The leadership of Norway’s Labour Party has finally been pressured into reversing its stance against evacuation of children from the notorious Moria refugee camp in Greece. Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre’s new course may clear the way for bringing some lone underage migrants from Moria to Norway.
Støre has earlier been unusually allied on the issue with the Conservative Party, which leads the government, and the even more conservative Progress Party, which hardly ever wants to take in immigrants or asylum seekers. Støre has stressed that Labour’s priority is to take in refugees through the UN’s quota system, and he’s argued for weeks that conditions are just as bad if not worse in other overfilled refugee camps.
“I don’t go along in defining solidarity as taking in people from just one camp in Greece,” Støre told newspaper Aftenposten earlier this month. He and the party’s immigration and asylum spokesperson Masud Gharahkhani have repeatedly claimed it would even be unfair to evacuate refugees from the filthy and overcrowded Moria camp, but not others.
“Our priority is still to take in refugees through the UN’s quota system and help other countries taking people in,” Gharahkhani added at the time. “We will work internationally for the EU and other countries to also step up in this manner. What’s most fair is helping the most people, and that can also help stop fatal boat trips over the Mediterranean.”
That set off a torrent of objections, not least from within Labour itself. Gharahkhani confirmed that he’d been subjected to lots of harassment on social media, especially after taking part in a nationally televised debate on the refugee issue on state broadcaster NRK. Labour Party members railed that it was Støre and Gharahkhani who were not showing solidarity with the estimated 7,500 minors stuck in the Moria camp that now also is severely threatened by the Corona virus. Many Labour faithful threatened to leave the party.
Government split spread
The increasingly heated debate over evacuations from Moria began when the Conservatives found themselves facing a split within their own minority government coalition. While they have opposed bringing any evacuated refugees from Moria to Norway, their small government partners began loudly supporting evacuations to Norway. Aftenposten was the first to report that the Liberals and Christian Democrats were both going against their own government, and threatening not to back down until the Conservatives agreed with them.
That still hasn’t happened, even after the pressure against the Conservatives grew when all of Norway’s bishops in a united Norwegian Church asked Prime Minister Erna Solberg to bring children without families at the Moria camp to Norway, along with families with small children. A total of 19 former government ministers from a wide range of parties asked for the same.
Solberg, responding through her justice minister, Monica Mæland, refused, claiming like Støre that the Norwegian government still believes it’s more effective to “help refugees were they are” (ie: in refugee camps) and through a more orderly UN system. Mæland agreed the situation in the Moria camp was “terrible,” as it was in many other refugees camps, but claimed “the solution is not to evacuate some children, it’s to help people in a desperate situation and to help as many as possible, and we do that where they are.”
The government and Labour had also all but ignored similar pleas from former prime ministers Kjell Magne Bondevik and Labour’s own Thorbjørn Jagland (former head of the Council of Europe), former foreign ministers Knut Vollebæk and Labour’s own Bjørn Tore Godal. They claimed neither Labour nor the government could “excuse ourselves (from helping children in Moria) simply because it’s worse other places.” Most all those demanding that the Norwegian government join other European countries in evacuating Moria is because it’s a camp within Europe, and Norway is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA/EØS). Even small Luxembourg has agreed to take in children from Moria, it’s been argued. Norway must do at least the same.
At least ‘helping some’
“No one can help everyone,” claimed Godal, a Labour Party veteran, “but everyone can help some.” Labour’s own former government partners joined the call, with both the Socialist Left party (SV) and, most recently, the Center Party, also advocating evacuations from Moria. “Evacuate refugee children now!” read the headline on a commentary by Oslo Mayor Marianne Borgen in Aftenposten last week.
Then came the far more widespread uproar within Labour itself, with Labour members and local leaders in Stavanger, Agder, Ålesund, Skien, Råde, Kongsvinger and Kjelsås in Oslo publishing a letter in newspaper Klassekampen, in which they claimed they could no longer remain quiet. “We are active politicians and members of Labour because we want to make a difference,” they wrote. “Now it’s Greece and Moria that need our votes, and it’s our duty to respond.”
Humanitarian organizations including the Norwegian Refugee Council (Flyktninghjepen, led by former Labour diplomat Jan Egeland), Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders Norwegian People’s Aid have advocated evacuations and more assistance for refugees all along. The latter also noted last week that Støre’s decision to have the UN decide which refugees should come to Norway, and increase their numbers by 500 (from 3,000 a year), was by no means adequate: “The UN won’t be transferring any refugees right now (during the Corona crisis,” the organization stated.
Mayors’ uproar changed Støres mind
It finally took a reported uproar among Labour mayors around the country that finally got Støre to change his mind. Aftenposten reported over the weekend that the party’s leadership is now “changing course,” after rising unrest among Labour mayors in Norway’s large cities including Trondheim, Stavanger and Kristiansand. City government leaders from Labour in Oslo and Bergen also were involved.
“We feel this is our obligation,” Kristiansand Mayor Jan Oddvar Skisland told Aftenposten. “The UN’s High Commissioner for refugees has asked us to help, and the refugee camps on the Greek islands are within our Schengen area. Norwegian funding has also helped establish the camps.”
Stavanger Mayor Kari Nessa Nordtun noted that her city helped settle 107 children without families during the refugee influx in 2015. “We’re good at integrating in Stavanger, we want to take part in the UN’s efforts and we have the capacity to do that,” Nordtun said, even during the Corona crisis.
Aftenposten reported that Labour Party leaders picked up the mayors’ signals, organized a teleconference with county leaders and have ultimately come up with a compromise proposal that was approved within Labour’s delegation at the Parliament.
‘Hell on earth’
A proposal in Parliament to take in refugees from Moria is thus likely to gain political support from all the left center parties plus the government’s Christian Democrats and Liberals, giving it a majority. Only the Conservatives and Progress are likely to vote against it, and Solberg’s Conservatives may even go along in the end to avoid a defeat in Parliament. Progress complained that feared the Conservatives would sway “to the refugee lobby.”
Labour, at any rate, managed to reunite around a proposal to increase receipt of UN quota refugees from 3,000 to 3,500 and then evaluate, along with the UN, how Norway can help relieve the situation in Greece, specifically by taking in the most vulnerable refugees in the Moria camp on Lesbos that’s widely been described as “hell on earth
“It’s still unclear what this all will lead to in reality,” wrote commentator Kjell Werner for news service ANB, “but the opposition within Labour has at least won a little victory.”