Meet the Two Brothers Making Millions Off the Refugee Crisis in Scandinavia
Bloomberg Businessweek|January 11 - January 17, 2016

Meet the multimillionaires making a killing off the refugee crisis in Scandinavia. 

Bill Donahue, photos by Espen Rasmussen

It’s a scene that could possibly warm even the two-sizes-too-small heart of the Grinch. Here in a little village in Norway, as dusky midday light filters in through the forest outside a classroom, a half-dozen Afghan teenagers hunch over a long wooden table, assiduously scissoring colored sheets of construction paper. These are 15- to 18-year-old boys who’ve endured miseries no child deserves—gunfire, explosions, the killing of a parent by Islamic State—and they’ve traveled here from their homeland on foot and in suffocatingly crowded vans. They sneaked through the woods on the Turkey-Bulgaria border, and they’ve been chased and bitten by police dogs and beaten by their smugglers. Now they’re celebrating Christmas and inscribing cards with some of the very first Norwegian words they’ve learned: God Jul. Merry Christmas.

Are they happy to be here?

“It is calm and peaceful,” says Bilal, 15, in Pashto.

“It is nice,” says Ahmad, also 15, “but why isn’t there a cricket pitch?”

Their middle-aged teachers—a Syrian and an Eritrean, both onetime refugees themselves—hover over them, benevolent, smiling, as a commuter train rattles in the distance. This, arguably, is the Scandinavia that the self-proclaimed socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was referring to in October when he suggested that Americans “should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished”—particularly when it comes to government programs that assist those in need.

Except there’s this other guy in the room, standing off to the side, almost invisible as he handles incoming e-mail on his smartphone. Kristian Adolfsen, 55, wears a V-neck sweater, a striped button-down, and glasses. This is his first visit to this refugee center in Hvalstad, but he owns the operation with his brother, Roger, 51, and they run 90 such centers in Norway and 10 more in Sweden. Refugees represent a huge opportunity for them; the Adolfsens’ Oslo-based company, Hero Norway, is the leader of a burgeoning Scandinavian industry that charges the Norwegian and Swedish governments a fixed fee—$31 to $75 per person per night in Norway—to house and feed refugees.

In Norway, Hero operates several different kinds of refugee lodging, among them short-stay dormitories where asylum seekers sleep a few nights, waiting to be screened by police after crossing the border; a second phalanx of facilities where refugees wait a couple of weeks to be interviewed by immigration officials, taking their meals in a cafeteria; and longer-term camps where they live more independently, in detached houses, cooking their own meals, as they wait, often for years, to be settled in Norway with protected refugee status.

For 2015, Hero Norway expects revenue of $63 million, with profits of 3.5 percent. In the rest of Europe, where asylum seekers typically are cared for by nongovernmental organizations such as the Red Cross, only one for-profit is larger than the Adolfsens’ operation, ORS Services, a Swiss company that in 2014 generated $99 million in profit caring for refugees in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. (ORS won’t disclose its 2015 profits.)

The Adolfsens have succeeded in part because they have a background in hospitality. In the three decades since they founded Adolfsen Group, Kristian and Roger have built an $800 million-a-year network of businesses that includes preschools and nursing homes, as well as hotels, apartment buildings, cruise lines, and ski resorts. The two entered the refugee sector in May 2014, when they paid a Danish company, ISS Facility Services, $22 million for Hero Norway, a 27-year-old company that ran 32 refugee centers.

At first the Adolfsens set their sights on Sweden. Almost immediately, though, refugee arrivals in Norway exploded, and they’ve kept arriving since. A country of 5 million people—a relatively sleepy, snow-clad, 1,600-mile-long, lutefish-eating kingdom that had never seen more than 17,000 refugees in a single year—received more than 31,500 asylum seekers in 2015 as Syria continued to fall apart and wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Eritrea drove refugees to Europe. The Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) can’t cope with the influx, so it’s turning to entrepreneurs, desperately, lest more refugees sleep in the streets. “UDI calls for capitalists,” blared a recent headline in Oslo’s Aftenposten newspaper.

For-profits now care for about 90 percent of Norway’s refugees. A gold rush has commenced, and it’s also a bit of a circus. Just outside Oslo, a savvy entrepreneur named Ola Moe recently rented a vacant hospital for $10,000 a month, did minimal upgrades, and began charging the government $460,000 a month to house and feed 200 refugees. At a refugee center in Southern Norway, 50 resident asylum seekers went on a two-hour march in November to protest the poor food, prompting one politician, an Iranian Norwegian named Mazyar Keshvari, to proclaim, “These ungrateful people should immediately leave the country.”

Amid such controversy, the Adolfsens appear like poised professionals. In press photographs, they flash can-do smiles as they sit before gleaming conference tables in airy office towers. One Oslo paper, Dagens Naeringsliv, has called them “Norway’s least known billionaires.” Yet concerns remain. In their monetization of the refugee crisis, will the Adolfsens provide superior, more efficient havens, or will they cut corners and skimp on services to improve profits? And does their bottom-line approach threaten a depth of caring that transcends hard cash?

Kristian and Roger grew up in Northern Norway, a sparsely peopled region imbued with a provincial, gloomy, Southern Rock vibe. Moonshine is popular there, along with fishing and hunting, and the Adolfsen brothers pride themselves on speaking a northern dialect, which Kristian says “is filled with swear words—not bad ones, but you know, stuff like ‘devil hell.’ ” Their hometown of Andenes, population 3,500, situated on Andoya Island, is so windy there are almost no trees. Their father, Kolbjorn, an engineer, worked days at the Andoya Space Center, launching rockets to study the northern lights. In the evening, he ran a TV sales and repair shop. Eventually he built a hotel. “A lot of people in Norway have cabins,” says Kristian. “Our second home was the TV shop. That’s where we saw our father.”

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