Frode Forfang is the first to admit that the sudden influx of refugees arriving in Norway caught both him and the state immigration agency he heads by surprise. He’s heartened, however, by an equally sudden shift in public attitudes towards refugees and a heightened willingness among Norwegians to take them in. That’s making his daunting job to accommodate, process and settle the refugees at least a bit easier.
“We were not prepared, we did not expect it,” Forfang admitted at a meeting with foreign correspondents in Oslo Tuesday morning. “I don’t think other countries in Europe did either.” He was referring to the thousands of refugees, now mostly from Syria, who started arriving in May and look likely to set a new record for asylum applications filed in Norway this year. A total of 2,313 arrived in August alone, and more are expected this month. Forfang, director general of Norway’s immigration agency UDI (Utlendingsdirektoratet), is now expecting as many as 20,000 refugees in Norway by the end of the year, far more than all the Bosnians who were granted refuge in 1993 and more than the roughly 17,000 refugees who arrived in 2009.
“But the positive thing is that the public mood has changed quite a lot,” Forfang said. Immigration and asylum issues have always been controversial in Norway, and Forfang candidly conceded that “no one wanted a refugee reception center” in their neighbourhoods earlier. “That has changed completely,” he added. “Now we’re being met with goodwill. People and the authorities want to be seen as welcoming. This is a change that will actually help.”
It’s also widely believed to have cost Norway’s conservative Progress Party the local elections that were held on Monday. The party has a long tradition of being skeptical towards immigration and accepting refugees, but it was trounced along with its minority government coalition partner, the Conservatives. One Progress Party mayor in Nordland County who’s now out of a job put the blame squarely on several of the party’s top politicians including Carl I Hagen, who continued to question the need to take in refugees. “Many voters just couldn’t go along with the things being said,” the ousted mayor, Kjell-Børge Freiberg of Hadsel, told state broadcaster NRK on Tuesday. The Progress Party is now seen as being out of touch with public sentiment and its attempt to appeal to a fear of foreigners didn’t work.
Preparing to meet demand
Forfang wouldn’t speculate on whether UDI will now have an easier time settling refugees in communities around Norway, after more liberal parties like Labour and the Greens swept the elections. He did say, though, that he and his colleagues are now actively preparing for an ongoing influx of refugees that may be much higher than the numbers arriving now, and that he expects the authorities to meet demand.
UDI is now “preparing for different scenarios,” he said, referring to the uncertainty created by border closings in Europe and negotiations going on among EU leaders over how all the nations involved can share the burden. UDI is leasing a number of places to shelter refugees on both a short-term and long-term basis. It’s creating new reception centers and transit capacity in Oslo, aided by private operators. “We have good experience in using the private sector to help house refugees,” Forfang said, noting that leasing facilities gives UDI the most flexibility, allowing the agency to shut down asylum centers when or if they’re no longer needed.
He said that around 80 percent of the refugees now arriving in Norway are from Syria and almost all of them get their asylum applications approved because they can demonstrate a real need for protection. In addition to the 20,000 who may arrive this year, more than 5,000 other refugees who arrived earlier and won asylum in Norway are still living in asylum centers, awaiting resettlement. These refugees come in addition to the 8,000 refugees that Norway’s Parliament also has agreed to take in through the United Nations. This means as many as 33,000 refugees may need new homes in Norway over the next few years, plus all the others likely to arrive later.
Sees little risk
Forfang confirmed that the state pays around 90 percent of the costs associated with resettling refugees, yet local governments have still balked at agreeing to take them in. That may change, given the shift in public sentiment. Some Norwegians are even offering beds in their own homes, and registering with authorities that they’re willing to accommodate refugees should the need arise. “There are some practical challenges with that,” Forfang conceded. “We can’t deal with hundreds of landlords all over the country.” But he welcomes the outpouring of grass roots assistance.
He said he has no serious concerns about the people now turning up in Norway, noting that all are subject to both health and security checks. “We cooperate with the police and with the security police (PST),” he said. “We have no indication that those coming to Norway represent risk. They are being screened, but I think others living here who’ve become radicalized pose a greater risk than the refugees.”
Forfang said it would be “simply impossible” to close Norway’s thousands of kilometers of borders to the refugee wave. He is also expecting more to arrive over the border Norway shares with Russia in the far north, where around 300 so far have crossed into Norway to seek asylum. Most, he said, are coming from areas of Syria still controlled by the Syrian government and have taken a flight to Moscow, traveled on to Murmansk and then into Norway. Instead of bringing those refugees south to Oslo for processing, Forfang said UDI decided last week to transfer staff up to the northern city of Kirkenes, close to the Russian border, where police will also carry out the registration procedures as well. Plans call for refugees to also be accommodated in a reception center in Northern Norway until they can be resettled.