Norway, known as a leading maritime nation, is facing rising calls to offer more help in tackling the thousands of boat refugees who try to cross the Mediterranean to start new lives in Europe. The Norwegian government, however, declined to send the frigate Fridtjof Nansen to the area.
Norway’s merchant marine has often helped pick up refugees found stranded at sea in the waters off North Africa and Syria. Just this week, the Norwegian vessel Normand Corona saved 95 refugees off the Italian coast who had tried to sail over the Mediterranean in a rickety boat.
“We heard about the boat refugees from the coast guard and delivered them to a ship that the coast guard was using,” Sven Stakkestad of Solstad Offshore, which owns the Normand Corona, told Norwegian west coast newspaper Karmøynytt. “Everything went well and there was no major drama.”
Government slow to respond
There has, however, been plenty of other drama on the seas off southern Europe, with nearly 400 people declared missing after a refugee ship capsized off Libya on Tuesday. Officials fear the death toll just since New Year will rise to nearly a thousand.
Italy’s government asked Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg last June to help the country handle the waves of boat refugees. More are now coming from Libya and officials worry that the sheer numbers of refugees will increase in coming months as the weather gets better and the seas become calmer.
Solberg, from the Conservative Party, told news bureau NTB at the time that “more countries must help,” but Norway is facing criticism for the government’s failure to follow up. “There’s no time to lose now,” Jan Egeland, secretary general of the refugee aid organization Flyktninghjelpen, told newspaper Aftenposten this week. “It’s now, in April, that the season really begins, and a Norwegian ship should be in place.”
Shipowners also call for help
The Norwegian Shipowners’ Association has also called for help from the government, preferably with the contribution of a military vessel, claiming that merchant shipping companies can’t bear the burden of refugee assistance. Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide from the Conservatives, however, recently declined to send the frigate Fridtjof Nansen to the Mediterranean, suggesting that Norway’s limited number of naval ships were now needed closer to home given new tensions in the Arctic and Baltic.
Justice Department officials, who normally are in charge of asylum nad refugee issues, wouldn’t say when Norway may send assistance or what form it might take. “The government is constantly evaluating the resources and capacity Norway can provide for the difficult situation in the Mediterranean,” State Secretary Jøran Kallmyr of the Progress Party wrote in an email to Aftenposten. He declined to go into more detail.
More than 220,000 refugees attempted the hazardous trip over the Mediterranean last year, three times the number the year before. Egeland called the existing rescue efforts a “scandal,” with Italy bearing far too much of the burden. “We recommended sending the frigate Fridtjof Nansen, but the government claimed it was the wrong type of ship,” Egeland told Aftenposten. “They should have said what type is needed and when it can be sent.”