The Norwegian Labour Party signaled on Thursday that there’s now a majority in Parliament for Norway to accept as many as 10,000 more refugees from Syria who can be transferred by the United Nations, so-called kvoteflyktninger. New Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre announced his support for more Syrian refugees during his first opening speech at the party’s annual national meeting in Oslo.
“We see a region where millions have had to flee,” Støre said during his lengthy speech that was interrupted often by applause from party members. “The world hasn’t seen anything worse since the Second World War. We shall take our share of responsibility to help.”
His remarks set off a storm of applause from the packed auditorium at Folkets Hus in Oslo and from other political parties in Parliament who think the government (both the current conservative coalition and the Labour-led coalition that itself held power until 2013) has been too restrictive with its asylum policies. Norway has contributed hundreds of millions of kroner to help refugees languishing in camps in Jordan and Lebanon, but has only allowed around 2,000 carefully chosen refugees into the country.
Both the Socialist Left party and the Liberals have already called for Norway to take in more Syrian refugees, with the Liberals also demanding at their own national party meeting last weekend that Norway accept 10,000 more by the end of 2016. The Liberals had challenged Labour to do the same and were frustrated by Støre’s earlier lack of clarity. He was crystal clear on Thursday, proposing that Norway take in 5,000 more Syrian refugees this year and 5,000 next year. The Christian Democrats and the Center Party have also been in favour of more liberal asylum policies, but haven’t yet set any numbers.
“Now there’s a majority in Parliament,” a relieved secretary general of the refugee aid organization Flyktninghjelpen, Jan Egeland, told state broadcaster NRK. Egeland is a former Labour Party politician and career diplomat who also had criticized Labour’s leaders for failing to show more compassion and awareness of the tragic consequences of the lengthy civil war in Syria.
“I’m overjoyed,” Egeland told NRK. He said it was a “day of celebration” that will have impact far beyond Norway’s borders. Trine Skei Grande, leader of the Liberals, was also thrilled, calling Labour’s announcement “an awakening to the catastrophe we’re seeing in the Middle East.”
Not everyone was pleased, with Mazyar Keshvari of the Progress Party, which holds government power with the Conservatives, calling Støre’s proposal “populistic.” He said it would be “irresponsible” to bring thousands of more Syrian refugees to Norway if local municipalities aren’t prepared to receive them. Støre himself has estimated that taking in 10,000 refugees will cost Norway around NOK 7 billion (USD 900 million).
“The terrible pictures from Syria affect us all and the Labour Party is no more humane than us,” Keshvari told NRK. “They have voted against taking in more refugees earlier.” He also worries that the new refugees will take resources away from those already in Norway, and warned of the “enormous economic and social consequences” for a small country like Norway to take in another 10,000 refugees.
Støre remained confident, claiming that Norway has the economic resources to offer shelter to more refugees and that integration efforts will have high priority. “All the humanitarian organizations are asking us to help,” he said, adding that it’s time to do so.