Norway’s controversial expulsions of rejected refugees who arrived via Russia were halted by Russian authorities over the weekend, but Norwegian government officials are keen to start them up again. They’re also reportedly laying the groundwork to send unsuccessful asylum seekers back to some of the world’s most dangerous places, in Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Libya, over the objections of the Red Cross.
“We have an agreement with Russia, and it’s important that we still have a good cooperation,” Sylvi Listhaug, Norway’s tough new government minister in charge of asylum and immigration policy, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Sunday. “We are ready to resume returns as soon as the Russian authorities allow it.”
NRK reported Saturday evening that Foreign Minister Børge Brende had been informed by Russian authorities late Friday that they wouldn’t take in more refugees returned over the Norwegian-Russian border at Storskog, east of Kirkenes in Norway’s northernmost county of Finnmark. Norwegian authorities had been rounding up scores of asylum seekers, mostly young single men who had arrived from Russia, and sending them back to Kirkenes pending deportation to Nikel or Murmansk.
A total of 13 were sent by bus to Murmansk last week and around 50 remained at an asylum center in Kirkenes over the weekend, destined to be sent back over the border as well. The human drama rose when some asylum seekers, including a Syrian family with children, went on a hunger strike or tried to flee and eventually were placed under arrest.
There were no further deportations on Thursday, Friday or Saturday despite Norwegian authorities’ claims they were imminent, which in turn set off protests from local officials and residents who support the refugees, and even some politicians in Oslo who were following the drama with increasing concern. The Norwegians claimed the Russians had technical problems in accepting the refugees, but the problem turned out to be more serious, and of a political nature.
“Russia wants talks with Norway over coordination of the returns,” Foreign Minister Brende, from the Conservative Party, told NRK in Davos, Switzerland, where he’s attending the World Economic Forum. “We understand that. We will begin these talks this week. Until then, the returns over Storskog (Kirkenes) have been halted.”
It’s a setback for Norway’s conservative government coalition and Listhaug, who has been actively trying to expel refugees not viewed as having legitimate need for protection. They include people with residence permission in Russia, which Norwegian authorities consider to be a safe haven already. Others disagree, saying the refugees receive little if any support in Russia, are subject to being forced into paying bribes or deportation back to their homelands.
Brende said the Russians had some security concerns regarding returns over the border in the far north, where there is little if any support apparatus for the refugees and temperatures are bitterly cold. Brende said the Russians initially halted the returns because of a lack of personnel to control them on the Russian side of the border. “That was the reason we were given until we were contacted (by the Russian foreign ministry) last night (Friday),” Brende told NRK. “Then they asked for talks to coordinate the returns.
“I think that’s fine,” he continued. “It’s important for Norway that we don’t get a situation like we had last fall, when thousands of asylum seekers came over the border from Russia.”
Brende denied he was putting a positive spin on the Russians’ decision to halt returns. “No, to the contrary,” Brende said. “The (Norwegian) government has an understanding with our neighbour to the east that we had to bring an end to the situation where thousands of asylum seekers were coming without claim to protection in Norway.”
‘Arctic route’ of return
Around 5,500 refugees have entered Norway via the so-called “Arctic Route,” and now Brende said at least 400 are due to be returned soon. He said the Norwegian authorities are now considering putting the refugees on chartered flights directly to Moscow instead of returning them over the border at Storskog.
He admitted there is no agreement with Russia over return of those who only had a one-time visa into Russia and used the country as a transit land to get to Norway. “What we do agree on, and plan to return, are those with multi-visas and those who have valid residence permission in Russia,” Brende said.
More returns planned, to more dangerous areas
Meanwhile, newspaper Aftenposten reported over the weekend that the government is also considering returning refugees to wide areas of Afghanistan that immigration agency UDI considers to be safe, to the Tripoli metropolitan area in Libya and to most areas of Iraq. The Norwegian government is also studying establishment of a care center for underage asylum seekers in Eritrea.
Such plans have already sparked protests from, among others, the Norwegian Red Cross, which definitely does not consider Libya, for example, to be safe. “Everything is worse there,” Svein Mollekleiv, president of the Norwegian Red Cross, told Aftenposten. “Those who sit in the center of Oslo and say that it’s safe in Libya should take a trip out in reality and see what they’re talking about.”
Norway’s own foreign ministry has warned Norwegian citizens against traveling to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, raising questions about why it would be safe for refugees. “It’s easy to criticize other countries for violating international conventions and human rights,” Mollekleiv said, “but Norway carries a considerable responsibility itself if it sends people to unsafe areas. I will strongly challenge the government and Parliament to make sure that Norway itself is following international conventions.”