The Norwegian government is responding to Russia’s relentless attacks on Ukraine’s civilian population this week by asking communities nationwide to take in at least another 35,000 refugees. More than 32,000 have already arrived, and many are expected to remain permanently.
Russia’s recent incessant bombing of cities, power plants, critical infrastructure and even hospitals has sparked international condemnation, also from Norway at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Norway’s ambassador to the UN joined others in accusing Russia of committing possible war crimes, while Norwegian military experts and researchers believe a desperate Russian President Vladimir Putin is now simply trying to make Ukraine as unliveable as possible.
Since Putin’s first attacks on Ukraine failed, they reason, he’s now resorting to what many are equating to acts of terror against Ukrainian civilians. The numbers of people forced to flee since Putin invaded Ukraine nine months ago “say something about this tragedy and catastrophe for Europe,” Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said at a press conference just before the weekend. Nearly 8 million have fled and 6.5 million have been displaced within Ukraine.
Støre referred to Russia’s “terror bombing” directed at civilians and energy production, which left much of Ukraine blacked out in recent days. “The terror against the local and civilian population in Ukraine is continuing,” Støre said, adding that “we haven’t seen anything like this since World War II.”
He said Norway “stands together with the international community in condemning this extreme escalation of warfare.” He also thinks that since Putin has been losing on the battlefield, he’s trying again by having Russian troops attack from the air and target ordinary Ukrainians.
That’s why “we must expect that more will need to flee Ukraine,” Støre said, and that Norway must be prepared to take in as many as have already arrived. The vast majority have sought refuge closer to home, with Poland alone taking in several million. Norway has granted collective protection to all Ukrainians and will also continue to support Ukraine with emergency financial aid, humanitarian and military assistance.
The Ukrainian refugees continue to be unusually welcome in Norway, without all the political debate and objections often tied to immigration issues. Norway’s most conservative and generally anti-immigration Progress Party has raised no major opposition as it has towards refugees from war and conflict in the Middle East and Africa.
“You’d think this (a new refugee influx, even larger than the last in 2015) would set off some rabalder, or at least a grunt from the Progress Party,” wrote commentator Halvor Hegtun in newspaper Aftenposten on Friday. He noted how strict Norway’s immigration policy usually is, and that asylum cases generally are associated with “pain, noise and tears. They set fire to election campaigns and create division within governments,” he wrote.
“But this year seems entirely different,” Hegtun added, even though there are objections to migrants still making their way over the Mediterranean and being rescued by a Norwegian-registered ship. The Norwegian government is all but blocking their resettlement in Norway, “but that’s another issue,” Hegtun wrote. “No one is closing the door to the Ukrainians. They’re Europeans from the Christian culture, and that probably is also heading off what otherwise might pop up in the comment columns and social media.”
First and foremost, though, the Ukrainians are immediately viewed by the entire political spectrum in Norway as being “real refugees,” fleeing for their lives and faced with losing everything they own at home. Norwegian towns and cities have thus been mounting a huge effort to take them in.
“Norwegian communities have managed to settle record numbers of refugees in record time,” Støre said. “I’m proud and grateful to everyone who has made that possible. Local officials, schools, day care centers, volunteers and neighbourhoods are among the many who have taken in refugees seeking safety in our country.”
More of the same is needed now, said the prime minister and his labour minister, Marte Mjøs Persen. She noted how Norway has managed to settle more refugees in the past six months than it has during the past five years. It all has to do with a willingness to help, along with the disdain and disappointment over all the uproar neighbouring Russia has caused, and genuine disgust with Putin’s brutality.
The government is already setting aside around NOK 11 billion to help finance the Ukrainian refugee influx, including, according to newspaper Nationen, around NOK 27 million to monitor and register pets arriving with families. Many of those who’ve already arrived are integrating quickly into small communities from Rendalen in eastern Norway to Tromsø in the north and the small island of Utsira off the west coast. A total of 283 townships have taken in refugees so far and 54 have asked for more, reports newspaper Aftenposten. Rendalen, with a population of just over 1,700, has taken in 60 Ukrainians so far and agreed to settle 110 more. That would be like Oslo taking in 65,000 relative to its total population.
“The municipalities are making a huge contribution towards making this successful,” Persen said, predicting that those arriving will take on an active role in Norwegian society and provide new sources of labour and professional service. “They will learn Norwegian and they will get jobs,” she said.
The Ukrainian refugee influx is already influencing attitudes towards immigration. A survey conducted earlier this year for the state agency in charge of integration (IMDI) found that more Norwegians are positive towards taking in more refugees, while fewer are positive towards simply taking in foreign workers and their families. Fully 70 percent think work migrants contribute to the economy, however, while refugees contribute less, and that’s where the Ukrainians are changing many minds. They’re arriving as refugees but many are highly educated, keen to work and thus showing that also refugees eventually contribute instead of relying on aid.
Overall survey results indicated that when Norwegians are now asked whether immigration itself is good or bad for the country, more now believe it’s good. Highly educated Norwegian women were most positive towards immigration.
Russia’s war on Ukraine also seems to have made the Norwegian population in general more positive towards taking in refugees. The portion of those who want Norway to take in more refugees rose from 40 percent in November of last year to 60 percent in March. Researchers Jan-Paul Brekke and Audun Fladmoe of Norway’s institute for social research (ISF) noted that Christian refugees are more warmly received than Muslim refugees, but stressed that “extreme events” like Russia’s war on Ukraine “brings attention to refugees’ need for protection and sets off a widespread wish to help.”
Many of the Ukrainian refugees arriving in Norway still face major challenges, and haven’t wanted to reside in asylum centers. They’ve sought private options but then often have run into financial problems and even wound up standing in line for free food handed out by charitable organizations. Ukraine’s former ambassador to Norway complained last summer that Norwegian officials needed to listen to the Ukrainians’ wishes and needs. Several have resisted being sent to small communities in remote areas of the countries, preferring to remain in larger cities with other Ukrainian friends or relatives nearby.
A recent survey of Ukrainian refugees already in Norway surprised officials who thought most Ukrainians would want to return home when the war ends. Only 26 percent responded that they wanted to move back to Ukraine as soon as hostilities cease. Fully 20 percent had already decided to stay in Norway and begin new lives, while more than half were unsure.
Vilde Hernes, of the Norwegian institute for city and regional research (NIBR), told news bureau NTB that she was surprised so many were already indicating that they’d be staying in Norway for the long term. Among them is 42-year-old Julia Favoritova, who told newspaper Dagsavisen that she felt established in Norway just seven months after arriving.
“It feels strange, painful and surreal to say it, but we are refugees, on the run from a brutal war in our homeland,” she said from the small apartment she’s sharing in Stathelle with her 65-year-old mother Olena and two teenage sons. The boys were well-received at the local school, to which they can walk, they were all learning Norwegian quickly, they have new friends and she aims to open a new glass art workshop like one she ran in Ukraine. She’s still receiving financial aid but wants to start her own business as soon as possible and “pay my own way.”
“We are very happy in Norway,” she told Dagsavisen. “We’ve done well getting established here and have a good network around here. We’ll see whether we stay here or move somewhere else in Norway, but regardless, we’ve found safety here.”