Aid pours in for refugees in Norway

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Norwegians continued to open their arms and even their homes this week, as the country deals with a growing influx of refugees, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Somalia. An alliance of 11 humanitarian organizations, meanwhile, asked for NOK 3 billion (USD 365 million) from the government on Wednesday to help fund refugee assistance efforts both abroad and at home.

Norwegian Archbishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien, who played a key role in Wednesday’s meeting between the alliance and top government officials at the foreign ministry, told state broadcaster NRK that “this is a time for Norwegians to show who we are.” The sheer scope of the refugee crisis, with tens of thousands of people streaming into Europe in need of protection from war and Islamic extremism, means that the most important thing now, according to Byfuglien, is to meet the refugees with compassion and help preserve their human dignity.

Meeting at the foreign ministry
Foreign Minister Børge Brende and Norway’s EU Minister Vidar Helgesen, who also serves as Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s chief of staff, had invited the organizations to present their programs and advise the state on how the refugee crisis can best be met. The organizations included the Norwegian church that Byfuglien heads plus Amnesty International, CARE, the Norwegian Red Cross, Norwegian Church Aid, the Norwegian chapter of Save the Children (Redd Barna), Norwegian People’s Aid (Norsk Folkehjelp), the national organization for asylum seekers NOAS, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Caritas and Atlas-Alliansen.

They all claimed that the crisis is only growing, and the NOK 3 billion is needed simply to fund ongoing needs in Syria and its neighbouring countries where millions are living in refugee camps or on the streets.

“We are in an extraordinary situation that must be solved with extraordinary means,” said Anne-Marie Helland, secretary general of Norwegian Church Aid (Kirkens Nødhjelp). “In Europe we’re only seeing the top of the ice berg and it’s not melting. It’s growing every day.”

Jan Egeland, a former UN envoy who now heads the Refugee Council, said the Norwegian government has an opportunity to lead a global initiative to seek support for aid efforts. “The Syrian war was a catastrophe in the making where we have done much too little, much to late,” Egeland said.

Stepping up individual efforts
In addition to the state aid, the organizations called on Norwegians to continue and expand their efforts to aid refugees in Norway. They have included the distribution of food, clothing and toiletries to arriving refugees, along with examples of individual Norwegians opening up their homes to refugees lacking shelter until they’re processed into the asylum system. Newspaper Vårt Land and a private foundation set up a website this week (tilfluktshjem.no) (external link, in Norwegian) where other Norwegians can register their names, home addresses and how many beds they can offer. State immigration agency UDI welcomed the initiative as a means of getting an overview of emergency shelter while refugees await resettlement.

Hotel owner Petter Stordalen also expanded his offer to UDI of rooms at one of his hotels near Oslo’s main airport to include as many as 5,000 overnight stays with meals at other hotels, at no charge. UDI had asked other hotels to offer accommodation and newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that Scandic Norge was among those responding, but for a price. Thon Hotels hasn’t decided whether it can offer vacant rooms to UDI, which quickly claimed that it was prepared to pay even if Stordalen didn’t send a bill. “We pay for services we buy,” Christine Wilberg of UDI told DN. “We must evaluate how we could take advantage of the offer from Stordalen.”

The organizations meeting at the foreign ministry on Wednesday also asked the government to actively take part in European efforts to find a solution to the refugee crisis, even though Norway is not part of the EU that’s currently hammering one out. EU officials said Wednesday afternoon that European countries must all take in refugees to relieve the enormous pressure on Italy, Greece and Balkan nations that are typical entry points into Europe. At least 160,000 refugees must be accommodated quickly, with Norway expected to take its share.

Most of the organizations present at the meeting have also been making their own appeals, and have raised NOK 30 million from Norwegian donors just in the past few days. A former refugee from Iran is spearheading the organization of a major fundraising concert in October, while several Norwegian artists including Åge Aleksandersen also holding benefit concerts. Other individual relief efforts have included an 11-year-old girl’s production of snowman dolls that she’s selling to raise money for the refugees, and a group of friends who sought donations of clothing, disposable diapers, shampoo and other personal items that they’re taking to the island of Lesvos in Greece, to distribute to refugees there.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund