Norway wants to send back some of the refugees who have crossed Russia to reach the Norwegian border and applied for asylum in Norway. DW spoke to Jon-Ole Martinsen from the refugee organization NOAS.
DW: Mr. Martinsen, how do you explain the fact that thousands of refugees are trying to come to Norway by crossing Russia in the middle of winter?
Martinsen: Many of them are seeking asylum. They're people from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. They simply saw the possibility of coming to Europe via this route.
But why didn't they choose the Balkan route?
Some of them have told us that the voyage by boat across the Mediterranean was too dangerous for them. They were afraid that people might lose their lives. So they chose the route through Russia. But it's important to emphasize that among the refugees who have arrived via northern Norway there are different groups.
Some have Russian citizenship, or permanent residency rights in Russia. Where these people are concerned, we agree with the Norwegian government that their applications need to be processed quickly so that those who are not in need of protection can be sent back to Russia.
But there are also people who have no connection with Russia, who simply traveled through Russia on their visas to get to a safe country. Regarding this group, we at NOAS think Norway should check their asylum applications before we send them to another country.
It's well known that Russia takes a very critical stance towards refugees and migrants, especially if they're Muslim. Why is Russia letting them travel across its territory?
I don't know how Russia views it. But refugees who've used Russia as a transit [CC1] country have told us that they bought a kind of package deal from the people traffickers: visa and transport to get to northern Norway. For us, it's important that those who have arrived in Norway are treated in accordance with our national asylum laws and our international obligations.
What's the current situation at the Norwegian-Russian border? Is it true that Norway wants to send back a lot of the refugees, but Russia isn't taking them back?
On Friday the Norwegian foreign minister, Borge Brende, was informed that Russia wants more negotiations about the repatriations, and it's true that for the time being Norway isn't sending any refugees back to Russia. However, Norway still wants these repatriations to happen. For Norway, the negotiations are simply about the practicalities of how it should be done.
Once these people are sent back, how are they treated in Russia? Is it morally acceptable to send them back?
Regarding people who have a residency permit in Russia or dual nationality, we believe it's all right to repatriate them. We are indeed concerned about those who don't have that, who've simply traveled through Russia as a transit country. If they can't be sent back to their countries of origin and need a residency permit from Russia, it is worrying. Because there have been many reports that people who need protection do not get this protection in Russia.
Resistance to refugees is increasing all over Europe. What's the attitude of the Norwegian people on this issue?
Last year there was initially a very positive response. People supported refugees, started "Refugees Welcome" groups; at a local level, volunteers took in new arrivals. That was very positive. But there were also a lot of critical comments on social media directed against asylum seekers. So we're experiencing both: a lot of support, but also criticism and skepticism, both in social media and from some politicians.
Jon-Ole Martinsen works for the Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers, NOAS, in Oslo.