Norway’s immigration agency UDI (Utlendingsdirektoratet) is bracing for another influx of asylum seekers over its northern border to Russia. Officials won’t specify why, but want to maintain preparedness at asylum centers and camps around Kirkenes.
UDI officials confirmed to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Wednesday that they “want to uphold solutions (for receiving refugees) in Finnmark also after January.” Vibeke Schjem, a spokesperson for UDI, wrote in an email to NRK that there was a perceived need “to be able to handle arrivals of asylum seekers over the border.”
Schjem wrote that UDI would need to come back with more information later on how the preparedness effort would be carried out, but that was “exactly what we’re working with now.” UDI had no further comment.
‘Important’ to be prepared’
NRK noted that an agreement between UDI and the private asylum center operator Hero, regarding the operation of a reception center for asylum seekers in Finnmark, expired on November 15. The center hasn’t accommodated any asylum seekers since June 26, confirmed its leader, Kent Richard Witzøe, but Hero is maintaining a skeleton crew to keep it ready if needed.
“We’ve come close (to getting more asylum seekers) a few times this fall, but they’ve been turned around at the Norwegian-Russian border,” Witzøe told NRK. He added, though, that it was “important that UDI and the Norwegian state is prepared if more arrive. That way we can open the center on short notice.”
Asked whether another wave of refugees may arrive over the border at Storskog, Witzøe said he could’t say. A total of 5,445 arrived from Russia and sought asylum in Norway last year, with around 200 arriving every day at one point.
The influx ended almost overnight after Norway imposed tougher regulations regarding who was allowed to cross the border into Norway, and that border patrol officers could evaluate asylum seekers’ papers before they actually left Russian territory. There was also political pressure on Russian authorities, who were believed to have made it easier for would-be refugee to gain access to the border crossing.
Norwegian officials have admitted they were unprepared for the refugee influx that brought an estimated 31,000 asylum seekers to Norway. Many have since been accommodated or returned, while agreements between the EU and Turkey and border restrictions within Europe made it more difficult for asylum seekers to reach Norway on their own.
Many remain in Russia, where they used the so-called “Arctic Route” via Murmansk and then rode bicycles over the border since there are prohibitions against crossing it on foot. Norwegian government officials have since tried to remain braced for various scenarios involving refugees, and be better prepared.