An Arctic Prison

Business in Svalbard is a complicated wheel to spin, in particular with regard to maintaining Norwegian sovereignty. Its tourism industry is currently about to collapse. At the same time, some 300 inhabitants have been told to go home – wherever that may be. Photo: Arne O. Holm

Commentary: There are a lot of victims to the Corona virus. Some of them are stuck on a polar islet just south of the North Pole. For decades, they have contributed to the ever-ongoing transformation of Longyerbyen. Now, they have received a severance package from the Norwegian state and been told to go home.

As a nation, it appears we do not want to receive refugees from Moria. However, we have no problem sending people from Longyearbyen through an international Corona storm back to Thailand or Sri Lanka.

Where should they go?

There is no official guideline describing such a journey, there are hardly any operating flight routes or liberal border crossing stations letting people through. Nor is there any international agreement that prevents Norway from asking these people to go home.

Wherever that may be.

I am writing about a challenge, a term often used for problems in the modern world, few if any of us can relate to. And why should we?

Svalbard is an Arctic paradise, last communicated through – and I am completely biased as I participated there – an amazing NRK minute-by-minute TV show circumnavigating Svalbard by boat.

It has nature that will blow your mind. It is a zoo in which people, not animals, are caged. It is a geopolitical center in a troubled world.

The EEA Upper Class

However, it is also the home of some 300 inhabitants who do not have a home address within the EEA, Norway’s formal cooperation with the EU.

And right now, that proves fatal.

If you do not belong to the mighty upper class referred to as EEA citizens, you are not entitled to welfare benefits if and when your job shuts down. You are not entitled to a single thing when the pandemic hits your solar plexus if you are in the wrong place.

We have no problem sending people from Longyearbyen through an international Corona storm

Tourism in Svalbard is down and its back broken. Tourism, which was to replace mining, is on the verge of breakdown. In Svalbard, business is conducting a balancing act with state aid financial tools that do not take into account that Svalbard, as the only place in Norway, still operates with a 14-day quarantine for incoming travelers.

Tourism dissolving

There is not a tourist in the world who books a trip to Svalbard to spend 14 days quarantined before they can stand on a dogsled or enjoy a tax-free pint. There is not much help in the state’s corona aid packages compensating for power expenses and rent as long as there is not a penny in income for tourism operators.

This is a story quite peculiar, and also quite brutal. At the time of writing, the tourist industry does not know when the locally introduced Svalbard quarantine is to be lifted, nor when any Norwegian summer holiday travelers without a plan may be able to choose Svalbard again. In the words of two veterans of local Arctic tourism, Hilde and Stig Henningsen, writing in High North News this week: The doors are shut.

Or in the words of another local veteran, Brita Knudsen Dahl of Basecamp Explorer, in another op-ed: “Tourism is vanishing.”

And at the bottom of this Arctic tourism hierarchy are – right now – 300 inhabitants who have arrived in this paradise from countries outside the EEA.

They came to Longyearbyen, many of them a long time ago, and found a way to make ends meet through the meandering needs of the tourist industry. They made sure hotel rooms were clean and tidy before new tourists in a never-ending stream of guests moved in, many of these from outside the EEA. They were key spokes in the wheel of Arctic tourism. Through decades.

Go home!

They even provided a kind of stability in a population replaced every other year or so.

Then the pandemic hit and tourism collapsed. No one knows for how long.

The EEA citizens received their welfare benefits, companies got their rescue packages, though the latter is no guarantee for survival.

There is not a tourist in the world who books a trip to Svalbard to spend 14 days quarantined

The people I write about eventually received social benefits. Time-limited and modest, as social benefits are.

Time is about to run out for these people. They have received a state severance package and been told to go home.

Clinging on

Probably fully in keeping with Norwegian laws and regulations, yet otherwise conflicting with most things. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs advises us all to stay within the borders, these people are told to leave Svalbard to go to places where the pandemic is anything but controlled.

There is no mention of how to travel, where to travel, and to what to travel.

Politicians stand fairly firm when they have regulations to cling to.

Yet they make life hard for all those who do not have anything to cling to. Even when on Norwegian soil.


This commentary was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.