Majority welcomes refugees to Norway

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A new survey shows that an absolute majority of Norwegians support plans to take in at least 8,000 refugees from Syria, and many think a still-wealthy country like Norway should take in far more. The survey sends a strong signal to politicians advocating restrictive policies, as does social media response to recent spontaneous efforts to help those arriving.

The survey, conducted by research firm Respons for newspaper Aftenposten, showed that 63 percent of those questioned were positive to the Parliament’s approval of the plan to accept 8,000 UN-registered refugees from the war in Syria. Earlier surveys have shown a much smaller majority, while now only 25 percent are negative and 12 percent claim they have no opinion.

Meanwhile, more than 14,000 Norwegians have indicated support via social media for volunteer efforts that have been springing up in Oslo to offer food, clothing and toys for refugees and their children. “We’re seeing that the Norwegian people … support assistance for those hit by the biggest and worst war in a generation,” Jan Egeland, a former UN special envoy on refugees issues who now heads the refugee aid group Flyktninghjelpen, told Aftenposten.

Grass-roots effort
Ordinary Norwegians recently have been demonstrating their desire to help refugees by taking direct action themselves. “Of course we wanted to take part in this,” said Esben Holmboe Bang, who owns Norway’s only restaurant with two Michelin stars, while handing out food prepared by his cooks at Maaemo in the grass-roots effort outside the police station in Oslo’s Tøyen district that registers new asylum seekers. Bang and several other restaurant owners started preparing and serving food to refugees after fellow restaurant entrepreneurs Jan Vardøen and Nevzat Arikan joined an initiative to welcome and feed the growing numbers of hungry people waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. Around 20 restaurants are now involved in the relief effort.

Scores of others have been delivering clothing, toys and household items to the transit centers where new asylum seekers are housed in Oslo before being sent to other asylum centers around the country. In the transit centers, families are usually kept together in one room with bunk beds lining the walls, while those arriving individually share similar rooms with others. Among them are record numbers of young refugees in their teens who’ve been sent, often by frantic parents, in hopes of finding a better life outside their violent homelands. Most of them are coming from Afghanistan. Like many from Iraq as well, a majority claim they are fleeing recruitment or death at the hands of Islamic extremists in the Taliban or IS.

“The people here are normal folks who have been through an extreme situation,” Hugo Limskjære, leader of a transit center in Oslo’s Torshov district, told Aftenposten. Among those interviewed over the weekend were a pharmacist from Damascus who arrived with her three sons, and a Sunni Muslim family of four from Iraq who finally fled after years of war. “I’m 37 years old and experienced the war between Iraq and Iran and between Iraq and the US, and live went on,” father Osama Ayad told Aftenposten. “But this time it’s a war against people (in IS) who want to turn Iraqis into animals.” They still face great uncertainty in Norway, but expressed gratitude for the help received so far.

Struck a nerve
The refugees’ harrowing journeys and the sheer numbers of them arriving have clearly struck a nerve, according to Vardøen, also known as a musician, author and film director in addition to owning popular restaurants such as Villa Paradiso and Nighthawks Diner. He called the support for the food donations and all the help streaming in, also from some grocery store chains, “heartwarming,” adding that “it just shows that the politicians are out of touch with what the people really want and feel.”

Sturla Stålsett, chairman of Norway’s cooperative forum for volunteer groups (Frivillighet Norge), called the grass-roots support being shown for refugees “a spontaneous expression of people’s kindness and mercy.” At the same time, however, Oslo city officials requested and were granted permission to only be obliged to settle 720 Syrian refugees in Oslo, down from the 811 they’d agreed to earlier. The reduction, reported newspaper Dagsavisen on Monday, was in line with the Parliament’s compromise on 8,000 total UN-registered Syrian refugees over the next three years, down from initial proposals for 10,000.

Norway’s conservative government coalition has, however, settled more refugees so far this year than in the two previous years combined. Solveig Horne, the government minister from the otherwise immigrant-skeptical Progress Party who’s in charge of integration, could report that local communities had agreed as of August 1 to take in 9,858 refugees and 4,986 were already settled by the end of July. That’s 22 percent more than at the same time last year.

New calls were issued on Monday that the refugees themselves should be able to decide where in Norway they want to live if and when their asylum applications are approved. Officials have long feared that the majority would want to settle in the country’s largest cities, however, and therefore assign them to specific communities in an effort to spread settlement around the country. The refugee issue is high on the agenda of political campaigns in the run-up to municipal elections on September 14.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund