enter the country and suffer from this immobility and lack of possibilities to celebrate the holidays with their loved ones.
Border regimes impact the (im)mobility of individuals, even when there is not a global pandemic in the picture, and, in an effort to contain COVID-19, many governments have further tightened regulations on who is allowed to enter the country. In Norway, family members who are separated by geographical borders have, to a large extent, been separated further by policy. These containment measures have a substantial impact on the ability of family members to see one another and celebrate the holidays together.
* I would not be writing this article if my own family had not been affected by immobility during the pandemic.
Alyssa Marie Kvalvaag
Alyssa Marie Kvalvaag is a PhD Research Fellow in Sociology at Nord University, Bodø, Norway. Her research interests include international migration, immigrant integration, and human rights.