Russia willing to take back refugees

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Russia’s consul general in Kirkenes says his country is willing to take back refugees who have no grounds for seeking asylum or settling in Norway. His comments came as Norway’s government proposed swift changes in Norwegian immigration law to crack down on illegal entry and better handle the current refugee influx.

Norway shares a border with Russia in the far north, and is concerned that relations are getting more difficult because of increasingly authoritarian policies during Russian President Vladimir Putin's second term. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Norway shares a border with Russia in the far north, with restricted areas on both sides of it. Russian authorities have allowed hundreds of asylum seekers to enter the restricted area every day lately, leading to a huge influx of would-be immigrants into Norway. But now Norway is tightening entry rules expects Russia to receive the would-be refugees in return.  PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Sergey Shatunovskiy-Byurno, Russia’s top diplomat in the area of Northern Norway that’s seeing the largest numbers of asylum seekers crossing the border, told Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Friday that Russia acknowledges Norway’s right to return immigrants who don’t qualify for residence permission in Norway.

“The Norwegian authorities are correct when they view this (returns of “third country” citizens) as necessary,” Shatunovskiy-Byurno wrote in an email to DN. Border police in Norway plan to return around 50 asylum seekers a day who don’t qualify for asylum in Norway.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg said earlier this week that she expected Russia to honor its agreement with Norway regarding immigrant returns. On Friday, she and Justice Minister Anders Anundsen presented, as expected, several changes to Norway’s immigration law that will allow for far quicker returns than at present.

Solberg’s Conservative Party and Anundsen’s Progress Party, which form Norway’s minority government coalition, have presented a 15-point plan for tightening asylum and immigration law. The top priority is return of asylum seekers crossing over the northern border between Russia and Norway who already had legal residence in Russia. So great has the influx of asylum seekers been in recent months that calls went out to close the border, and government officials fear a humanitarian crisis in the area as winter sets in.

Priority on quick return of those not needing protection
Solberg’s government also wants to put a priority on the quick return of asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected. The proposed change in the law would allow Norway to give only cursory evaluation of the applications, with short appeal periods and return within 48 hours. Warnings have already gone out that asylum seekers who may have been expelled from Russia risk being sent back to their home country. That would affect many of the asylum seekers coming over the border from Russia who are originally from Afghanistan. They risk being sent back to Kabul, and Norway is pressuring Afghan authorities to take them back. Some refugees have already been leaving Norway voluntarily and returning to Russia, viewing that as a better option than their homelands.

The proposed law changes will also give expanded authority to immigration officials to refuse to handle asylum applications in cases where the applicant already has residence in a country deemed safe, such as Russia. “But our overall position is that the Russian authorities shouldn’t let people approach the Norwegian border if they don’t hold a Schengen visa (allowing them access to the Schengen area of Europe that allows free movement across borders),” Solberg said on Friday.

The Norwegian government has also proposed several other measures to make it less attractive for refugees to seek asylum in Norway. They include cuts in asylum benefits (food coupons, for example, instead of cash), granting only temporary residence to refugees granted asylum, reevaluation of the need for protection when the temporary residence expires, stricter rules for family reunification and longer waiting times to qualify for citizenship.

Broad support
The stricter rules appear to have broad support in Parliament, with the opposition Labour Party also introducing its own measures as part of the compromise sought on tougher immigration laws. Labour also wants to make it easier to return rejected refugees much more quickly than at present, to cut costs of accommodating refugees by reducing accommodation standards, boosting border police forces and even transferring bureaucrats from other state departments to help immigration agency UDI handle the workload that’s soared in line with the thousands of refugees arriving in Norway.

Intense negotiations continued among the political parties represented in Parliament but a settlement was expected. There’s also broad support among Norwegians in general to tighten immigration and asylum rules as well, according to new public opinion polls. While many Norwegians still welcome refugees from Syria and other areas of armed conflict who need protection, 65 percent of voters want stricter rules for entry and only 14 percent want more liberal asylum rules.

Norway’s Progress Party, meanwhile, is riding a wave of new voter support on the refugee crisis. The Progress Party has always been Norway’s most immigrant-skeptical party and now its support has jumped from just 9.5 in the last local elections in September to 18.7 percent in the latest poll conducted for newspaper Aftenposten. Berglund