‘Power play’ linked to refugee drama

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The ongoing drama in Norway’s northernmost region, over suspended expulsions of unsuccessful asylum seekers from Russia, has been linked to an alleged Russian power play. Two Oslo researchers suggest Russia is using Norway to expose Europe’s failure to control the refugee influx from the Middle East and Africa.

The claims come after Russia forced Norway to halt the return of people who failed to qualify for asylum in Norway. Russian authorities told Foreign Minister Børge Brende just before the weekend that his Russian counterparts refused to accept more refugee returns over the two countries’ shared border east of Kirkenes. Brende said the Russians cited security concerns as the reason for the suspension of refugee returns.

Russia ‘making things difficult’
“Russia is trying to make it difficult for Norway, and is using the situation at the border as part of a power play,” Professor Pavel K Baev of the Oslo-based peace research institute PRIO told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). Baev, who comes from Moscow, has long been considered an expert on Russia’s relations with Europe and NATO, of which Norway is a member.

“The Russians are citing security and small technical problems (with receiving refugees), but we have to look at this in a greater context,” Baev told DN. “This is about a confrontation between Russia and the West.”

Edward Lucas of the Center for European Policy Analysis claimed Russia was also using the refugees in making a “cynical move” to put pressure on Norway and Finland. “They (the Russians) want to give the impression that ‘it’s best if you’re nice to Russia, if not, we can be mean towards you,'” Lucas told DN.

Only a few granted asylum in Norway
More than 5,000 asylum seekers crossed the border from Russia last fall, and now Norway is trying to send the vast majority back to Russia, claiming Russia is a safe haven and that many of those seeking asylum had residence permission in Russia. Norway has toughened its stance recently, with immigration agency UDI (Utlendingsdirektoratet) reporting that 1,200 cases had been reviewed. Of them, only 63 people crossing from Russia had been granted asylum.

Russia’s embassy in Oslo wouldn’t initially comment on the criticism published in DN this week. Foreign Minister Brende downplayed it, claiming he did not view Russia’s refusal to accept more returns as dramatic. “We can handle this, he told DN. “This is about the return of a few hundred asylum seekers. The dramatic situation was last autumn, when thousands of asylum seekers came from Russia to Norway.”

Brende repeated claims that Norway and Russia agree on returns of asylum seekers with legal residence permission in Russia, and on who hold so-called “multi-visas” allowing them repeat entry to the country.

Brende said Russian and Norwegian authorities would be discussing the issue at meetings in Moscow this week. “The dialogue will occur through our embassy in Moscow,” Brende said. “One alternative is that asylum seekers can be flown back to Russia, for example to Moscow.”

Lucas isn’t convinced. “I feel very sorry for all the people affected by this,” he told DN, “but the definition of a state is a state that controls its borders.” Russia, he suggested, is putting that to the test in Northern Norway.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund