Immigrants and their children – and our knowledge of them

Immigrants – what we know and don’t know


This article was first published in Norwegian, in Statistics Norway’s journal Samfunnsspeilet: Østby, Lars og Kristin Henriksen (2013): Innvandrere og deres barn - og vår kunnskap om dem. Innvandrere - hva vi nå vet og ikke vet. Samfunnsspeilet 5/2013. Statistisk sentralbyrå.

In the ten years up to 2013, the number of immigrants and Norwegian-born to immigrant parents has more than doubled. This strong growth is due to the increase in labour immigration from the new EU member states in East Europe. Children of earlier immigrants are now adults, and we are able to follow their path into Norwegian society. We have learned a great deal from register data, both about the immigrants and their Norwegian-born children, but there is still much we do not know, including their perceptions and behaviour.

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If we go back to 2006; the year that saw a marked change in the scope and character of immigration to Norway, we primarily see an increase in labour immigration from the newcomers to the European Economic Area. Meanwhile, children of earlier immigrants were growing up. Based on the needs created by these developments, Statistics Norway collected and published new figures on the immigrant groups on an ongoing basis in the years that followed.

What is the most important thing that has happened in relation to immigration and immigrants during the intervening seven years? What do we know today that we did not know before?

After the expansion of the EEA in 2004, job seekers from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia had virtually free access to the Norwegian labour market, and the same was the case for Bulgarians and Romanians in 2007. Gradually, the influx of young men and women from East Europe looking for work in Norway grew considerably.

In 2006, the consequences of the expansion of the EEA in Norway were only just becoming clear; with Statistics Norway observing that “... the number of employees from new EU countries is relatively low, but at the same time we see that there has been strong growth since the fourth quarter of 2003 - the year before the expansion of the EU... “ (Berge 2006). However, the general population was still hiring Norwegian joiners and plumbers to renovate their homes, or doing it themselves.

Leap in numbers

In 2006, large numbers of immigrants (see textbox for definitions) lived in a few large central municipalities, while many of the small rural communities had relatively few immigrants. However, there were a few “white spots” on the map, where the only immigrants were from West Europe, such as Osen in Sør-Trøndelag and Beiarn in Nordland.


Immigrants are persons who are resident in Norway, but who are born abroad to two foreign-born parents and have four foreign-born grandparents.

Norwegian-born to immigrant parents are persons born in Norway who have two immigrant parents and four foreign-born grandparents.

The children of immigrants who arrived in the 1970s from countries such as Pakistan and Turkey had grown up, but there were still relatively few adults who were Norwegian-born to immigrant parents. However, now they and other immigrants’ children were getting themselves an education and finding jobs. Their voices and faces were becoming ever more prevalent in society.

We knew a little about how the children of immigrants, who were commonly referred to at the time as “second generation immigrants” or “descendants”, faired in education and employment, and their marriage patterns, but these were the “pioneer descendants” from just a few countries. It was not clear if the behaviour of the first children to grow up was typical of young adults. Moreover, the groups were so small that the figures could have been subject to random variation.

This was in 2006; a year that was not too dissimilar to the preceding years. After 2006, the situation almost exploded. Job-seeking immigrants to Norway had previously been relatively few, but were now dominant, and all parts of the country were affected. The labour immigrants settled where they found work, and in a Norway that was relatively unaffected by the recession that hit the rest of Europe, there were employment prospects for large parts of the population. Immigrants were from East Europe and Sweden, but our main focus is on non-Nordic citizens.

In this article, we paint with a relatively broad brush three main trends that have characterised the period following 2006 - labour migration, the large number of Norwegian-born to immigrant parents who have become adults, and the increased knowledge we have about immigrants in Norway. 2006 was chosen as a comparison year for several reasons. Norway was on the threshold of many major changes that would have a bearing on immigration. This was when the new labour migration really took off (see figure 1), and was just before the euro crisis in Europe.


Erling Holmøy’s article in this issue of Samfunnsspeilet considers 2006 to be the last “normal year” before major changes occurred. Moreover, it was also the last time Statistics Norway assembled articles on immigration into a special issue of Samfunnsspeilet (Statistics Norway 2006). A special issue on immigration was also issued in 2001 (Statistics Norway 2001). We show the development up to 2011, 2012 or 2013, depending on the availability of statistics.

Reasons for immigration have changed

Prior to 2004, about one in ten non-Nordic immigrants were labour immigrants (see figure 1), varying between 1 000 and 2 700 persons. Flight and family were the most common reasons for moving to Norway. This did not mean that immigrants were not working – 180 000 immigrants were employed in Norway in the autumn of 2006, which accounted for 8 per cent of the total employment. However, among these, there were perhaps not much more than 10 000 who were labour immigrants (Report no. 18 to the Storting: 2009). The immigrants were not arriving in Norway via the normal labour immigration permit process with the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) and were entering the labour market gradually.

While the Norwegian economy flourished, some countries not far from Norway became members of the EEA. The expansion of the EEA in 2004 gave Poles, Lithuanians and Latvians, i.e. inhabitants of the new EEA countries, access to the Norwegian labour market, and they were in demand throughout the country.

Labour migration increased dramatically. Since 2006, half of the non-Nordic immigrants have come to Norway to work (see figure 1). The figure was in excess of 20 000 every year except 2006 and 2009. Two out of three came from the new EEA countries. Family immigration also increased, mostly in relation to the families of labour immigrants who had come ahead of their family.

All municipalities now have immigrants

In 2006, 20 of the municipalities had fewer than 20 immigrants and 165 municipalities had 100 or fewer immigrants. In 2013, all municipalities had immigrants from all over the world. The municipality of Utsira had fewer than 20 immigrants and 68 of the municipalities had fewer than 100.

In 2007, Aalandslid and Østby observed in relation to immigrants in Norwegian municipalities that “Few have many, and many have few.” Now, many municipalities have many immigrants. From 50 municipalities with over 1 000 immigrants and Norwegian-born to immigrant parents in 2006, the number had almost doubled by 2013. In 2006, more than 10 per cent of the population in 14 municipalities was made up of immigrants and immigrants’ Norwegian-born children, and by 2013, this was the case in 110 municipalities.

The Poles, who made up the largest group in 15, albeit small, coastal communities in 2006, were the dominant immigrant group in as many as 211 municipalities in 2012 (Østby et al. 2013). Prior to this, the Danes and Swedes were the prevalent groups in many areas of Norway (the largest group in 144 municipalities in 1998). Polish immigrants are scattered throughout Norway, and make up the largest group in small outlying municipalities such as Bokn and Træna, but also in large towns and cities such as Stavanger, Bergen and Trondheim (Østby et al. 2013).

Immigration has saved the population in many parts of the country. Many municipalities have seen a reversal in the migration flow, and their population is increasing thanks to immigration from abroad. A total of 137 municipalities with a population growth in the period 2008-2011 would have had a population decline if it were not for immigration (Østby et al. 2013).

Children of immigrants have grown up and increased in number

Labour immigration was a surprise, but that the number of Norwegian-born to immigrant parents increased, and that they grew older, was not. Norwegian-born to immigrant parents who lived here in 2006 would be seven years older in 2013, and were hardly likely to emigrate in steady flows. We knew their origin, gender and place of residence, but we did not really know much about how things would develop when they were adults. Nowadays, we have more information on this.

In 2006, almost 10 000 Norwegian-born to immigrant parents (see figure 2) were over 20 years old; by 2013 this number had more than doubled.


In 2006, a third of the 10 000 over 20s’ parents were from Pakistan, and only those with parents from Pakistan and Denmark amounted to more than 800. By 2013, this was also the case for Norwegian-born to immigrant parents from Vietnam, Turkey, India and Morocco. There are still relatively few with parents from more recent refugee countries such as Somalia and Iraq who have grown up; most of those with such a background are school age or younger (see table 1).

The number of Norwegian-born to immigrant parents was 72 per cent higher in 2013 than 2006. The increase in the number of immigrants has been even greater, at 86 per cent, as a result of labour immigration. Table 1 shows that the growth in the number of Norwegian-born to immigrant parents from 2006 to 2013 in the well-established immigrant groups from Pakistan, Vietnam, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Morocco and India has been around a third, while the number with a background from Germany, Somalia and Iraq has more than doubled. Growth was even stronger for immigrants from Afghanistan, Russia (quadrupled) and Poland (six-fold increase).

The youngest age group in 2013 has a large impact on the continued growth of the groups. There are now just as many below the age of five from Poland as from Somalia, despite the fact that it is not family immigration that dominates immigration from Poland. The youngest groups with a background from Pakistan and India are much smaller than the older groups. Norwegian-born to parents from India is the fourth largest group among the over 20s, but among those below school age, this represents the smallest group in table 1. The table is a strong indicator of the future growth in the number of Norwegian-born to immigrant parents, and Pettersen (2013) shows that emigration among this group is rather limited.

At schools and universities

We find far more Norwegian-born to immigrant parents in Norwegian classrooms and lecture halls today than in 2006. In 2006, primary and lower secondary school pupils in this group totalled around 20 000, and 4 300 were at upper secondary school (autumn 2005). In autumn 2012, the corresponding figures were around 30 000 and 8 800 respectively (Statistics Norway 2013e).

In 2005, it was less common than it is today for Norwegian-born to immigrant parents to pursue a higher education, but even then the figure was on a par with the average for Norway. In absolute numbers, the group has also grown considerably; in October 2005, 1 800 students aged 19-24 were born in Norway to immigrant parents (Daugstad (ed.) 2006); however this was relatively few in relation to the student population as a whole. They are now much more prevalent in most areas of study, and totalled 4 600 out of a total of 130 000 students of the same age in autumn 2012 (Statistics Norway 2013a); a two-fold increase from barely 2 per cent of the student population to nearly 4 per cent.

Norwegian-born to immigrant parents seem to have an “educational drive”, which we can describe in the statistics as follows: despite somewhat poorer results in national tests and slightly lower grades at the end of lower secondary school, upper secondary school pupils complete their studies to about the same extent as other pupils, many more of them immediately enter a higher education, and it is far more common among Norwegian-born to immigrant parents to pursue a higher education than in the general population of the same age (Statistics Norway 2012b and Statistics Norway 2013a, b and c).

The share of young adults taking a higher education has seen a colossal increase, and some groups are far more likely to pursue a higher education than is typical - even for Norwegian-born to immigrant parents. Among those (19-24 years) whose parents are from Sri Lanka and India, as much as 45 per cent were in higher education in autumn 2012. Among those whose parents are from Vietnam, the corresponding figure was 40 per cent, and for this age group for Norway as a whole the corresponding figure was 32 per cent. Of the large groups, only those with parents from Chile and Turkey are less likely to pursue a higher education than the Norwegian average.

Aspirations of becoming pharmacists, dentists and doctors

Girls with immigrant parents have a high probability of studying at university or college. However, not everyone is aware that the disparity between boys with immigrant parents and boys without an immigrant background is greater than the disparity between the girls. This is illustrated in figure 3, which shows how it has become much more common for young men to pursue a higher education. For example, the tendency to study among boys whose parents are from Pakistan increased 15 percentage points from 2000 to 2012. Thus, this group is now more likely to take a higher education than the average for boys of the same age in Norway as a whole.


One claim that has often been cited in the media is that immigrants’ children are overrepresented in the grouping law, medicine and engineering studies. However, this is not quite the reality. They are indeed somewhat overrepresented in medicine, but are neither under or over-represented in law and engineering studies (Statistics Norway 2013a).

A more appropriate grouping would be that of pharmacy, odontology and medicine, where Norwegian-born to immigrant parents are strongly over-represented in the first two. While constituting 2.4 per cent of all students in higher education, Norwegian-born with immigrant parents make up 16 per cent in pharmacy and 11 per cent in odontology. However, there are still few Norwegian-born with immigrant parents who undertake teacher training.

Withdrawal from the labour market when children are born

Children of immigrants have a high tendency to attend university and college and then enter the labour market. However, do most of them find work afterwards? And do they remain in employment when they start a family?

In 2008, which is the first year that we have figures available in this area, almost 14 000 Norwegian-born to immigrant parents were in employment, compared to 18 000 in 2012. This group still makes up less than 1 per cent of the more than 2.5 million in employment in Norway. However, in many jobs, especially in the Oslo area, employees often have parents from far more exotic locations than Gudbrandsdalen and Helgeland.

Employment among Norwegian-born to immigrant parents is somewhat lower than the Norwegian average, but is still far higher than among the immigrants. Women with immigrant parents are, however, less likely to have a job than men. This is partly due to the fact that women often disappear from the labour market when they start a family (Olsen 2013). In other words, the gender role pattern for women - and men - with an immigrant background is more traditional than for the rest of the population (Kavli and Nadim 2009).

It is too early to tell how long women starting a family remain outside the labour market, or if they come back at all. There are currently too few women who have been through this phase of life to give a clear picture of the trend in this area, but we can probably assume that those with a higher education would like to put it to good use.

There can be many reasons why Norwegian-born to immigrant parents are less likely than average to be working in Norway; a country with a higher employment rate than most countries (Statistics Norway 2013d, table 205). The fact that more women stay home with children is one reason we have mentioned. Discrimination may be another barrier. This is confirmed by a large field experiment conducted by the Institute for Social Research, which showed that the probability of being invited to attend a job interview drops by an average of around 25 per cent if the applicant has a foreign-sounding name, compared with equally qualified applicants with a Norwegian name (Midtbøen and Rogstad 2012).

Living conditions survey 2005-2006

Statistics Norway conducted its third survey of living conditions among immigrants in 2005-2006 (Blom and Henriksen (eds.) 2008). The survey is based on interviews – in the respondent’s native language if desired – with a representative sample of immigrants from ten countries in the Balkans and Africa, Asia and Latin America. The interviews cover issues relating to the conditions prior to immigration to Norway and the ties with the respondent’s country of origin. A large emphasis was placed on addressing factors that the registers do not cover, such as family members that don’t live with or have contact with the respondent, employment of spouse, health and how it is perceived, financial situation, Norwegian skills, participation in a number of organisations and exposure to violence and discrimination. An overview of analyses based on this survey is given in Henriksen et al. (2012).

Statistics Norway’s extensive survey of living conditions among people with an immigrant background from 2005-2006 (see textbox) also suggests that Norwegian-born to immigrant parents experience discrimination in the labour market. One out of five Norwegian-born to immigrant parents responded that they had experienced discrimination in the labour market, and this was almost as common in this group as among the immigrants we interviewed (Tronstad 2009). This is a subjective perception, but it nevertheless demonstrates that the immigrants’ Norwegian-born children also find it more difficult to enter the labour market than others.

Marriage patterns

In 2006, fewer Norwegian-born to immigrant parents were over the age of 18 than in 2013. We also studied the marriage patterns of this group. Only the groups with parents from Pakistan, Turkey and Vietnam were large enough to form an accurate picture of their behaviour. A number of distinctive features were apparent: few of those with a background from Vietnam had married, and those that had married did so at a later stage than those with a background from Pakistan and Turkey. Among the latter two groups, cohabitation was uncommon, and those who were married were married to someone with the same country background. A large majority found spouses outside Norway.

The few with a background from Vietnam who were married were a distinct group. Here it was slightly more common to marry someone without an immigrant background, and cohabitation (also with someone with a non-immigrant background) was much more common than in the two other groups (Løwe 2008).

Since then, we have seen some clear trends: the Norwegian-born to immigrant parents are increasingly marrying at a later stage. This is assumed to be connected with the fact that more and more of them are taking a higher education (Henriksen 2010). It has also become far less common to arrive in Norway with a spouse. Perhaps there are far more potential spouses to choose from in Norway? The marriage patterns of immigrants and Norwegian-born to immigrant parents are also covered in Sandnes and Wiiks’ articles in this issue of Samfunnsspeilet.

Among those with parents from Pakistan and Turkey, it is becoming very uncommon to marry someone with a non-immigrant background. Furthermore, cohabiting is far less common than among Norwegians in general, while marriage is more common. Being in an established relationship, however, is just as common; the difference is that Norwegian-born to immigrant parents are more likely to marry than cohabit (Wiik 2012).

Our knowledge is more in-depth than before

We have mentioned the extensive labour immigration and the increasing number of adult Norwegian-born to immigrant parents as two key trends since the last edition of Samfunnsspeilet on immigrants (2006). A third, somewhat more subtle trend, is that we are constantly learning more about immigrants residing in Norway.

Today, descriptions of immigrants in Norway and their Norwegian-born children are relatively in-depth and nuanced, in everything from regular statistics to larger analysis reports. We follow them from their arrival in Norway, their reason for immigrating to Norway, where they settle, when they marry and with whom, how many children they have, how they do at school and university, if they work and what type of work, income levels and what transfers they receive, whether they participate in elections, if they become Norwegian citizens and whether they emigrate out of the country again.

For those with a relatively recent interest in immigration and integration, it may seem obvious and natural that we have so much information on the immigrants in Norway. However, the only statistics we had on immigrants up to the mid-80s related to how many foreign nationals had moved to and were living in Norway. We knew very little about their actual life in Norway.

At that point, new groups of immigrants were arriving in Norway in growing numbers, and the need for information quickly increased. The potential was there; as long as we had a person’s personal ID number and knew where they were born, all statistics compiled on the population of Norway could also be created for each subset of Norwegian immigrants.

Relevant and interesting?

Today, most of what we refer to as “individual-based statistics” also contain figures on immigrants, with varying degrees of detail. Some would argue that we provide too much information on immigrants. Is it really relevant or interesting to know whether the immigrants move around to a greater extent than others? Or if they go to the doctor more often than others?

And how do we break down the large and very heterogeneous group of immigrants in Norway, where the only thing they have in common is that they were not born in Norway but in one of the 220 countries that are represented here? By country of origin? Age? Reason for immigration? Education? Østby (2001) discusses various aspects of producing statistics and analyses on immigrants.

Statistics and analyses are requested and used by the authorities - especially those who deal with immigration and integration policy - and by the general public and the media. The statistics provide an insight into the areas where the immigrants are doing well, the areas they do less well in and how the different groups of immigrants fair.

Such descriptions provide a better knowledge base for those responsible for formulating policies aimed at this population group. It is important to know how well the different groups are doing in order to identify which groups need the various policy measures.

Efforts to develop statistics on immigrants were already well established in 2006 when Statistics Norway released the last issue of Samfunnsspeilet on immigrants. Since that time, further new statistics, and thus new knowledge, have been developed. A key example is the statistics that show immigrants by reason for immigration, i.e. the basis for UDI’s granting of residence permits to immigrants who settle in Norway.

These statistics are used to give a more detailed description of the labour immigrants in Norway. Do they stay here? Do they get jobs? Where do they settle? And what about the refugees and their children – how are they doing? What impact does it have on immigrants’ living conditions when different groups of immigrants’ families can join them? The broadest account of these insights is given in Henriksen et al. 2010.

Another example is the extensive survey of living conditions among immigrants conducted in 2005-2006. All of the statistics referred to up to now can be obtained from administrative registers. In short: you and your personal ID number are listed in a range of public registers. If you are employed, you will be in the Employee’s register, if you have an education, you are in the register that records the population’s highest achieved education, etc.

However, not all information can be obtained from such registers. There are no registers of “victims of discrimination” or “self-perceived health.” These issues are addressed in separate surveys. One such survey was Statistics Norway’s extensive survey of living conditions among immigrants (see textbox) in 2005-2006. This was the third in a series of such surveys that have been conducted around every ten years. The preceding surveys were Storen (1987) and Blom (1998). Through this survey, we acquired a lot of new and useful information about immigrants, on both their background in their native country and their living conditions in Norway. This information is still used today, but would benefit from an update (Henriksen et al. 2012).

Do we now know everything we need to know?

Knowledge creates a demand for more knowledge. Nothing generates a greater need for more knowledge than the procurement of new knowledge. Future immigration to Norway is the subject of great interest and uncertainty. The development in Norway and abroad depends on a wide range of factors, and cannot therefore be predicted with any degree of certainty, particular in the long term (Tønnessen et al. 2012). The development in the population’s attitudes towards immigration has also been described in very different ways, while immigrants’ attitudes to Norway and living in Norway are largely unknown.

Other aspects of immigrants’ interface with Norwegian society and their subjective perceptions therein are not well documented, at least since 2005 (see Blom and Henriksen (eds.) 2008). A new survey on immigrants’ living conditions would be a major boost to filling the gap in knowledge that is not covered by register data, and is probably the best way of obtaining the information we currently lack on immigration and integration.

During the final few months before the autumn 2013 general election, the usual amount of focus was placed on immigration issues, particularly on the fiscal consequences of the immigration to date and future immigration. The future immigration is not clear, and the overall economic consequences are not easy to foresee. Erling Holmøy at Statistics Norway was called upon to present the facts in this debate, and together with Birger Strøm examines these issues in his article in this issue of Samfunnsspeilet.


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