Royals remember own refugee past

Bookmark and Share

Norway’s King Harald sent out a royally powerful reminder on Wednesday of the country’s and his own refugee past, just after he and Queen Sonja had visited a new refugee reception center south of Oslo. Now it’s Norway’s turn, the monarch suggested, to receive others needing help and protection.

Norway's royal family returning to Oslo in 1945 after five years of exile as war refugees in London and Washington DC. King Harald, then a young prince, is shown at bottom left. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons

Norway’s royal family returning to Oslo in 1945 after five years of exile as war refugees in London and Washington DC. King Harald, then a young prince, is shown at bottom left. PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons

As debate continues over how many refugees Norway can be expected to take in during the current mass migration from Africa and the Middle East, King Harald pointed out that Norwegians, “on at least two occasions, have benefited from others taking care of us.” He was referring to the mass emigration of Norwegians to the US when Norway was still a poor country, and all the refugees who fled Norway during the Nazi German occupation during World War II. His own family fled invading Nazi Germans in April 1940, and received shelter in both the US and Great Britain. Tens of thousands of other Norwegians also fled over the border to Sweden, which took in war refugees just as the country is doing now.

It’s time, King Harald suggested to reporters after touring the new reception center in Råde, that Norwegians “must show what’s inside us.”

It was an extraordinary session with a monarch who normally is, and is supposed to be, reserved about commenting on anything considered a political issue. Instead, he and Queen Sonja spoke with reporters for quite a while, reflecting on their own experiences (the queen recalled seeing her future husband come home after five years as a war refugee when they were both still children) and commenting on what they’d seen at the new asylum center, set up inside a former department store as an emergency means of accommodating refugees. “We were glad to see how well the refugees were received,” King Harald said. The queen said she was “touched” to meet families “with so many children” who had survived the long journey to Norway.

King Harald and Queen Sonja meeting refugees at the state's new reception center in Råde on Wednesday. PHOTO: kongehuset.no/Scanpix

King Harald and Queen Sonja meeting refugees at the state’s new reception center in Råde on Wednesday. PHOTO: kongehuset.no/NTB Scanpix/Vegard Wivestad Grøtt

The refugee issue has been politically charged for months, with Finance Minister Siv Jensen of the immigration-skeptical Progress Party even suggesting that local municipalities should simply refuse to take in refugees. Her party colleague, Carl I Hagen, went so far as to suggest last summer that boats full of refugees trying to make their way to Europe over the Mediterranean should be turned around and sent back to North Africa or wherever they came from.

The Progress Party suffered crushing defeat in the municipal elections that followed shortly thereafter, reflecting the widespread sympathy in Norway for refugees to which King Harald also referred. His remarks could almost be seen as a rebuke of Jensen’s and Hansen’s election campaign rhetoric. Norwegian politicians and authorities continue to struggle, however, with the influx of refugees in recent months. With the numbers rising all the time, officials at state immigration agency UDI now expect 30,000 refugees will have arrived in Norway by the end of the year, with another 35,000 expected next year.

The royal couple gazes at rows of bunk beds set up for refugees. PHOTO: kongehuset.no/Scanpix

The royal couple gazes at rows of bunk beds set up for refugees within tents, to allow some privacy. PHOTO: kongehuset.no/NTB Scanpix/Vegard Wivestad Grøtt

The costs of housing, feeding and teaching the refugees Norwegian, plus educating their children, providing health care and integrating and finding jobs for them are staggering, with NRK reporting Wednesday night that it may exceed NOK 750 billion (USD 95 billion) over the long term. “Kindness costs,” Erling Holmøy of state statistics bureau SSB (Statistics Norway) told NRK.

Asked whether Norway, a country of just 5 million people, can be expected to show compassion and take in many refugees, Queen Sonja didn’t hesitate: “We must,” she said, adding that she was impressed how various state agencies and humanitarian organizations had managed to set up emergency refugee shelters like the large facility at Råde in record short time. It’s offering short-term beds, food, clothing and health checks for as many as 1,000 people while they’re being registered, and before they’re transferred to more permanent centers for asylum seekers.

The royals also visited a local school not far from the asylum center, where students are raising funds for refugee reflief through the sale of cakes, coffee and even Syrian foot. They also solicit donations door-to-door and set up information programs featuring some of their fellow students, newly arrived from Syria. The royals said they were also impressed by the initiative and commitment shown by the students.

Asked whether there was a limit to how many refugees Norway can or should accept, King Harald said there probably was, “but I hope it’s a long time before we reach it.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund