While Norwegian politicians joined international outrage over the US’ incarceration of illegal immigrant children this week, they were faced with controversy of their own over the custody and forced returns of young rejected refugees from Afghanistan. Reaction has been fast and furious to the Norwegian government’s attempts to send the mostly male teenagers to a planned reception center in Kabul.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported this week that both Norway and Denmark are working jointly to set up what their government officials call an omsorgs-senter (care center) but what others view as the equivalent of a holding tank for young refugees whose applications for asylum were rejected. The center in Kabul would be the first of its kind in the war-torn country.
Norway’s own former UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide, meanwhile, claims that security in Kabul hasn’t been as bad as it is now for 17 years, while other child welfare experts contend that Afghanistan has no experience in running child welfare or protection centers. Deadly terrorist attacks continue to occur regularly in Kabul and Eide, who now is the chairman of the Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers (NOAS), notes that the more frequent attacks also hit the civilian population hard.
Government keen to deport
Norway remains, however, one of only two countries in Europe that still deports young rejected refugees back to Afghanistan, over the protests of various organizations and authorities both in Norway and abroad. Many have viewed the practice, championed by former Immigration Minister Sylvi Listhaug of the Progress Party, as immoral and inhumane but it has continued under the current conservative government coalition. Parliament granted some a reprieve late last year, but it also emerged that many young Afghan refugees facing deportation run away from the Norwegian asylum centers where they’d been housed before they can be forced onto a jet back to Kabul. Some have made their way to France, prompting a French humanitarian organization to accuse Norway just last year of indirectly sending its young asylum seekers from Afghanistan to France.
Now the coalition’s new justice minister who’s also in charge of immigration, Tor Mikkel Wara, is looking for a new means of returning young Afghans. “Yes, we want to establish a center both for local youth and for youth who are returned from Norway and Denmark,” Wara, who like Listhaug represents the anti-immigration Progress Party, told Aftenposten. “We don’t want youth to flee Afghanistan by setting off on a long and dangerous trip to Europe, a trip during which they risk both assaults and their lives. That’s why it’s important to contribute towards getting a real alternative for local youth in Afghanistan.”
Wara also confirmed that the center, which may be built with contributions from Norway’s foreign aid funding to Afghanistan, would allow the return of young refugee minors who arrived alone in Norway and have no parents or guardians iin Afghanistan. He also thinks the center, along with more examples of deportations from Norway, would reduce the motivation to flee Afghanistan. Establishment of such centers were also approved through a compromise between the government and Parliament last year, but they remain controversial.
‘Experimenting with children’s lives’
The head of Norway’s chapter of the humanitarian organization Save the Children (Redd Barna) adamantly opposes the entire project and has called on the government and Members of Parliament to stop it. Tove R Wang, secretary general of Redd Barna, went so far as to suggest that the project would amount to “experimenting with children’s lives.”
“The security situation in Kabul is worse than it has been for a long time,” Wang wrote in a letter to Wara, Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide and all leaders of the political parties represented in Parliament. “At the same time, we believe it’s an illusion to think that what Norwegian authorities call a ‘care center’ and we call a ‘return center’ can be operated responsibly in a war zone where there is no tradition for child welfare services or any such institutions.”
Not only is Afghanistan considered one of the world’s worst and most dangerous countries on earth for children, Wang claims, she pointed to a UN report for April last year that shows how 155 children were killed in armed conflicts in Afghanistan just during the first three months of 2017.
No deal yet
Norwegian and Danish authorities have so far failed to extract an agreement from Afghan authorities in Kabul, who reportedly have been reluctant to set up such a center. “We are in dialogue with Afghan authorities but we can’t say when a deal might be struck,” Wara told Aftenposten. Attempts to obtain comment from officials in Kabul were unsuccessful but Wara described the ongoing negotiations, which reportedly included a session earlier this month, as “good.”
Redd Barna fears the Norwegian government will use Norwegian foreign aid funds to pressure Afghan officials into agreeing to set up a center. “It’s not unnatural that Afghanistan, as a recipient of considerable sums of foreign aid from Norway (NOK 700 million a year at least until 2020) feels pressured,” Wang stated. Wara confirmed that some foreign aid funds might be tapped for education programs at the “care centers.”
More opposition was mounting this week, not least from the leader of the Christian Democrats party, Knut Arild Hareide. He claimed it was “indefensible” to send children to Kabul now and added that he hopes the Norwegian government “will re-evaluate the plan to try out a care center in Kabul.” He said such a center would be better tested in a “land that’s safe, and not in Afghanistan.”
Hareide’s opposition is significant because his small party provides the swing votes needed in Parliament to keep Norway’s minority government coalition in power. Even though the Christian Democrats went along with a compromise over how to carry out asylum cases that included establishment of “care centers” in rejected refugees’ home countries, Hareide strongly objects to the first one being set up in Kabul.
“It’s within the government’s rights to enter into agreements with other countries if they want to, but given the situation in Afghanistan and Kabul now, I believe it’s irresponsible to send minors back there,” Hareide said. Wara contends he’s merely carrying out terms of the political compromise in Parliament, but it may not be politically wise for him to alienate or anger the Christian Democrats.
Other politicians in opposition in Parliament were also strongly objecting to the centers. MP Karin Andersen of the Socialist Left party (SV), for example, called it “frightening policy” to “set up a children’s home in a war zone.”