Another migrant drama in the Mediterranean finally ended on Friday, when Malta agreed to transfer 356 people rescued at sea by Norwegian ship Ocean Viking to vessels outside its territorial waters, and then take them ashore. Six other EU countries have agreed to take them in, but not Norway itself.
The drama has been embarrassing for Norway’s conservative and currently embattled government coalition. As a Norwegian-registered ship, the Norwegian government has been obligated to find a safe harbour for all on board, law professor Erik Røsæg told state broadcaster NRK this week.
The vessel has tried for weeks to dock either at Lampedusa in Italy or in Malta. Both countries contend they’ve taken in far more than their share of migrants and asylum seekers, though, and Italian authorities sent a letter to Norwegian authorities stressing Norway’s responsibility as a flag state.
Norwegian Justice Minister Jøran Kallmyr of the conservative and anti-immigration Progress Party has flatly refused any responsibility to take in the migrants on board the Norwegian ship. He has also claimed that the migrants on board Ocean Viking, mostly believed to have sailed in smugglers’ unsafe boats from Libya, must instead be returned “to safe African harbours.”
Support for government’s hard line cracked
The crew on board Ocean Viking, chartered by the humanitarian organizations Leger Uten Grenser (Médicins Sans Frontières, Doctors Without Borders) and SOS Mediterranée, have in turn refused to take the migrants back to squalid and unsafe conditions in Libya. They’ve thus been sailing in the Mediterranean, rescuing increasing numbers of migrants adrift at sea, until an EU port agreed to take them in. Spain opened its harbours to the ship earlier this week, but it would have taken the Ocean Viking nearly a week to sail from its current position near Lampedusa and Malta, and felt it was too risky given rising discontent on board.
Kallmyr has insisted that he had the support for his hard line against helping the migrants from all four parties making up Norway’s government coalition. Prime Minister Erna Solberg has also said that the plight of those on board the Ocean Viking “is not our responsibility.” This week, however, the parliamentary leader of one of the parties, the Christian Democrats, challenged his own government by publicly asking for a change of heart.
“We’re trying to get the government to take another standpoint in this case,” veteran MP Hans Fredrik Grøvan of the Christian Democrats, told NRK on Thursday. Kallmyr maintained his position, telling news bureau NTB that the government had “collectively” informed both the French and Italian governments “that we aren’t going to contribute to this situation. We have been clear all along that it’s Leger Uten Grenser and SOS Mediterranée that have created this situation.”
He went on to claim that Norway “won’t be part of an ad hoc solution” to the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, “We must get permanent European mechanisms into place to address the challenges in the Mediterranan for the long term.”
‘Lack of understanding for unhappy people’s fate’
Another rescue ship that’s been plucking migrants out of the waters of the Med, Open Arms, was finally allowed to dock at Lampedusa earlier this week. Malta followed with its allowance of Ocean Viking, after France, Germany, Romania, Luxembourg, Portugal and Ireland agreed to do what Norway won’t: take them in and allow them to seek asylum in each respective country.
Many of the migrants on board Ocean Viking are from Sudan, where Norway unsuccessfully tried to broker peace among warring factions. Critics have claimed that such a wealthy country as Norway should have shown more generosity and humanity: “No one fleeing their homelands should have to drown in the Mediterranean,” declared the president of Norway’s chapter of Leger Uten Grenser earlier this week, in defending why the rescue ship set sail in the first place.
Others, including Oslo City Council member Ivar Johansen, noted how Norway has asylum centers standing empty and has the resources to help people in need. Norway has taken in record low numbers of asylum seekers over the past few years.
Newspaper Dagsavisen editorialized this week that the Norwegian government’s “lack of understanding for unhappy people’s fate” illustrates how the homeland of polar explorer and human rights champion Fridtjof Nansen “has collapsed.” Leger Uten Grenser, meanwhile, plans to refuel and restock the Ocean Viking and head back out to sea to rescue more people fleeing North Africa. According to a press release from the organization, “as long as people are drowning and continuing to flee Libya, we will continue to be concerned about saving lives at sea.”