Fears of confrontration with police were running high in the Norwegian Arctic this week, as was politicking in the Parliament at the other end of the country in Oslo, but in the end, more than a dozen rejected refugees were sent back over the border to Russia. The government’s increasingly hard line on asylum criteria won support from the opposition Labour and Center parties, while their former partner, the Socialist Left (SV), made its opposition known.
The pending expulsions had set off widespread fear among asylum seekers in Norway, not least those picked up at asylum centers around the country and sent back to Sør-Varanger, the community in the far northern county of Finnmark closest to the Russian border. Some asylum seekers launched hungers strikes in protest, while others fled the centers and went into hiding, apparently more willing to risk life on the run in Norway than an uncertain fate back in Russia.
Meanwhile, some local residents of Vadsø and other communities in Finnmark rallied to the refugees’ support and protested the expulsions. Late Tuesday, however, under cover of darkness and with reporters and photographers kept at a distance, 13 young men boarded a bus that was to take them to Nikel and Murmansk.
“I have told them my life is in danger in Moscow, but they showed no mercy,” one young man from Pakistan, Shahid Mohtar, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He went along with boarding the bus, though, as did 12 others, after Norwegian authorities determined they had no need for protection in Norway.
An NRK reporter who followed the bus said those expelled from Norway were driven to Murmansk, where most were let off at the airport with plans to fly back to Moscow, where some had friends who could house them and help them find work.
Unrelenting government minister
Sylvi Listhaug, the government minister recently put in charge of asylum and immigration issues, was summoned to Parliament Tuesday evening to explain her insistence that the rejected asylum seekers be deported immediately. Audun Lysbakke, head of the Socialist Left party (SV), was highly critical and claimed some of the refugees may face persecution in Russia, or even torture and death if sent back to their homelands. He pointed to recent criticism from the UN as well, and questions raised over whether Norwegian authorities are violating the asylum seekers’ human rights.
Listhaug was firm in her response, pointing to broad support in Parliament late last month for stricter immigration and asylum policies that the government claimed was needed to gain control over the influx of refugees. “Carrying out a strict and fair immigration policy means that we must return those who have no claim to protection,” she said in her address to Parliament. Listhaug, Prime Minister Erna Solberg and the rest of the government view Russia as a safe haven, even though UN officials claim it has no functioning asylum system. If people have residence permission in Russia, the Norwegian ministers reason, they have no need to seek asylum in Norway.
Listhaug, from the conservative Progress Party, said she was not surprised so many asylum seekers had arrived in Norway because “we have one of the best countries to live in. That doesn’t we cannot or should not go through with these returns.”
Support from the opposition
She met no opposition from Labour or the Center party, which stressed that they supported the government’s controversial new asylum policies as long as they are carried out in accordance with international obligations.
“The minister has ensured us that this practice is within the rule of law,” Helga Pedersen, Labour’s top politician in charge of immigration policy, told newspaper Dagsavisen. The Center Party claimed there was a need to tighten Norway’s rules and borders, especially to Russia, and that the government is responsible for doing that. More returns like those on Tuesday are expected.
Norway has, in the meantime, extended its heightened border controls until February 14. All ferries arriving from Denmark, Sweden and Germany are subject to thorough checks of passengers on board, and their travel documents, while main border crossings are under heightened scrutiny as are buses, trucks, trains and airports.
Color Line, one of the largest ferry lines, has complained about the strict controls but Justice Minister Anders Anundsen defended them as having a “good preventative effect. There is reason to believe many people will not try to travel to Norway, because of the control of our inner borders.”