The kind of Nairobi slum Maria's mother says she doesn't want her daughter to experience. (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)
OSLO, Norway — Should a four-year-old girl grow up in poverty in Kenya, or would it be better for her mother to abandon her to the social services here?
That’s the choice facing Maria's single mother after the authorities turned down her application for asylum.
Now she’s facing deportation despite the fact that her daughter is a citizen here, thanks to the Norwegian father.
An appeals court is set to rule on her case on Thursday, over what her lawyer says is a violation of the child’s rights.
“Deporting the mother would be the same thing as deporting Maria,” says Mads Andenas, a law professor at the University of Oslo. “And she has a claim to her mommy.”
Andenas — who had to renew his license to practice law in order to take the case pro bono along with another lawyer — believes the case is a crucial one.
As a Norwegian citizen, he argues, Maria can’t be deported — and it’s also not in the child’s best interests to be separated from her mother. That, he believes, should weigh more heavily than upholding Norway's strict asylum laws.
Since Maria’s mother has no job in Kenya, she says her daughter would be forced to become homeless there.
The government agency she's battling, the Immigration Appeals Board, or UNE, declined to comment on the case because it’s still under consideration.
Georg Schjerven Hansen assists immigrants and refugees through the organization Self Help for Immigrants and Refugees, which approached Andenas with the case.
“Deporting your own citizens is illegal,” he says.
Maria’s mother — who has requested her name be withheld — declined a request for an interview.
Her asylum application was denied in 2008, the year she arrived in Norway. It took more than a year for an appeal to be considered, during which she gave birth to Maria a month after her deadline to leave the country.
The father has no contact with his daughter, Hansen said.
The time Maria's mother spent waiting for a final decision, nearly two years, isn’t unusual.
The authorities receive around 10,000 asylum applications every year and process most of them within a year.
That’s a relatively low number. Sweden receives around 50,000 asylum seekers a year, and processes each within 120 days.
However, appeals and other factors can significantly increase the amount of time asylum seekers can spend waiting for decisions.
Like Maria’s mother, some have children during that time.
Unlike the United States, Norway doesn’t automatically grant citizenship to those born inside the country.
That’s created a class of hundreds of “asylum children”: Norwegian-born and raised, but not citizens. When their parents' asylum requests are denied, they’re typically deported to their parents' homeland.
The Supreme Court ruled to uphold the government’s hard line in such cases in 2012.
Andenas says battling the government on behalf of asylum children is very difficult. “The rules aren’t interpreted in favor of the weaker party,” he says. “That's a concern.”
Despite the odds, several families have undergone grueling court cases against UNE.
Last year, 7-year-old Nathan Eshete and his family were allowed to remain in Norway, where Nathan was born and raised, on the basis that the child's best interests outweighed other concerns.
However, 12-year-old Neda Ibrahim lost her case and was deported to Jordan with her parents and three siblings after living in Norway 10 years.
Andenas says the country’s asylum laws are stricter than European Union guidelines. “When you consider these rules against a little girl,” he says, “Norway distinguishes itself by following a more restrictive line, with a more restrictive interpretation than Sweden or Denmark do.”
Effectively separating mother and child in Maria’s case would set a new precedent for strictness, Hansen believes. He says that would violate not only Norwegian law but also human rights regulations and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“This does not belong in Norway’s image.”