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Monday, July 15, 2024

Ukrainian refugees unusually welcome

Norway has long had strict asylum and immigration policy, but is now literally opening its arms to Ukrainian refugees and rushing to accommodate them. After some prodding from Parliament, the Labour Party-led government is also poised to offer group protection for all refugees from Ukraine, and set up several more reception centers.

A statue of the late Norwegian actress and humanitarian Wenche Foss, located outside Norway’s National Theater in Oslo, was draped with the Ukrainian colours last week, another local show of support for Ukrainian refugees. PHOTO: Møst

The government’s sudden and massive liberalization of the asylum process will greatly streamline it. Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion of their country can become automatically eligible for one-year’s temporary residence permission that can be extended to three years. That in turn can form a basis for permanent residence and work permission if needed or desired.

“It means that people fleeing Ukraine can avoid a lengthy application process and get help much more quickly when they come to Norway,” said Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre.

He and Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl have confirmed that Norway will go along with the EU’s own liberalization of asylum for Ukrainian refugees and coordinate what the Norwegians call their kollektiv beskyttelse (literally, group protection). Norway has never joined the EU, but Mehl has been allowed to work closely and quickly with EU officials. She was in Brussels last week.

“This is a system we can use when many people flee at the same time,” Mehl said. “It’s effective, both for those who need help and for those offering help. It means we can help many people faster.”

Worst refugee crisis since World War II
More than 1.2 million people had already fled the Russian invasion just a week after it was launched on February 24. (By late April the number was up to 5 million, and more than 15,000 in Norway alone.) They’re mostly women, children and elderly since most men aged 18 to 60 had to stay behind to fight. The UN, the EU and NATO have all warned that Europe faces the largest refugee crisis on its own continent since World War II, much larger than the refugee crisis during the Balkan war in the 1990s. A streamlined process was also used at that time for refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo.

“We will see even more people fleeing (Ukraine) in the time ahead,” Støre said. Nearly a thousand had arrived in Norway within the first week of the invasion, with various top politicians calling for Norway to take in at least between 20,000 and 30,000. That later rose considerably. Many were initially processed at Norway’s main asylum center at Råde, set up to deal with a refugee influx from Syria in 2015. It can house up to 1,000 people, and more were to be set up.

Oslo’s city government leased an entire hotel to house refugees, and offering storage space for all the donations of clothing, food and household items needed, also for those still in Ukraine or at temporary refugee camps along the border.

Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl was in Brussels last week to take part in meetings on the Ukrainian refugee crisis with EU officials. PHOTO: Justisdepartementet

“The situation can be demanding and the government will step up to help,” Mehl said. “Many Norwegians will get a Ukrainian neighbour. This is something we will manage together.”

The liberalization had already been urged by several parties in Parliament, including the Reds, the Socialist Left (SV), the Christian Democrats, the Liberals and the Greens. The Liberals also wanted to organize bus transport to Norway from Ukrainian border crossings in, for example, Poland, Slovakia, and Romania. The Conservatives were most keen that Ukrainian refugees “come, are housed and integrated quickly.”

Even the usually anti-immigration Progress Party was urging the government to open Norway’s borders to the Ukrainians. Progress’ additional proposal, however, to replace the 3,000 UN-certified refugees from other countries that Norway is obligated to receive with Ukrainians, was quickly bashed.

“Using the (Ukrainian) crisis as a means of keeping out other refugees is immoral and in conflict with the values of most Norwegians,” declared the deputy leader of the Liberal Party, Abid Raja. The Christian Democrats also quickly rebuked Progress, claiming the party that constantly wants to restrict immigration and refugee arrivals “is very alone” on closing the borders to other refugees. “The war in Ukraine doesn’t make the situation for people fleeing other wars any better, on the contrary,” said Christian Democrats’ Dag Inge Ulstein told newspaper Klassekampen.

Change of heart
Norway’s sudden willingness to take in tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees is nonetheless at odds with last year’s policy during and after the crisis in Kabul, for example, when thousands of Afghan refugees sought protection from the Taliban. Norway ended up flying around 900 Afghan refugees to Norway but thousands more remain, including many who worked for Norwegian troops during the long war in Afghanistan, still fear for their lives and have been pleading for asylum in Norway.

Europe has also long been reluctant to take in boat refugess from Africa and the Middle East, and hasn’t agreed on how to share responsibility for those who manage to arrive. There have also been reports over the past week of alleged racism at the border to Poland, with the African Student Association and Manifold Norway complaining that Ukrainians were welcomed but foreign students in Ukraine from, for example, Nigeria, were held back. Newspaper Aftenposten reported last week that other foreign students and workers in Ukraine were also held back or even attacked after arriving at a reception center in Przemysl, Poland. “The Ukrainians meet open doors, warmth and compassion,” Aftenposten reported, “but the mood changed when young men from India, Bangladesh, Iran, Sudan and countries in central Asia and North Africa come over the border.”

Crisis closer to home
There’s no question that the reception for Ukrainians also in Norway has been much warmer than it was when around 30,000 refugees fleeing war and terror in Syria and Afghanistan arrived during the influx all over Europe in 2015. None of them received automatic residence and work permission, but officials attribute the change to geography: A war on the European continent that sends  hundreds of thousands of people fleeing is simply closer, more immediate and must be quickly addressed.

“We will be generous, we will be open but we will also have control,” Justice Minister Mehl claimed at a press conference heading into the weekend, adding that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the war it launched affects all of Europe. Many Russians may try to flee as well.

Mehl represents the Center Party, which traditionally has also been skeptical towards asylum and immigration. Now Mehl indicates a shift in sentiment as well. “I’m very glad,” she said, “to see that Europe has come together on the issue about how we will help the thousands now fleeing.” Berglund



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