The situation in the Mediterranean and the humanitarian crises in Syria and Iraq

Published under: Solberg's Government

Publisher The Office of the Prime Minister

Address to the Storting, 30 April 2015.

Mr President,

Thank you for this opportunity to brief the Storting on the situation in the Mediterranean and the humanitarian crises in Syria and Iraq. I would also like to use this opportunity to invite the members of the Storting to participate in a joint effort to tackle the three main challenges I am going to focus on in this address.   

A human tragedy of dramatic proportions is currently unfolding in the Mediterranean. It is feared that more than 1 750 people have lost their lives in boat disasters off the coast of Libya so far this year. An estimated 3 200 people drowned attempting to reach Europe across the Mediterranean last year.  

We have all been moved by the pictures we have seen from the Mediterranean. The photograph of a fisherman carrying a drowned child ashore in Greece. Images of boats filled to the brim with people risking the dangerous sea crossing. We are all touched by the stories we have heard. The individual tragedies. Such as that of the Somali athlete Samia Yusuf Omar, who drowned in the Mediterranean while attempting to reach Europe to fulfil her dream of running in the London Olympics. We are moved as fellow human beings. But also because of Norway’s position as a maritime nation and a major humanitarian actor. We have a responsibility to act.  

Norway is making a significant contribution to efforts both in the Mediterranean and in the surrounding areas. We have increased our humanitarian assistance considerably, and are now sending a vessel to the EU’s Triton operation in the Mediterranean. These efforts will help to save lives and alleviate suffering.    

But it should be emphasised that the crisis in the Mediterranean is complex, and requires broad cooperation and coordination, particularly with the EU. It is due in part to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, as well as a number of other conflict and emergency situations in the Middle East and Africa.  

We must not take too simple a view of what we are witnessing in the Mediterranean. It is a complex situation involving a mixed group of people, both migrants and refugees, who have left their home countries. Many of them are fleeing from war and conflict. Others are attempting to escape a life of poverty and are seeking a better life for themselves and their families.  

Not since the Second World War have so many people been forced to flee their homes.

Last year, the UN calculated that 40 % of those who set out on the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean were from Eritrea and Syria. So far this year, most have come from Gambia and Senegal, followed by Somalia, Syria and Mali. The pattern changes from year to year, and from month to month, but the trend is clear: more and more people are trying to get into Europe.

 

Mr President,

The Mediterranean Sea links Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Most of the boats that set off for Europe today depart from the Libyan coast.

The current conflict and power vacuum in Libya provides opportunities for criminal networks and human traffickers. As a result of the conflict, many migrant workers and other migrants are stranded in Libya, and can see no other option than to try to cross the Mediterranean.

This is why it is vital to find a political solution to the conflict in Libya. Regional and external actors must work together to support moderate forces on both sides.  

At the same time, we must not forget that there are other routes to Europe, for example through Spain and Greece. Here, too, there are large unregistered migration flows..  

The situation in the Sahel region in North Africa is dominated by a combination of extreme poverty, poor prospects for the rapidly growing young population and weak government control over large areas.   

This is leading to an increase in migration and at the same time creates a situation in which organised crime, smuggling and terrorism can thrive. Long-standing ethnic tensions further exacerbate instability and insecurity. Crime, terrorism, extremism and violent insurgency are often mutually reinforcing.  

 

Mr President,

Norway is shouldering its responsibility in the face of these complex crises, together with the UN system and the EU.

Norwegian ships and their crews and Norwegian aid organisations have been doing a tremendous job in the Mediterranean, and are continuing to do so. They have saved many lives. According to the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association, Norwegian-registered and Norwegian-controlled vessels took part in approximately 30 rescue operations in the Mediterranean in 2014, and helped to rescue some 5 000 people. In total, commercial vessels rescued about 42 000 people attempting to cross the Mediterranean last year.    

This is demanding work, but it fits into a long Norwegian tradition of good seamanship. I would like to commend all those involved for their efforts. 

I would also like to pay tribute to the engagement we have recently seen from shipowners, the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue (Redningsselskapet) and other NGOs. It is positive that so many are willing to offer vessels and other support. Many NGOs are in the front line in responding to humanitarian crises such as this. The Government greatly values its cooperation with Norwegian organisations, which do an invaluable job both in providing assistance and raising awareness.

Possible contributions by the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue will be presented to the EU border management agency Frontex today. It is vital that our efforts are well coordinated with other international initiatives.

Europe has a joint responsibility, and Norway will do its part. We are already providing personnel for the Frontex operations in the Mediterranean, and provide significant funding to the agency. The Government will increase funding for Frontex and other relevant measures in the Mediterranean in the revised budget. 

The Government is now strengthening Norway’s efforts in the Mediterranean by sending a vessel to the Frontex-coordinated border control operation Triton. We have offered to send a vessel as soon as it is needed by the EU. We started a dialogue with the EU on this matter before the tragedies of the past few weeks had occurred, when only a few countries had pledged contributions to Triton. At that time Frontex indicated that it needed a ship from 1 August, but we have now discussed this further and brought the date forward so that a vessel can be in place as soon as possible.   

The invitation to make an offer to supply the vessel has been sent out, with a deadline of 4 May. The Norwegian Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence are assisting the Ministry of Justice and Public Security in assessing the offers so that a quick decision can be made.  The vessel must meet the specifications for taking part in border patrols and supporting search and rescue operations. It is to be a civilian vessel, but the crew will include personnel from the Norwegian police and the Norwegian Armed Forces, as well as a medical team. The Ministry of Justice and Public Security and the Ministry of Defence are already well into the process of recruiting personnel for this assignment.

Triton is a border control operation, but in reality it also carries out search and rescue missions beyond Triton’s defined operational area. The Icelandic Coast Guard vessel Tyr has for example taken part in several rescue operations in Libya’s search and rescue area.   

The more vessels made available to Triton, the greater the operation’s capacity will be. The seagoing vessel that Norway is providing will be one of the most significant single contributions to Triton so far. There is no doubt that it will help save lives.   

The Government will emphasise to the EU how important it is that Triton has the capacity, the mandate and the operational area necessary to be able to save lives in the Mediterranean.  

We will also contribute to efforts to improve border checks of people entering the Schengen area. The migrants who are rescued at sea will be brought to shore in Italy or Malta, where they will be taken care of and will undergo further checks and migration procedures.   

It is important to make a distinction between those who are in genuine need of protection and other migrants. It is the need for protection that determines who is granted residence in Norway. We must also work with other European countries to ensure the safe and efficient return of those who are not in need of protection. This is vital for maintaining confidence in the institution of asylum.   

 

Mr President,

Our cooperation with the EU is an important part of the Norwegian response to the crisis in the Mediterranean.

As a Schengen country, we are directly affected by the way the EU deals with the challenges posed by migration. The EU’s unstable  neighbourhood to the south is our neighbourhood too. The Mediterranean Sea is also our external border.    

Norwegian migration policy is strongly influenced by European cooperation in the field, both within and outside Schengen. There is a need for closer coordination at European level in this area.

I am therefore pleased that the EU is now placing the situation in the Mediterranean high up on its political agenda. Last week, a special meeting of the European Council was held, at which it was agreed to treble funding for the EU operations in the Mediterranean, Triton, off the coast of Italy and Malta, and Poseidon, off the coast of Greece. This is a positive and much-needed step.   

The EU leaders agreed to strengthen the EU’s presence at sea, to fight traffickers, prevent illegal migration flows and reinforce internal solidarity and responsibility. In my view, this is vital. It is also a common European responsibility, and it is important that the countries on the outer reaches of the Schengen area are not left to tackle the challenges alone.  

Last week I sent a letter to the EU presidents in which I expressed Norway’s desire for even closer cooperation with the EU on dealing with these challenges. Our offer to provide a seagoing vessel was well received, and we stand ready to make further contributions. We have also contributed to the EU’s Task Force Mediterranean, which was established following the tragic accident off the coast of Lampedusa in October 2013. We wish to have a dialogue with the EU in the time ahead to discuss further action that could help alleviate the situation.

In addition, we provide substantial funding through the EEA and Norway Grants. Greece has experienced a major influx of migrants. Some EUR 21 million of the funding provided to Greece under the EEA and Norway Grants has been used to improve the administration of asylum cases and for other migration measures. It may be necessary to increase funding for this area in the next grant period. Norway also participates in the EU’s Regional Development and Protection Programmes and contributes to efforts to assist Syrian refugees in Syria’s neighbouring countries. 

 

Mr President,

We need to take a more integrated approach to the issue of migration and tackle the underlying causes.

In our efforts to address the root causes of flight and migration, we are giving priority to promoting development, economic growth, respect for human rights, and peace and reconciliation work.  

Development and poverty reduction are vital if people are to have secure livelihoods and feel that they have a future in their home countries.  

We therefore see the issue of migration in the context of our development cooperation in key countries of origin, several of which, such as Somalia and Mali, have been identified as focus countries for Norway’s development efforts. In these countries, and in other countries in Africa and the Middle East, our focus is on long-term development. We are seeking to promote stability in the region by supporting inclusive political processes, health and education initiatives and economic development.    

In Somalia, we are providing support for reconstruction efforts, good governance, capacity building, prevention of humanitarian crises and peace and reconciliation efforts. In Mali, we are giving priority to education, health, local democracy and efforts to promote human rights, including women’s rights. And we are actively supporting the peace process in the country.

The Government has also strengthened its engagement in the rest of the Sahel region. We need to do more to address the problems of the Sahel, together with organisations such as the EU, the UN and the African Union. This is a common international responsibility.

In the last few years, we have sought to engage African countries and the African Union more closely in the fight against human trafficking and irregular migration. This follows on from our support to the efforts of the African Union and Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea to combat human trafficking. It is important that African countries work together with Europe in this area.   

The situation in Eritrea has led to a massive exodus from the country, and this has been growing in recent years. Eritreans are now the largest migrant group by nationality attempting to cross the Mediterranean. We have received many asylum seekers from Eritrea in Norway too. In 2013, 3 260 Eritreans came to Norway, in 2014 they numbered 2 900.   

 

Mr President,

Human traffickers are sending migrants out to sea in overcrowded and rickety boats, often without enough fuel to reach Italy. It doesn’t take much for these boats to capsize or sink.  

When I visited the Italian Coast Guard last year, they described to me the way traffickers send people in unsafe boats out into the Mediterranean, equipped only with the telephone number of the Italian Coast Guard and instructions to ring the Coast Guard as soon as the boat is out of Libya’s territorial waters. Many of the boats are in too poor a condition to make the journey to Europe. It was an account of cynical traffickers exploiting desperate people in the most despicable way. Since then the situation has deteriorated still further.    

The crossing over the Mediterranean is often the last stage of a long and dangerous journey. We don’t know how many have died in the Sahara or in the desert in Sudan or Libya.

Norway is providing funding for information campaigns in transit countries and countries of origin to raise awareness of the dangers of illegal migration. Campaigns are currently underway in Somalia and Sudan precisely to prevent this kind of migration. We are also providing support for programmes in the region aimed at facilitating the return of migrants and their reintegration in their home countries.  

Nevertheless many are still choosing to leave. We know that criminal networks are making huge sums of money from trafficking. According to a UN report, human trafficking from Libya last year was a USD 170 million industry. Many of the same networks also smuggle drugs and arms. They are becoming more and more professional. Many of those who are smuggled are subject to abuse, forced labour and slave-like conditions. Several are also held captive until a ransom is paid.  

In the first instance, trafficking affects the victims. But the profits can also be used to finance militias and terrorist organisations in the Sahel and North Africa. As well as smuggling people over the Mediterranean, traffickers are helping to destabilise already fragile states. This is therefore also an issue of security.   

In June, the Government will present a white paper on global security challenges. This will highlight the way organised crime is undermining states and financing terrorism and rebel groups.

We need to implement targeted measures to fight criminal networks.  Our main emphasis will be on prevention, but we also see the need for greater and more targeted action to combat organised crime in the areas of intelligence, police work and the judiciary. Organisations such as INTERPOL, Europol and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) are particularly relevant in this context. This year, Norway is increasing its support for the UNODC’s broader efforts to combat organised crime from NOK 26 million to NOK 40 million. In the white paper, the Government will propose establishing a development cooperation programme to fight organised crime. All in all, this will mean a significant increase in our contribution to international efforts to combat organised crime.

 

Mr President,

The Middle East is a region marked by conflict, instability, lawlessness, and regime collapse in several countries, and by deep political and religious divisions. This can be seen, for example, in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. It is a very difficult situation for the international community to deal with, and there is no immediate solution to these challenges.

The civil war in Syria has resulted in one of the largest humanitarian crises since the Second World War. The conflict is now in its fifth year.

What started out as demonstrations for democracy and freedom has developed into a war in which a brutal regime is fighting a divided, armed opposition.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that regional actors are using Syria as an arena to promote their own interests. The UN Special Envoy for Syria is striving to bring the conflict onto a political track. However, we are still far from a solution, due in part to the inability of the UN Security Council to take concerted action.

Since the conflict in Syria broke out in 2011, more than 4 million people have fled to the neighbouring countries and to Egypt. In addition, 7.6 million have been internally displaced. Most of those who remain in Syria – as many as 12.2 million – are dependent on humanitarian aid.

Many of them are in areas where aid organisations have little or no access.

The civilian population is trapped between a regime that bombs residential areas, schools and hospitals on the one hand, and a range of armed groups, including the terrorist organisation ISIL, that abuse, execute and drive away minorities on the other.

Furthermore, the conflict in Syria has created a power vacuum that has allowed ISIL to grow in both Syria and Iraq. ISIL’s conquest of large parts of western and central Iraq has created a further humanitarian and political crisis.

The situation in Syria and Iraq is thus undermining stability in the whole region. And the recruitment of foreign fighters – combined with ISIL’s expansion and alliance building – is an increasing threat not only to the region but also to other parts of the world.

A Norwegian military training team, our contribution to the international coalition to combat ISIL, will soon be in place in Iraq.

 

Mr President,

This year, the UN has asked the international community to provide NOK 59 billion to meet the humanitarian needs in Syria and its neighbouring countries. Only 16 % of the UN appeal has been raised so far. More funds are therefore needed. 

Today there is great pressure on humanitarian budgets. The Government has nevertheless systematically increased allocations for humanitarian aid since it came to power. In the budget for 2015, we increased these allocations by almost NOK 0.5 billion.

Norway has a responsibility to help to alleviate the humanitarian situation of Syrian refugees and the rest of the civilian population in Syria.

Norway is already one of the largest donors to the Syrian crisis. We are the seventh largest donor in absolute figures, and the second largest per capita. Kuwait is the only country that is giving more.

In the revised budget, the Government will increase its support for humanitarian aid and development in Syria and its neighbouring countries by NOK 250 million. This will bring Norway’s total support this year to NOK 1 billion. The money will be used to provide food, health services, shelter, education, water and sanitation services, amongst other things. This means that, by the end of 2015, Norway will have provided nearly NOK 3 billion in assistance to Syria and the region since the civil war broke out.

The additional funds could for example be used to provide food aid and other emergency relief, through the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, to 250 000 people in Syria for a year, or to provide food aid to 125 000 people in Syria’s neighbouring countries. Alternatively, this money could be used to provide schooling for more than 53 000 children and young people in Lebanon. Or it could provide financial aid to Syrian refugees in countries such as Jordan and Egypt for a year.  

Our common goal must be to help as many people as possible. This means accepting many Syrian refugees for resettlement in Norway. But we can reach even more people through the assistance we provide in Syria’s neighbourhood, where most of the refugees are.

At the same time, the refugee crisis is placing a huge strain on the region. The situation is serious not only in Iraq, but also in Jordan and Lebanon, where one in four people is now a refugee from Syria. Norway has provided funding for efforts in Lebanon and Jordan to ensure shelter and schooling for refugees.

Syria’s children are its future, but it is they who are most severely affected by the conflict. At least NOK 150 million will therefore be channelled to provide protection and schooling for children.

In Iraq, more than 5 million people are in need of emergency relief. At least 2.7 million are internally displaced. The patterns of flight reflect the patterns of conflict. In the last two weeks alone, 114 000 people have fled from the Ramadi area as a result of ISIL’s offensive. Humanitarian access to the ISIL-controlled areas is very limited. This means that humanitarian efforts are unevenly distributed. It is crucial that humanitarian relief in Iraq reaches as many people as possible. We have allocated NOK 120 million to efforts in Iraq this year. 

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is providing assistance and protection both to refugees outside Syria and to internally displaced persons within Syria. The latter constitute the most vulnerable group. It is here that the needs are greatest, and here that UNHCR has least funds available.

The Government has decided to earmark at least NOK 130 million of Norway’s humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis this year for UNHCR’s efforts in Syria and for refugees in the neighbouring countries.

Last week we increased our humanitarian contribution by NOK 50 million to provide further support for efforts to prevent people from attempting to make the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean. This funding will be channelled through UNHCR, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). It will complement the support we are already giving to efforts in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, and in Syria and its neighbouring countries. Providing assistance to vulnerable groups is a key goal of Norwegian humanitarian aid.

 

Mr President,

We will shoulder our share of the responsibility to ensure that people who are in need of protection receive it.

UNHCR has asked the international community to accept 30 000 Syrian refugees in the period 2013–14 and an additional 100 000 in the period 2015–16. Pledges have been made for 86 000 refugees. This means that places still need to be found for 44 000 refugees. Few countries have made pledges for 2016 yet, but it is clear that the response to the need for resettlement is considerably better than the response to the need for humanitarian aid in Syria and the neighbouring area.

Norway is one of the countries in Europe that received most refugees for resettlement from Syria last year – around 1 000. In connection with the 2015 budget agreement, the Storting decided to accept 1 500 quota refugees from Syria, and this means that Norway is one of the countries that is accepting most Syrian refugees for resettlement this year as well. The first 500 were selected in February. This work is continuing in close cooperation with UNHCR.

In this connection, I would like to emphasise that the Government, in accordance with our agreement on asylum and immigration with the Christian Democratic Party and the Liberal Party, doubled the number of refugees with special medical needs to be accepted for resettlement between 2014 and 2015. It is difficult to provide help for this group where they are, and this has therefore been a priority for the Government.

In the revised budget, the Government will treble the number of refugees from this group to be accepted by Norway in 2015 compared with 2014.

The Ministry of Health and Care Services has today requested the Norwegian Directorate of Health to examine what Norway can do to help improve the health services provided to Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, and if appropriate in Norway.

There are two key questions we need to ask ourselves as we debate  how many refugees Norway should accept. At this point in time, is receiving more refugees the best way we can help Syrians who have fled their homes? And how many refugees can the municipalities manage to take in in the time ahead?

In answer to the first question, the cost of resettling 1 000 refugees is estimated at around NOK 1 billion over a five-year period. This means that, for the amount it costs to resettle one refugee in Norway, we could help 14 refugees in camps, or 27 refugees in the region who are not living in camps. These are not exact figures, but they give an indication. This means that we need to discuss whether it is right to increase the number of refugees we accept or whether we should give priority to providing help in other ways to even more families affected by the conflict.

Turning then to the second question about resettlement. This year, we need to settle more than 13 300 refugees in Norway, and so far this year the municipalities have reported that they can take in 8 100. Unless, the municipalities are willing to take in more, by the end of the year there will be more than 6 800 refugees who have been granted residence permits living in reception centres waiting to be settled. Around 1 000 of these are likely to be asylum seekers from Syria. If we were to start next year with such a large backlog, we would have more than 14 000 refugees needing to be settled in 2016, including our existing quota of resettlement refugees. I would like to point out that any increase in the quota would come in addition to this.

The municipalities have cited a shortage of suitable housing, insufficient capacity in the introduction programme for refugees and inadequate integration grants from the central government as reasons why they are not able to take in more refugees. The Government has taken note of this, and has taken steps to make it easier for the municipalities to settle the large number of refugees who are already waiting in Norwegian reception centres. The integration grant for single adults was increased from NOK 666 800 to NOK 717 600 in 2014, and further to NOK 746 200 in 2015. The grant covers a five-year period. Since the present Government came into power, we have increased the total allocation for integration grants by NOK 300 million. In addition, the municipalities receive a separate grant for providing courses in Norwegian language and society for adult immigrants. We have also increased the Norwegian State Housing Bank grants for building or improving rental accommodation by a total of NOK 180 million. This means that 1 200 more housing units can be made available for rent. With a view to further facilitating the settlement of refugees, the Government will include additional measures aimed at increasing the number of housing units for rent in the revised budget.

Given that the municipalities are not taking in enough refugees to meet the current need, any large increase in the number of refugees accepted for resettlement will significantly increase the time refugees have to wait in a reception centre before being transferred to a municipality. Today it takes an average of nine months from the decision to grant a residence permit to settlement in a municipality. This is already far longer than the goal of settlement within six months.

In view of the current situation in Syria and the surrounding area, it is difficult to see how Norway could offer temporary collective protection to Syrian refugees as we did for refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo during the wars in the Balkans. The situation in Kosovo was resolved quite rapidly, and many of the Kosovan refugees returned before the period of temporary protection ended. However, the Bosnian refugees needed protection for longer, and their temporary permits were made permanent. This is the scenario that is most likely for refugees from Syria. This means that they will need permanent residence in Norway and should be treated as normal quota refugees. The ties that refugees develop to Norway, as we have seen in the case of children of asylum seekers who have been in the country for a long time, mean that merely offering temporary residence would be problematic. If Syrian refugees are brought to Norway, they must have the opportunity to be integrated into society and be able to exercise their rights as refugees. It is very likely that they will stay in Norway permanently.

 

Mr President,

There is an ongoing dialogue between the central administration and the municipalities about the framework for settling refugees and about what is needed to enable the municipalities to take in more.

In order to develop a sound basis for deciding whether Norway should accept any more refugees, Minister of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion Solveig Horne sent a letter to all the municipalities last week asking whether they were able to further increase their settlement capacity in 2015 and 2016. She has asked them to reply by 27 May, i.e. in just under a month. This information will be important when the decision is taken at national level on Norway’s contribution to resolving the current crisis.

The Government has asked the municipalities to indicate how many additional refugees they can take in. We welcome all input from the parties in the Storting that can enable us to settle refugees more rapidly in the municipalities.

 

Mr President,

We must not underestimate the complexity of these challenges.

Norway cannot, of course, resolve this crisis alone. It is vital that more countries step up their efforts. We also need to intensify our cooperation with organisations like the EU. 

Given the scope of the tragedy in the Mediterranean, measures like the Frontex operations, enhanced border control, and resettlement of some refugees in Europe can clearly help to address the situation.

This is a tragedy that affects and touches us all. The Government will take a broad approach in its further efforts.

We will continue our close cooperation with NGOs.

We will fight human trafficking and organised crime.

We will provide vessels, and we are willing to consider other contributions that can help to save lives in the Mediterranean.

We will continue to strengthen our humanitarian efforts and will provide a total of NOK 1 billion to the humanitarian response and development activities in Syria and its neighbouring countries this year.

We will contribute in Iraq.

We will take a long-term approach to development aid and efforts to address the underlying causes of migration and flight. We will carry out this work in close partnership with other countries.

We will ensure that the institution of asylum helps those who are subject to persecution, and that those who are not in need of protection return to their home countries.

 

Mr President,

Inview of all that I have said, and in connection with the deliberations on the revised budget, the Government wishes to invite the Storting to take part in a process to resolve the three key challenges that I have highlighted in this address:

  • Norway’s response to the crisis in the Mediterranean,
  • the need for more emergency relief in Syria and the neighbouring area, and
  • the question of how many refugees Norway should accept for resettlement in 2016.

Our aim is to find solutions to these challenges that enjoy broad political support.