From Thailand to Svalbard: migration on the margins by An-Magritt Jensen

25. May 2009

Halfway between the European mainland and the North Pole, a group of islands, Svalbard, has become a Thai diaspora in miniature. Longyearbyen, the only place with permanent settlement, is a tiny city with only 2,000 inhabitants. Norwegians are in the majority and make up 85 per cent of the population. But among the 30 other nationalities present, the Thai population is the largest group, numbering about 70 individuals. While migration from Thailand to other Western countries is dominated by single women, both genders migrate to Svalbard and arrive in all family statuses. They come for work. Gender is not decisive for the migration flow but important for life conditions in Svalbard.


An open door to Europe?


Svalbard was a ‘no-man’s land’ for hunting and fishing for centuries until the beginning of the 20th century when coal mining began. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 established the area as Norwegian territory. The Treaty came into force on 14 Auguat 1925 when Norway assumed sovereignty by introducing the Svalbard Law and the Mining Code; the rights to entrance and economic activities are open. Migration regulations to Europe (the Schengen Agreement) do not count. Anyone can come to Svalbard, but it is not an open door to Europe. Residents gain no right to visa no matter the length of stay.

This is the background for the stream of migration from Thailand. In addition, Svalbard is a place where salaries are high and taxes are low. Possibilities for economic gains are extraordinary. However, risks of failure are large and social rights are linked to the migrants’ homeland.

This article is based on the research project ‘Svalbard families’ (with Kari Moxnes) primarily focused on Norwegian families. Thais were involved as the largest minority group (Jensen, 2008). Data were collected in 2006 and included 14 Thai interviews.


The first entrances: marriage migration

To understand the Thai migration to Svalbard we need to go back to 1975, when an all-year airport was opened and isolation from the outside world was broken. Svalbard used to be a society for single men working in the coal mines. The airport, together with family housing and services, attracted families with women and children to the place. Today, 40 per cent of the adult population is female. However, the society is still dominated by men of legal working age. The airport also gave miners the possibility to travel to distant places, such as Thailand. Some miners who travelled there brought wives back. Until the mid-1990s, only a few Thai women, married to Norwegian men, had settled in Svalbard. Over the last decade, these pioneers have become recruiters of fellow countrywomen in a flow of migration.


Recent entrances: labour migration

During hard economic times in Thailand in the late 1990s, migration became a solution for many poor people in the rural areas (Plambech, 2007). During visits to their home areas in Thailand, pioneer migrants from Svalbard were living examples of the gains of migration. They recruited new migrants, as described by Ratana (2006): ‘They begin their transnational migration through following one of their family members, relatives or friends who have already settled overseas. Those people would provide newcomers with initial logistical support including orientations of how to live in a foreign land, visa, air tickets, temporary jobs and housing for the first three months …’ (p. 11). However, migration to Svalbard differs from descriptions of migration to other Western countries, where marriage plays a major role. In contrast to other Western countries, also Norway, where migrants are primarily unmarried women entering through transnational marriage, migrants to Svalbard come for work. At Svalbard labour migration prevails. This has consequences for the gender composition of migration and the marital status of migrants.

While migration from Asia is heavily dominated by women (UNFPA, 2006), about one third of migrants to Svalbard are men. Furthermore, the migrants arrive in all family types. Among the informants interviewed, eight were married to a Thai while six, all women, were single. All but two were parents. Some had children in Svalbard, while others had left them behind in Thailand. The ages of the informants ranged from the early 20s to the mid 50s.

Gender composition and family status may illustrate how global policies impact the ways in which migration is accomplished. If marriage is the key to residence, migrants will be women only. If residence is independent of marriage, both genders can migrate. This distinction has implications for life conditions. In marriage migration women will depend on the Western husband. In contrast to this general trend, Svalbard migrants depend on their Thai network, and latecomers rely upon recruiters’ ability and willingness to provide work and a place to live.

Recruiters help fellow villagers to migrate at the same time, and as Suksomboon (2007) states, such assistance has become ‘… a lucrative business for the pioneer migrants.’  Migrants are often indebted to the recruiters, Plambech (2007) also finds. The recent stream of Thai migration to Svalbard confirms that latecomers had an obligation to work for the recruiters for a certain period of time (such as three years).  They spent a long time paying back debts and depended on their network for housing and a social life. At the same time the work conditions could be very difficult with low payment, little control over working hours and strained relationships to the recruiters.

Thai migrants in Svalbard have no residence or work permits. Their status is legal but undocumented. They enter the labour market where their recruiters, women who married Norwegian men, initi
ally had found work: in the cleaning industry. Latecomers, men and women alike, work as cleaners which in mainland Norway is a heavily female occupation. Unlike domestic aides in Europe, Thai migrants in Svalbard do not live with the resident family. They do the cleaning and laundry of private homes, hotels, public buildings and companies on an hourly basis. Thai recruiters are in command of the quantity of work, working conditions and salaries of latecomers. As more Thais enter the labour market, competition for work increases. If latecomers run into problems with the established power structures of the Thai network they have nowhere to turn. The undocumented status submits immigrants to uncertainty even if residence is legal. As noted by Anderson (2000: 179), ‘…being undocumented never serves the workers’ interests.’ Partnering with a Norwegian man is one way of escaping dependence on the recruiters.


Improving life conditions: partnering with a Norwegian

Success and failure of immigrants to Svalbard intersect with the particular legal status of the area. No registers document living conditions and social security is linked to the homeland. Language barriers are profound. Working and living conditions are invisible to society at large. The relationship between Thais and the majority population is similar to what Anderson describes, in that: ‘… their social worlds do not touch’ (2000: 145). Svalbard is a place for people who are able to manage by their own means only.

Partnering with a Norwegian man is a way for women to lessen their dependence on the Thai network. The fieldwork displayed considerable differences in life conditions among Thais living in a transnational partnership, and those who did not. Women who had lived with a Norwegian had improved housing standards and better working conditions. Importantly, for single mothers who had left children in Thailand, a Norwegian man could provide economic guarantees for bringing them to Svalbard. Visits to mainland Norway became an option. All women interviewed who had entered Svalbard as single, had partnered a Norwegian man, or were hoping to. Thus, a Western man remained important for well-being, although not for residence.


Migration on the margins

Svalbard is on the border of human existence, a tiny opening into a Western world. Migration can be lucrative but is not without costs. While borders are open and salaries are high, social security is minimal. Furthermore, without a visa no one can leave for any visa-demanding country. Life is confined to Longyearbyen with only a 50 km long road system, long and very cold winters, polar nights, permafrost, and polar bears restricting outdoors movement. The axis of mobility is between Longyearbyen and Thailand by air.

Recent migration flow from Thailand signifies how a locality at the margins has become a target for a group of people with no other places to go. The visa-less border makes migration possible but migrants are trapped between the undocumented and the legal. Both men and women enter Svalbard and they come for work. But the single women who had married a Norwegian man later on obtained advantages unavailable to Thai couples or single Thai men. Thus, gender remains important to life conditions after migration even if the migration itself is gender neutral.



Anderson, B. (2000): Doing the Dirty Work? The Global Politics of Domestic Labour. London: Zed Books.

Jensen, A.-M. (2008): ‘No trees to see: Thai-life in permafrost’, in Jensen and Moxnes (eds.): Life in Longyearbyen, Tapir Academic (in Norwegian)

Plambech, S. (2007): Managing Migration – Risks and Remittances among Migrant Thai Women. Master Thesis, Institute of Social Anthropology, Lund University

Ratana, T. B. (2006): Cross-Cultural Marriages and Transnational Gender Mobility: Experiences of Village Women from Northeastern Thailand. Paper at International Conference on Intermediated Cross-border Marriages in Asia and Europe. Sept. 18-20, 2006, Academia Sinica, Taipei

Suksomboon, P. (2007): Remittances and ‘Social Remittances’: Their impact on Lived Experiences of Thai Women in the Netherlands and Non-Migrants in Thailand. Paper at International migration, multi-local livelihoods and human security: Perspectives from Europe, Asia and Africa. 30 and 31 August 2007, Institute of Social Studies, The Netherlands

UNFPA (2006): A Passage to Hope. Women and International Migration. State of World Population


An-Magritt Jensen, professor in sociology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Areas of research: demography, family, children’s welfare.

Recent publications:

‘Mobile Children: small captives of large structures?’ Children & Society, Vol 23, No. 2: 123-135

‘Pluralisation of family forms’. In Qvortrup, Corsaro, Honig and Valentine (eds) Handbook of Childhood Studies, Palgrave (in print)