The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused a humanitarian crisis unseen since the 2015 European migrant crisis. More than two million Ukrainians have fled war and wanton destruction for safety in countries both near and far. Here in Norway, there has been some debate about a perceived double standard of being quick to help those in Ukraine whilst not doing enough for Afghans when the Taliban seized control of the country. As Norway prepares to take in more Ukrainian refugees, is there really a double standard in Norwegian refugee policy?
Putin’s war sparks humanitarian crisis in Europe that dwarfs 2015 and may even surpass 1945
Vladimir Putin’s deeply unstable decision to invade Ukraine with the full force of the Russian army has caused a war in Europe with the so-called “New Cold War” reaching boiling point. There are harrowing scenes of Ukrainian refugees fleeing for the safety of the West but this is a tragic scene that Europe, and Norway, should be used to. Within the past 5 years, two humanitarian crises have “gatecrashed” European borders and conscience.
Before looking at the present and seeing what Norway has, or should have done, let us cast our minds back to see how the previous two humanitarian crises were handled in Europe generally and by Norway specifically.
2015: Syrian civil war causes European migrant crisis
The first and most dramatic refugee crisis was as a result of the Syrian civil war. This saw a sad and tragic human trail of more than 1.3 million entering Europe to request asylum. The majority of these refugees were from Syria but others from war-torn countries also made the journey including Afghans, Iraqis, Nigerians, Pakistanis, and Eritreans.
The final destination of many of these asylum seekers were richer Northern European countries, like Germany or Sweden. Yet according to the United Nations, 57% of the refugees applied for asylum in Germany and Serbia. Germany took in more than 1 million refugees a policy that was encapsulated by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s quip “Wir schaffen das!” (We can do it!)
Closer to home, Sweden also took numerous refugees, more than double the intake of the United Kingdom (tentatively still part of the European Union) and 6 times Denmark’s allotment. For the period 2015-2017, the Solberg government, a center-right coalition with a populist and far-right party as a junior partner, oversaw 35,485 refugees being granted asylum. 8,000 of these were taken in under a quota mandated by the United Nations.
2020: NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan sees Taliban retake country
The next refugee crisis was a result of the NATO pullout of Afghanistan. With President Biden’s election to pull American forces from the country before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, other NATO countries followed suit. In the space of a few days in August 2020, the nominally democratic (though excessively kleptocratic) government of Ashraf Ghani collapsed as the Taliban swarmed back to seize the country plunging Afghanistan into a new period of intolerance, misogyny, and violence.
Thousands of Afghans tried to flee the suffocating religious and cultural persecution of the Taliban, especially those who had worked with NATO forces trying to rebuild their country from ruin over the past two decades. The NATO withdrawal, of which Norway contributed forces, saw chaotic scenes of desperation as thousands of Afghans tried to secure passage out of the country either at a Western embassy or, quite literally, climbing onto evacuatory flights out of Kabul Airport.
EU member countries agreed to take in 40,000 refugees whilst Norway has taken in, as of late 2021, more than 1,000 Afghans. Half of this number (500) were children whilst 200 had some family connection here already in Norway. The rest were either human rights activists, had worked at the Norwegian embassy or with NATO forces – essentially all would be hunted down by the Taliban if they remained in the country. 25 unaccompanied children at Kabul Airport were also granted asylum in Norway.
Norway’s immediate response to Ukrainian refugees
Days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the Norwegian government announced its plan for the intake of Ukrainian refugees. Those Ukrainians already in Norway already on permits or visas can stay indefinitely whilst temporary collective protection has been granted for incoming Ukrainian refugees. The Storting is also looking at legal changes to help refugees rapidly integrate and continue their lives as normally as possible when they arrive in Norway.
Aside from those lucky enough to be able to flee on their own two legs, health authorities nationwide have been instructed by the government to make preparations in order to aid injured Ukrainians. Eivind Hansen, Director at Helse Bergen, told the newspaper Bergen Tidenes that the government had notified them that Norway would be receiving an influx of patients in the coming days. The government announced its plan to do this by airlift and estimates it can increase hospital capacity to treat 550 patients from the warzone in Ukraine.
More than 1,000 Ukrainians have been granted asylum and are here in Norway already, according to the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (Utlendingsdirektoratet, UDI). This figure is sure to rise as the war slowly grinds on with the government making further plans to help facilitate a larger intake. It is now seeking 8,000 new emergency accommodation places for the expected influx of Ukrainians escaping the death and destruction that now haunts their homeland.
Refugee policy – social media vs. reality
A hot topic doing the rounds on social media in this country is questioning whether there is a double standard when it comes to Norway’s treatment of refugees. Many feel that the red carpet was rolled out for these (European) Ukrainians whilst (Non-European) Syrians, Afghans, etc. were subject to a form of institutional racism as they were subject to far greater levels of scrutiny in order to be granted asylum in Norway.
One only has to look at official government policy last year to see that this is nonsense. Norway does not possess any sort of structural racism in its refugee intake policy. It was during the final year of the Solberg (center right-wing) government in 2021 that Norway actually exceeded its “refugee quota” by taking in over 3,000 refugees for resettlement. Though the country did not meet its quota in 2020 this was more due to the pandemic enforced travel restrictions, societal lockdowns, and closed borders than any malign intentions of the government.
Past refugee intake has caused political blowback throughout Europe but not as much in Norway
There is no doubt that European politics suffered some blowback from the 2015 migrant crisis. The rapid expansion, growth, and creep into mainstream politics of extremist, populist, and far-right parties like Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and France’s Rassemblement National or even the Sverigedemokraterna closer to home in Sweden was disturbing.
Yet in Norway, the refugee intake was seen as part of the nation’s civic duty and far-right parties have not had the influence on mainstream politics here that they have had in other European countries. There have been protests and demonstrations by fringe extremist groups but these have yet to have any sort of electoral success. The Solberg government won re-election thanks to a hardline stance on immigration and refugees, tightening policies and regulations in the aftermath of the 2015 crisis. Since then immigration, integration, and Norway’s humanitarian efforts have become hot topics in any political discussion.
The blessing of biometrics and geography
From a logistical point of view, Ukrainians have traveled first to neighboring European countries and then Norway in a far easier way than other refugees in 2015 or 2020. The path that many Ukrainians took was westwards to Poland by either car or train. Compare this to the thousands of kilometers that Afghans had to take overland through Asia, the few Norwegian military planes crammed with Afghan refugees after the fall of Kabul or the deadly boat trips that many Syrians made from Turkish to Greek islands. Quite simply, Ukraine’s geographic position, in Eastern Europe, has eased the scale and scope of Norway’s humanitarian help.
From a legal point of view, sad as it is, Ukrainians are more integrated into the European system than refugees from other non-European countries. Ukrainians with a biometric passport have the right to visa-free travel, for up to 90 days, within the Schengen Area of which Norway is a part. Having crossed the border into Poland, Romania, Slovakia, or Hungary (all Schengen countries) Ukrainians are free to access any of the other 22 countries in the Area, including Norway.
The government has also announced that it is making plans with local governmental authorities for the registration of Ukrainian refugees in Norway. So the blessings of geography and biometric passports have been bestowed upon Ukrainians – and not on other refugees – something that any Norwegian government can not be raked over the coals for.
Latest statistics show positive attitudes of society to refugees
Norway has a long and proud tradition of both governmental and non-governmental humanitarian aid (think the Norwegian Refugee Council) and giving refuge to people from war-torn countries. It is a part of why Norwegian society is one of the most successful, tolerant, diverse, and dynamic in the world. This sentiment is very much reflected in a recent survey that showed that 80% of Norwegians believe immigrants make an important contribution to working life here.
There will be an influx of Ukrainian refugees to this country in the coming months. Their journey here country has been literally and metaphorically easier than their Afghan or Syrian counterparts. In fact, over the past decade (which included two humanitarian crises), the proportion of Norwegians that think that refugee residence permits should be easier to obtain has more than tripled from 6% (in 2012) to 20% (in 2021). This is hardly the sort of stuff that some on social media would have you believe. With such positive attitudes towards refugees, how can Norwegians (or their government) truly be labeled as “racist” or “anti-refugee”?
Focus on more important things
Regardless of what is spewed all over social media, there is no double standard in Norway’s refugee intake. There is no doubt that Norway, and NATO more specifically, should have done more in Afghanistan to stop the Taliban from seizing back control. Norway is about half the size of Sweden yet it took in about a quarter of the number of refugees, from the 2015 migrant crisis, that the Swedes did. More can always be done by governments when it comes to saving lives and rescuing others from harm’s way.
The population’s general positive attitudes, official governmental policy aiding refugees the world over, and a proportionally large humanitarian budget for such a small country prove that the Norwegian government is doing better than most when it comes to helping those in need. For now, let’s focus on something more important things like welcoming those Ukrainians fleeing war – as we have done with so many others.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Norway Today unless specifically stated.
About the author:
Jonathan is a lover of the written word. He believes the best way to combat this polarization of news and politics, in our time, is by having a balanced view. Both sides of the story are equally important. He also enjoys traveling and live music.
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