Norway’s attempt to deport hundreds of asylum seekers to Russia is in chaos after Moscow objected to the programme and politicians struggled to defend it in the face of criticism from human rights groups and the church.
The temporary suspension of expulsions after Russia raised “security concerns” is a setback to Oslo’s attempts to plug the gap in its Arctic border and implement a strict clampdown on asylum.
It follows a week of confusion at a detention camp in Kirkenes, near the border, where scheduled expulsions were repeatedly postponed and refugees were briefly arrested and then freed while opposition leaders questioned the policy.
Nevertheless, 13 asylum seekers were deported by bus to Murmansk on Tuesday night. Among them was a Yemeni refugee, whose case has cast further doubt on the Norwegian government’s view that Russia is a safe destination for refugees. Norway does not send failed asylum seekers to Yemen because it is considered too dangerous.
Abdullah, 29, was taken to Murmansk, where he arrived early on Wednesday in temperatures nearing -30C. A temporary Russian visa that had enabled him to go north to claim asylum expired that day and after sleeping rough, Abdullah turned himself in to police. He was fined 5, 000 roubles by a Moscow court on Friday and expelled from Russia, according to documents seen by the Guardian. He has 10 days to appeal.
Russia returns failed asylum seekers to their country of origin unless they have funds and a visa to go to a third country. Mohammad Ahsan Rashid, Abdulah’s lawyer in Oslo, said deportation to Yemen would mean “Norway is sending him straight to death”.
Refugees applying for asylum in Russia face many obstacles, according to Yelena Burtina, of Grazhdanskoye Sodeistviye (Citizens’ Assistance) in Moscow. “If they manage to get through, usually they are refused anyway, judges normally side with the immigration services, ” she said.
The European court of human rights has criticised Russia for returning people to countries where they are at risk of being tortured or treated inhumanely. The court condemned Russia in October for deporting three asylum seekers to Syria.
Norway’s immigration minister, Sylvi Listhaug, said on Thursday she would ask the country’s immigration directorate to check on the situation of Abdullah and another deported Yemeni refugee, but the agency does not track asylum seekers once they have been returned to Russia, a spokeswoman said on Sunday.
“We consider Russia a safe place to return to, . We can try to find out what happened to them, but there is not much we can do about it.”
Norway’s parliament rushed through legislation in November paving the way for deportations amid a panic that the country was unable to cope with the numbers seeking asylum via Russia. Some 5, 500 came via the Arctic route in the autumn.
The move is part of a crackdown on asylum across Scandinavia, which critics have described as a “race to the bottom” as Europe’s northernmost countries struggle to cope with tens of thousands of people fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Jon Ole Martinsen, senior advisor to the Norwegian Organisation for Asylum Seekers, said the country should lift the threat of deportation from those with temporary visas until the situation in Russia has been fully researched.
“We have heard rumours that people in Russia have been sent back to Syria this past month, and we know for certain they have been placed in prisons in very bad conditions.”
About 80 refugees, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, are still awaiting deportation from the Kikenes camp. On Sunday they were allowed to seek police permission to leave the camp briefly, but the nearest town is 20km away and there is no transport. Refugees complained to the Guardian that there was insufficient food and no medicines.
Ahmed Isam, 26, a Sudanese student, wrote in a letter to Listhaug on Sunday that his treatment at the camp “reminds me of the many times I was arrested by the repressive Sudanese regime for my peaceful activism and for defending my rights and the rights of exploited people”.
Three refugees, including a pregnant woman, escaped from the camp on Wednesday and were given refuge in Kirkenes parish church. Police have told local media they may still break down the door but did apologise for strip-searching a woman who helped the escape. She and two others may still face a fine or up to two years in jail.
“It is astonishing that the government acts so brutally, ” Atle Sommerfeldt, bishop of Borge, told broadcaster NRK. Olav Øygard, bishop of Nord-Hålogaland, said: “Human dignity is being violated. A person’s worth is infinite, no matter where they are from.”
Some 31, 000 people applied for asylum in Norway in 2015, of whom 18, 431 people received the right to permanent residence and 7, 825 were refused, including 500 children.
By David Crouch, The Guardian