Solberg wards off a new refugee influx

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The Norwegian government is neither prepared nor willing to open the country’s doors to any of the millions of asylum seekers Turkey is now releasing towards Europe. Norway’s conservative government still prefers to “help refugees where they are” instead of offering shelter in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, and that’s re-igniting debate over immigration and asylum policy.

Asylum centers like this one set up at Råde to receive asylum seekers are now mostly empty or have been closed down, following the sharp decline in refugee arrivals in Norway. PHOTO: UDI/Hero

Prime Minister Erna Solberg seems to have little if any sympathy for the thousands of asylum seekers caught in the “no-man’s land” along the Turkish-Greek border this week, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened Turkey’s own border to the west. He was being accused in Norway on Tuesday of using asylum seekers, who’ve long been what he calls “guests” in Turkey from Syria and other deeply trouble countries, as pawns in his own bid for more regional influence.

“These aren’t desperate refugees standing on the border between Turkey and Greece now,” Solberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), even as photos rolled in of families with crying children trying to get past Greek border guards. She claims most haven’t come from Syria but rather from Afghanistan and other troubled countries who’ve been “safe” in Turkey for several years.

“The most important help we can give is in their own areas,” Solberg said, repeating her government’s policy of preferring to buy its way out of accepting more refugees in Norway. Norway has long sent funding for refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, where King Harald and Queen Sonja were on a state visit this week, and controversially helped finance Libya’s coast guard as it tries to prevent asylum seekers from sailing to Europe. As for the ongoing war in Syria that’s recently set off another wave of Syrians seeking safe haven, Solberg says simply that “the situation must be solved politically between those involved.”

She rejected new calls from Norwegian humanitarian agencies and opposition parties in Parliament who think Norway should take in more refugees than it currently does. “Moving to another country, like Norway for example, as a refugee and being integrated here is not the answer to the type of war situation we see in Idlib,” the prime minister told NRK. “The answer is political. We must find solutions and begin rebuilding the country (Syria).”

Solberg rejected Erdogan’s apparent attempt “to threaten Europe” by unleashing millions of the asylum seekers his country has taken in for many years. “We must say that we can’t accept Turkey opening its borders in an attempt to add political pressure on the situation i Syria,” she said, adding that Norway has given Turkey support in NATO regarding attacks on Turkish soldiers, but Norway wasn’t happy when Turkey sent troops into Syria either. Norway now, Solberg said, must support both Greece and Bulgaria in their efforts to enforce the EU’s border to Turkey.

Took in around 5,000 last year
Norway took in 2,804 UN-registered refugees last year while another 2,305 arrived in Norway on their own. The largest portion in the latter group was from Syria. Solberg’s government has also agreed to take in an additional 3,000 of the UN’s so-called “quota refugees” this year, including 800 from Libya via Romania and Rwanda. placing Norway among European countries who take in the most per capita, followed by Ireland and Sweden.

Actual arrivals of asylum seekers in Norway, however, is at its lowest point in years. Norway took in just over 30,000 refugees who arrived in the record year of 2015 and before that normally took in an average of between 9,000 and 12,000, according to statistics from state immigration and asylum agency UDI (Utlendings direktoratet).

Norway dramatically built up its reception capabilities to handle the influx in 2015, but it’s been systematically dismantled in recent years, not least when the immigration-skeptical Progress Party was part of Solberg’s conservative government with political control over the justice ministry and immigration policy. Progress withdrew from Solberg’s coalition government in January, but Solberg and her colleagues in the Conservative Party say the policy still applies.

‘Restrictive policy remains firm’
“The government’s restrictive, legally justified and responsible immigration policy remains firm, even though Progress has gone out of the government,” claimed the Conservatives’ new Justice Minister Monica Mæland earlier this month. She recently imposed it to justify closing the door to more refugees so that they won’t be able to later bring their families to Norway as well.

The government’s restrictive asylum policy draws support not only from Progress but likely also from the Center Party, which proposed taking in just 2,000 UN-registered refugees. Labour went along with the government’s 3,000, while the Socialist Left party (SV) wants Norway to take in at least 5,000. SV has long argued, especially after reports of squalid conditions and violence at refugee camps in Greece, that Norway is not doing its share to help.

There have been other signs of Norwegian willingness to do more to help refugees, through operation of the Norwegian ship Ocean Viking that helps save migrants fleeing Libya in rubber rafts, and through the work of organizations like Leger Uten Grenser (MSF), Amnesty Norge and, not least, Flyktninghjelpen (Norwegian Refugee Council). Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon has been its patron since 2017 and took time to visit the council last month to show his support for its work, even when the royal family was still in mourning after the death of his former brother-in-law Ari Behn.

Doubts a new refugee wave will crash over Norway
The dismantling of asylum reception- and residential centers has left Norway unprepared for a major increase in refugee arrivals, UDI chief Frode Forfang told newspaper Klassekampen on Tuesday. He doesn’t think one will come, though.

“It’s difficult to predict how this (Turkey’s opening of its own border to Europe) will develop, but if we get an increase in arrivals because of the situation in Europe, it won’t come suddenly,” Forfang told Klassekampen. “We’ll get some warnings before many people are standing at the border to Norway. In 2015 all the doors were wide open, and they’re not today.”

Others wish they were at least a bit more open, given the squalid living conditions in overcrowded refugees camps in Greece, not least on the island of Lesbos. Violence has been breaking out there as local residents feel overwhelmed by all the refugees in their midst. Turkey, Greece and Italy have all been hit with the biggest refugee burdens that they think more affluent countries like Norway should share.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund