Norway’s conservative coalition government is deeply split and may even fall over its majority’s decision to rescue two small children from a refugee camp in Syria, including their Norwegian mother. She had traveled to the Middle East to join the brutal terrorist organization IS, and refused to allow Norwegian officials to retrieve the children she had with a deceased IS soldier unless she was brought back to Norway as well.
The government’s surprise decision to go along with her demands, made public late Tuesday, represents a complete reversal of its earlier policy. Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her three non-socialist government colleagues earlier have struggled with the issue but ultimately refused to help bring any Norwegian IS-linked adults back to Norway. Solberg’s partners from the conservative Progress Party have claimed that the mother in this case was “cynically” using her own ailing children as a means of pressuring the government into helping her as well.
Now many Progress Party officials are furious that Solberg changed her mind and decided to go along with her two other government partners, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats. They had supported bringing the family of three home all along and claimed to be “glad and relieved” that especially the woman’s son, believed to be suffering from cystic fibrosis, could finally receive the care he couldn’t get in the squalid Al-Hol refugee camp where families of defeated or dead IS warriors have been kept.
“The Progress Party has made its view clear, at the same time a majority wanted to make an effort to help a sick child,” Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide said at a press conference late Tuesday afternoon. Søreide tied the government’s policy change to “extraordinary” circumstances, while also noting that five orphans of Norwegian IS parents were brought back from Syria to Norway last summer.
That didn’t impress the Progress Party, which, for the first time since it joined Solberg’s government coalition in 2013, expressed formal dissent over the decision. “That’s because we have said all along that we don’t want to lift a finger to bring IS members to Norway,” Progress’ spokesman for immigration policy, Jon Helgheim, told news bureau NTB. “This is a decision that has been taken without the Progress Party’s support.”
On Wednesday, Helgheim went further by claiming on national radio that “unfortunately, it’s only the Progress Party that puts security for the Norwegian people first.” That was a bold remark, since the terrorism actually carried out in Norway has come from right-wing Norwegian extremists, not from Islamic terrorists, but Helgheim appeared undaunted. He told state broadcaster NRK that Progress has been open to bringing home the IS widow’s children, but not her. He claimed that bringing an IS member home to Norway increases the risk of terror. “Therefore our limit lies with helping only the children,” Helgheim told NRK.
Party officials were calling on Wednesday for a meeting of Progress’ Members of Parliament, many of whom were not informed of their own government’s policy change, to discuss leaving the government coalition. Several county leaders in Troms and Finnmark and the new Innlandet (Hedmark and Oppland) were calling for the same thing.
“I think enough’s enough, and that it’s time to leave this government,” Dagfinn Henrik Olsen, county leader for Progress in Nordland, told NRK. He claimed that Progress had been “stabbed in the back” by its government coalition partners. Opposition parties in Parliament had widely supported bringing home the children, with some also supporting repatriation for their mother as well.
‘A victory (only) for the children’
Commentators widely noted that the policy change and decision to bring home both the IS widow with her two children, aged three and five, marks a victory for the Liberals and Christian Democrats. Liberals’ leader Trine Skei Grande denied that.
“This isn’t a victory for us, it’s a victory for the children,” Grande told NRK. They were taken out of Syria Tuesday afternoon and were expected to be driven to the same airport in Erbil, Iraq from which the five IS children were flown to Norway last year. Since the mother of the two children being rescued now is formally charged over her involvement with a terrorist organization, she’s expected to be arrested as soon as the family lands in Norway. NRK reported that the family wouldn’t immediately be split up, however, that guardians would be appointed for them and that the children would be shielded from the media. Søreide made it clear the children “shall neither be judged nor burdened by their parents’ choices.”
“We had a choice,” Grande added. “Should the child of a Norwegian citizen die on our watch because we wouldn’t stretch ourselves long enough to help? Relief came yesterday when they crossed the border to Iraq. We have tightened up immigration policy. I think the balance found here through government negotiations addresses the will of the people quite well.”