Local officials and scores of protesters in Finnmark County are appealing to Prime Minister Erna Solberg to stop or restrict the forced return to Russia of unsuccessful asylum seekers who’d earlier crossed the border into Norway. Opponents to the expulsions now underway are joined by growing numbers of human rights organizations and activists, as police were ordered Friday to round up and deport more rejected refugees. The returns were later postponed.
The human drama in Norway’s far north continues, as police seized desperate asylum seekers and others fled asylum centers. News bureau NTB reported late Friday morning that everyone brought to the Finnmark asylum center had been formally put under arrest. That means they either must be sent out of the country, brought in for a custody hearing or released within three days.
NTB reported that between 50 and 100 people were being held inside the asylum center on Friday. Police and patrol cars were posted outside the center to prevent any of the asylum seekers from leaving. Many were supposed to have been driven back to Russia both Thursday and Friday, but police in charge of such deportations (Politiets utlendingsenhet, PU) said they were postponed because of a lack of bus capacity or ability for Russian authorities to receive them.
Several rejected refugees launched hunger strikes and ran away from asylum centers in Vadsø and near Kirkenes earlier this week to avoid expulsion. Some have received help from local Norwegians objecting to the Norwegian government’s decision to send them out of the country and back to an uncertain future in Russia. Two men and one pregnant woman sought refuge inside Kirkenes Church.
Around 70 local residents rallied in support of the refugees on Wednesday, braving temperatures down to minus-20C and lower to protest what they view as harsh Norwegian govenment policies. Even the mayor of the Sør-Varanger region around Kirkenes, who recently escorted Prime Minister Solberg around the asylum center and introduced her to asylum seekers, voiced his objections.
“You don’t throw people out when it’s 40 degrees below zero,” Mayor Rune Rafaelsen of the Labour Party told NRK. “People are going into church asylum, they’re being arrested, they’re nervous and in despair, and the local population is reacting badly to this practice.” Rafaelsen called it “unworthy” of Norway to resort to such actions: “We have to stop up and both receive and expel people in a more orderly manner.” He claimed that the current practice was creating “unnecessary conflicts.”
Other members of his party, the largest in opposition, were reacting in Oslo as well after initially supporting the conservative coalition government’s stricter immigration policies. After an influx of 31,000 refugees, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, arrived in Norway last year, there was broad agreement in Parliament that steps needed to be taken to stem the flow. Now many politicians are having second thoughts.
“We stand by the measures taken in Parliament, but it was important they would be carried out within defined conditions,” Labour’s Helga Pedersen told newspaper Dagsavisen. “We should be assured that those being returned (to Russia) will be safe and not sent to another country. We are now uncertain whether the government is atually following up on that.”
Knut Arild Hareide, leader of the Christian Democrats party that support the government, was also voicing objections. He told NRK that he wants Syrian refugees who only passed through Russia on their way to Norway will get more than a cursory evaluation of their asylum applications. He worries that some of the refugees with papers indicating residence permission in Russia actually only have been in Russia a few days, and risk being sent back to the countries they fled if sent back to Russia.
The objections to the refugee returns are frustrating government officials trying to crack down on the refugee influx into Norway. “It would unwise to stop the returns,” Sylvi Listhaug, the new minster in charge of asylum and immigration from the Progress Party, told NTB. “If we begin to waver, the stream of refugees can start up again.”
Jøran Kallmyr, state secretary in the Justice Ministry, said that if the government stops the returns, it likely won’t meet a deadline of 180 days imposed by Russian authorities for return of rejected refugees. The time span runs from when a person left Russia to when Norwegian authorities aske that they be sent back. “We have to maintain a tempo for returns, if we’re to meet the deadlines on those who should be sent out of the country. Otherwise we risk them ultimately staying here, even if they don’t qualify for protection.”
Listhaug and other ministers from her party acknowledge they’re taking a hard line against asylum and immigration, but insist they are operating within the bounds of international conventions and the rule of law.
Organizations including the UN, the Norwegian Helskinki Committee, Human Rights Watch and UNICEF aren’t so sure. They contend refugees returned to Russia fisk “inhumane treatment” if taken into custody, persecution and, at best, an uncertain future with no jobs or means of support. Svetlana Gannusjkina, one of Russia’s foremost human rights activists who won the Andrei Sakarov Prize in in 2007, told newspaper Aftenposten that “the big question is what guarantees Norway has received from Russian authorities regarding how returned refugees will be treated.” She and others also note that rampant corruption in Russia means refugees are often forced to pay large sums to submit applications for asylum or get them approved.
One Syrian family who traveled through Russia to get to Norway won a reprieve. After two parents and their three small childre tried to flee and seek church asylum, immigration officials agreed to review their case. Their lawyer claims they only had passed through Russia and have no residence permission there, and thus qualify for protection in Norway.
Meanwhile, the drama continued up north. “Women are crying, children are frightened and many keep trying to run away,” Rami Haddad, a spokesman for refugees inside the asylum center told NTB. Representatives of the support group Refugees Welcome to the Arctic vowed to keep trying to help the asylum seekers, who expressed gratitude in return.