Norway’s Justice Ministry has dramatically cut the numbers of refugees expected to arrive in the country this year, down to “most probably” 25,000 from as many as 60,000 predicted earlier. Frode Forfang, director of immigration agency UDI, has expressed uncertainty, though, since the numbers hinge on asylum policy and the degree of border controls both around Norway and Europe’s Schengen area.
Stricter border controls and the EU’s agreement with Turkey last week regarding refugee returns and subsequent resettlement are behind the ministry’s lower estimates of asylum seekers coming to Norway. News bureau NTB reported that the new numbers were issued in connection with preparation of the revised state budget that the government will present in May.
When the state budget for 2016 was presented last fall, the government predicted anywhere from 10,000 to 60,000 asylum seekers could arrive in Norway this year, with 33,000 viewed as the “most probable.” Now that’s been adjusted downwards to “between 5,000 and 50,000,” with the “most probable” level set at 25,000.
Norway’s conservative government based the numbers on another “probability,” in its opinion, that recent border controls imposed around Europe (and Norway) to prevent refugees from arriving will remain in place. The government just last week decided to keep Norway’s own stricter controls in place for at least another month.
Arrivals decline likely
Forfang agrees the numbers of refugee arrivals are likely to decline from the record influx of last year. He continues to warn of uncertainty, though, because the EU-Turkey agreement may lead to “demands and expectations” that border controls within the EU’s Schengen area be removed. He told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that while the asylum stream to the EU may decline, it could increase to Norway, which is not a member of the EU. He said Norway must still be prepared for “major swings” in the numbers of refugee arrivals over time.
Forfang, on earlier occasions, has also issued calls for a thorough re-evaluation of asylum procedures that haven’t been able to handle the current migration crisis. He has urged replacing the current practice of refugees making their way to countries to seek asylum with a comprehensive quota system that would spread the burden more fairly among all countries in Europe, for example.
While that proposal won support within various political parties, Forfang has stirred controversy over his predictions about border control and his concerns that Norway’s proposed tightening of asylum policy can instead set off another refugee wave. He has noted, for example, that 80 percent of the roughly 35,000 asylum seekers who arrived in Norway last year were men. Tougher rules that could prevent their families from joining them could set off another wave of illegal migration, he fears.
Progress Party provoked
Forfang’s views on the refugee issues haven’t entirely sat well with the immigration spokesman for the generally anti-immigration Progress Party, which is a member of Norway’s conservative government coalition. It objects to Forfang’s warnings about its justice ministry’s numbers. “The UDI director should concentrate on his job here in Norway, instead of posing as a foreign policy commentator,” the Progress Party’s Mazyar Keshvari, who’s the product of an immigrant family himself, told newspaper Klassekampen.
Keshvari himself has demanded that stricter border controls must remain in place, no matter what the EU does. He didn’t object to Forfang’s proposal to revamp asylum procedures, but he does object to Forfang’s professional views on border controls, apparently because they contradict the government’s.
DN commentator Eva Grinde lashed back at Keshvari on Tuesday, lauding Forfang for being facts-oriented and suggesting means of replacing chaos with order in a “sober” manner. “Forfang is a pure pragmatist and a facts-oriented person who knows as few others what he’s talking about,” Grinde wrote. She scolded Keshvari for trying to muzzle Forfang’s professional opinion.
More facts on the actual refugee influx from Forfang’s UDI have also emerged. During the first three weeks of March, UDI registered only 230 arrivals of asylum seekers, a fraction of the numbers that were arriving late last year. Only 37 were from Syria, the country from which most asylum seekers are granted at least temporary rights to remain in Norway. The largest number of asylum seekers came from Afghanistan, with 40 arriving so far this month.
UDI has also stopped returning asylum seekers to Russia, after receiving “new information” that Russian authorities had forcibly returned some asylum seekers back to Syria. “Only Syrians with ties to Russia will be returned now,” Vesna Curk, division director at UDI, told NTB. “The others will have their cases evaluated in Norway.”