Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende has struck back at critics who claim Norway has been too slow to respond to the boat refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. His remarks came as the government announced plans to boost its aid this week.
“If you look at what Europe has done, Norway hasn’t done any less,” Brende told news bureau NTB during a busy day in Rome on Tuesday where he met with Italy’s foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, and officials at the Vatican. Italy has been bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis but now both the EU and other countries are coming forward with more promises of assistance.
“It’s not as if Norway alone can take responsibility for what’s happening in the Mediterranean,” Brende said after experiencing several days of heightened criticism from humanitarian organizations, opposition politicians and the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association that Norway wasn’t offering enough aid.
“When it comes to humanitarian aid, we’ve been among the leaders,” Brende said. “But we can offer more, we will be generous.”
As if to prove his point, Brende announced that the Norwegian government will provide another NOK 50 million (USD 6 million) for refugee aid and also will provide a merchant marine vessel suitable for joining rescue efforts when boat refugees are found in distress at sea. Prime Minister Erna Solberg had announced earlier that the vessel will be sent around August 1, but after protests that was too far off in the future, the government stressed it can be sent sooner.
“We’re sending a ship (in August) because that’s what the EU and Italian authorities have asked for,” Solberg told state broadcaster NRK. “We will be part of a system, an operation that’s ongoing and that we’re not running. We are prepared to take part earlier if asked to do so, and to offer more help.” She said Norway needed to wait for the outcome of crisis meetings going on at the EU, in which Norway is not involved because it’s not a member of the EU.
Opposition politicians and even one of the government’s own support parties, the Christian Democrats, continued to complain that Solberg’s government has taken far too much time to offer concrete assistance. She was first asked for help by Italy’s prime minister last summer.
“This has taken a very long time,” Anniken Huitfeldt, a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party, told newspaper Dagsavisen. Referring to the drownings of hundreds of refugees so far this week, Huitfeldt added: “We’re glad the government is acting now, but it’s sad that so much tragedy had to occur first.”
“This is scandalous, that it took a year with warnings from politicians and organizations,” claimed Bård Vegar Solhjell of the Socialist Left (SV). Knut Arild Hareide, leader of the Christian Democrats, understood some of the government’s explanations for the delay but was also unhappy that it took many months to offer concrete assistance.
The aid now coming from Norway and other countries will take several forms, including the contribution of rescue vessels, trained crews to help those rescued, more aid to and establishment of refugee camps, and efforts to crack down on human smugglers who offer transport in dangerous boats at a high price. Brende was confident the measures will help, adding that “instead of arguing over what should have been done half a year ago, I think we must move forward.”