Hundreds of refugees, mostly from Syria, have made their way through Europe after hazardous travel and are now overwhelming police in Oslo who are in charge of processing asylum applications. Local restaurant owners and neighbours of the police station at Tøyen have spontaneously started offering the refugees food and clothing, while the Norwegian government now plans to direct more than NOK 50 million to help Greece tackle the wave of desperate people reaching its shores first.
“I, along with the entire Norwegian population, have been deeply affected by the photos of the streams of refugees that we’ve seen in recent days,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg told newspaper Aftenposten on Thursday. Her chief of staff, Vidar Helgesen, was in Greece earlier this month and saw first-hand how hundreds of desperate people were arriving in inflatable boats on islands like Lesvos every day, and winding up living in squalid conditions in a country that itself is suffering through a debt crisis and sky-high unemployment rates. Since Helgesen’s visit, when more aid was promised, the situation has only become worse.
Solberg, currently meeting with all her government’s ministers to hash out next year’s state budget, said Norway will grant a request from the UN for another NOK 6 million in humanitarian aid to help the refugees. Norway will also redirect EUR 5 million (NOK 47 million) in aid to the EU to help Greece meet the immediate needs of the refugees flooding into the country before they continue traveling north to other European destinations, often Germany and Sweden, and Norway as well.
The ever-growing humanitarian crisis that’s resulting from the millions of people forced from their homes in Syria, Iraq and other troubled areas in the Middle East and Africa has also prompted scores of ordinary Norwegians to try to help. On Wednesday evening, the owners of several popular restaurants in Oslo were preparing vegetarian pasta meals and handing them out for free to refugees milling around outside the police’s asylum office at Tøyen.
“We figure we’ve served around 100 people today,” Jan Vardøen, who has founded some of Oslo’s most restaurants like Nighthawks Diner and Villa Paradiso, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He and several colleagues have been serving dinner to hungry refugees who’ve arrived in Oslo with little more than the clothes on their back since Monday night.
‘Need and desire to help’
Vardøen has spearheaded the effort, picking up the food prepared by top chefs who want to contribute. “I think it’s very important that they (the refugees) are met with sympathy and warmth,” Vardøen said, “that those arriving don’t just disappear into the system. They’ve had a long and tough journey.”
Vardøen and Nevzat Arikan, the man behind other top Oslo restaurants including the Michelin-starred Ylajali, said they plan to continue offering good food to hungry refugees. Meanwhile, local neighbours are organizing donations of clothing, shoes and other items needed by the refugees. “We’ve had incredible response,” said one of the initiators, Line Baugstø. “There’s clearly a need and a desire out there to help.”
Abeer Ganom said she’d arrived in Norway from Syria the day before as she ate the pasta offered by Vardøen. “I’m pregnant and it’s been a long trip,” she said. “I’m very glad they’ve made food for us here. They’re saving us.” Kadi Diallo, who arrived from Guinea, said that “people are very kind to us here.”
Still only short-term solutions
As debate continues to fly over how Norway should respond to the refugee crisis, police were struggling to accommodate all the refugees turning up who’ve been sleeping on the floor of the police asylum office’s waiting room. The registration process is being speeded up so that the refugees can more quickly be moved to the Refstad asylum center at Sinsen in Oslo, which is also feeling the strain.
Prime Minister Solberg said her government realizes Greece is incapable of taking in all the refugees arriving and said those making their way to Norway will not be returned to Greece, even though that was their port of entry. The so-called “Dublin Agreeement” calls for refugees to have their asylum applications handled at their first port of entry, but that’s being watered down in the current crisis and Germany announced this week that it won’t return refugees to Greece either.
Solberg said that Europe has a responsibility to protect the refugees and that Norway wants to do its share, even though it’s not a member of the EU. Solberg said the Norwegian government continued to search for more long-term measures to tackle the crisis but would in the meantime respond with short-term solutions in an emergency situation.