Speech/statement | Date: 11/03/2022 | Ministry of Justice and Public Security
By Minister of Justice and Public Security Emilie Enger Mehl (Address to the Storting on 10 March 2022)
(The address must be compared with the address delivered)
Thank you for allowing me to come to the Storting and deliver an address on the refugee crisis resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
We are facing a mass displacement in Europe which also impacts on our country. Even though most Ukrainian refugees have travelled to other countries than Norway so far, we are now preparing to receive thousands of Ukrainians in the time ahead. Our agencies are working at top speed to increase the capacity for registration, reception, settlement, and all the services the refugees will need. We must welcome them with warmth and compassion. And we must lay plans in a responsible and structured manner, so that the solutions we are now developing to help the refugees can be used when we return to everyday life.
Coincidentally, it is 100 years since Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissioner for Refugees, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian and peacebuilding work. His work included efforts to repatriate Russian prisoners of war and to tackle famine in Russia and Ukraine. It is also 100 years since Ukraine became one of the republics that founded the Soviet Union and 31 years since Ukraine declared itself an independent nation, after the fall of the USSR.
We now find ourselves in a situation where people from this part of Europe are again forced to flee. I think everybody in Norway feels affected by this meaningless war.
Large cities in Ukraine have fallen, and several cities are at risk of being besieged and reduced to rubble. Millions of people have escaped from their lives and homes. The images of desperate mothers and frightened children have made a strong impression on us. Many brave Ukrainian women have to fight for their children and their country. Civilians are being injured and killed. The Ukrainian people are experiencing enormous despair. We have yet to see the full impact of this war. It will have a long-lasting effect on the global economy, security, and patterns of migration. We will also feel its effects here in Norway. The Norwegian Government's position is clear: we will offer our help – in Ukraine, locally, and here.
Ukrainians are paying the highest price for the Russian attack. They are paying with their lives and their homes.
However, Putin’s attack has placed burdens on Norway and other countries in Europe that we will feel in the time ahead. The attack may result in an increase in the prices of electricity, oil, and gas, which will affect ordinary people’s finances here in Norway. Russia and Ukraine are large exporters of wheat, and food prices may rise. The Russian invasion may have consequences for both Norwegian society as a whole and ordinary people's lives and finances.
On 8 March, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and I had a meeting with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi. He also met with the Storting’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence that day. Hearing him explain the situation in Ukraine and the border areas in its neighbouring countries was deeply moving.
It has been two weeks today since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that over 2 million Ukrainians have fled during this two-week period. According to UNHCR, this is the most rapidly-evolving refugee situation in the world since World War II.
Over 1.2 million people have escaped to Poland, 191 000 to Hungary, 140 000 to Slovakia, 438 000 to Romania, including those who arrive via Moldova, about 260 000 to Moldova, 100 000 to Russia, and 210 000 to other European countries. These figures come from embassies and UNHCR, and are for the period 6–8 March. There is some uncertainty attached to the figures, as people can move between countries, but they give a good idea of the overall situation.
The numbers will continue to rise. In addition to the people who flee the country, there are many people who are internally displaced in Ukraine. It is difficult to obtain reliable figures for this. As a result of the conflicts with Russia related to the breakaway republics Donetsk and Luhansk, and Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Ukraine already had a large number of internally displaced people before the current invasion. The figure for this appears to vary between 850 000 (UNHCR 2021) to 1.4 million people (Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy 2021).
However, the current massive invasion presents a completely different scenario.
All of the neighbouring countries are now experiencing an influx of refugees of a scale and a pace which are unprecedented. These countries are doing impressive work, but how long can this situation last before the national systems reach breaking point? The situation in the different countries also varies, according to the country’s own economic situation and existing systems.
So far there has been a form of natural distribution into the Schengen area. Many of the people who came during the first wave had family and connections with different countries, and thus had somewhere to go. This situation is expected to be different for the people who escape from Ukraine going ahead, increasing the pressure on the neighbouring countries.
Even though these countries are handling the situation well at present, the next phase will also depend on how things develop in Ukraine. The more people who flee, the more difficult things will be, naturally. If Kyiv or other large cities fall, we must expect the number of refugees to increase further – if they are able to get out of the country. There is great uncertainty attached to the situation.
Norway will contribute resources to address the situation in Ukraine’s neighbouring countries. So far, Norway has provided NOK 2 billion in assistance to Ukraine and its neighbouring countries, which has been drawn from the budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I am working closely with the Minister of Foreign Affairs to allocate these funds to the areas where the need is greatest. International aid organisations are playing an important role now, and we know that different UN organisations, including UNHCR, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Red Cross, and many others are doing invaluable work in Ukraine – at great risk to their own lives – and in the neighbouring countries. The destruction of war brings with it a lack of food, water, power, and other necessities.
Norway has already received requests for assistance in connection with the crisis in Ukraine, and more requests are expected. A general principle is that Norwegian civil preparedness assistance – such as personnel and material – must in as far as possible be channelled through the EU Union Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM), in which Norway is a participating state.
The Norwegian Medical Team (NOR EMT) can provide medical support during international disasters by sending a team of doctors, nurses, and technical support. The team is a supplement to the recipient country’s health service and non-governmental organisations’ efforts during crises. The team is now on standby, in order to be quickly deployed if the need arises to assist local health services in Ukraine’s neighbouring countries.
Other assistance through established European cooperation programmes may also be relevant. This will be closely coordinated with other European countries and European agencies.
Norway is ready to help transfer refugees in Ukraine’s neighbouring countries under the European cooperation framework. No allocations have been made for this in the 2022 national budget. If necessary, I will submit a supplementary proposition to the Storting before the ordinary revision of the budget in connection with the revised national budget.
No concrete European distribution mechanism has been devised yet, but this could change soon, in line with the evolving situation. Work is currently ongoing within the EU to coordinate the needs of the member countries. It would be wrong to provide concrete numbers now – we are in the assessment phase, and our work must be thorough.
I believe that it is important that we put the necessary frames in place to respond rapidly should the need arise.
When we look at the statistics for Norway, there have been few Ukrainian asylum seekers in recent years. Last year, there were three arrivals; whereas current figures show that about 1 000 Ukrainians have arrived and have been registered as asylum seekers in Norway. This number is not high, compared with other European countries, but the increase is noticeable. We must also assume that a large number of Ukrainians have already travelled to Norway without a visa and have not registered anywhere yet. The same may be true of other Ukrainians.
I would like to remind you that the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) and the Immigration Appeals Board have suspended the duty to leave the country for Ukrainian citizens, and the UDI has put applications for asylum on hold. This means that Ukrainian citizens who are in Norway without a residence permit will not be returned to Ukraine.
We expect the number of asylum seekers to rise considerably in the time ahead, and are preparing for this. It is likely that we will see an increase in the number of Russian and Belarusian asylum seekers. Large numbers of people arriving within a short period of time will create taxing situations for all parties involved. Norway has sound procedures for this and a good reception system that has been used during past refugee crises. We are preparing for an increase in the number of people fleeing Ukraine for Norway.
The UDI has already come far in its efforts to expand reception capacity in order to handle all of the refugees that will be arriving. Agreements are being made at present for about 8 000 places in reception centres. This is the first step.
The UDI has also announced a new tender competition. All municipalities and players that are able to operate a reception centre have been asked to make contact. The objective is to further increase capacity.
Increasing capacity in reception centres is necessary to adapt to the current situation and to be prepared for the increase in arrivals in the time ahead.
Asylum reception centres are one of several instruments to be able to house thousands of people quickly. The reception centres must form part of a picture that involves swift settlement in the municipalities and accommodation in private homes. The Norwegian Government is drawing on every emergency preparedness tool at its disposal to manage the arrival of potentially large numbers of refugees in Norway.
This is why we are now considering an arrangement which will make it possible for asylum seekers to stay in private homes for a short period of time, while receiving subsistence benefit. There are good reasons why this is not included in the rules in a normal situation. Any exemptions related to this crisis must be structured carefully, so that they do not result in refugees being exploited, not being followed up or included, or placing a large burden on the municipalities. The Norwegian Government is currently working on this.
We know that the refugee flow out of Ukraine is huge, but we do not know yet how many people will come to Norway. Arrivals remain at a stable level. The situation is unclear and can change rapidly.
It is important to me that we are well-prepared to receive a large number of arrivals going ahead. At present, the National Arrivals Centre in Råde is able to handle the number of refugees arriving. Capacity is good, and the people who arrive are being attended to properly.
However, this capacity may come under pressure. The UDI therefore quickly began working to establish emergency accommodation capacity to supplement the National Arrivals Centre. More places have already been established in reception centres and emergency accommodation in locations throughout the country, a proactive step on the part of the Norwegian Government, allowing it to handle this situation in a responsible and structured manner.
The police are increasing the registration of Ukrainians who arrive in Norway. The general rule since the establishment of the new National Arrivals Centre under the previous Government has been that all asylum seekers in Norway must register there. The Norwegian Government believes that it now may be necessary for people to be able to register at other locations in the country, and the police will soon make sure that Ukrainians who are already in Norway are able to register, regardless of their location.
The aim is for registration with the local police district to be an alternative to registration at the Arrivals Centre, but the details of this solution have not been finalised. Decentralisation of registration will alleviate the pressure on the National Arrivals Centre in Råde and make it easier for Ukrainians who are already staying outside Eastern Norway to register.
I would like to stress that it is important that people who arrive in Norway or who are already here get registered.
There are two sides to this. On the one hand, the authorities need to know who is in the country. On the other, people must get registered in order to receive a temporary identification number (D number), which will give them access to services. Ukrainians with biometric passports can spend 90 days in Norway without a visa. They can stay in the country on a tourist visa during this period, but must register if they want access to services from the authorities.
As the UDI is now quickly establishing reception centres, many municipalities will soon host a reception centre. Also municipalities which do not have reception centres may come to host refugees in private accommodation. We are looking at how to prevent a disproportionate financial burden from being placed on municipalities without a reception centre but which house refugees in private accommodation during the reception phase. Despite the demands of the acute situation, the UDI is trying to engage in constructive dialogue with all of the host municipalities. If Norway is to succeed at receiving the refugees properly, we need the central and local authorities to collaborate closely. The County Governor will play a key role here. The voluntary sector will also play an important role.
We are facing a large endeavour. We must offer accommodation and help to all asylum seekers who arrive in Norway.
Ukrainian men aged 18–60 normally are not allowed to leave Ukraine; at this time, the arrivals will therefore mostly consist of women and children. There may also be a number of elderly people, a group that is not usually seen among ‘ordinary’ asylum seekers. Typically, asylum seekers have been young men.
This work requires input from several sectors and many players. I would like to thank everyone for going the extra mile so that our joint efforts make this work.
The Civil Defence is assisting the UDI at several locations in Eastern Norway. It has an important role to play in this situation. The Civil Defence is monitoring events, and is communicating with the UDI in order to make sound plans and follow up any new requests for assistance. The Civil Defence expects to receive more requests for assistance from the UDI and from the municipalities.
The voluntary sector also plays a significant role. The Norwegian Red Cross, Caritas, Norwegian People’s Aid, and many other voluntary organisations have mobilised here in Norway, in the neighbouring countries, and in Ukraine.
Many Norwegians want to help now. I would like to encourage people to contact a voluntary organisation which has good systems and experience with this work in order to learn how they can help best in this phase.
Costs must be taken into consideration when increasing capacity. The current budget contains authorisation to exceed the funding for operation of asylum reception centres by up to NOK 900 million, if necessary, to accommodate asylum seekers.
Work is currently under way to determine whether it is necessary to submit a supplementary proposition to the Storting before the ordinary revision of the budget in connection with the revised national budget.
As you know, the Council of the European Union adopted a decision, also dated 4 March, to activate the EU Directive on temporary protection for people fleeing Ukraine. Also other countries which are not bound by the directive, like Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland, are now considering similar arrangements.
Neither the directive nor the decision are binding on Norway. However, Norway has a dedicated provision in section 34 of the Immigration Act on temporary collective protection which is applicable now. Temporary collective protection was used in Norway during the Kosovo and Bosnia conflicts in the 1990s, when thousands of refugees were brought here.
In light of current developments, the scheme is effective – both for the people who arrive and those who will be receiving them.
On 4 March, the Norwegian Government decided to introduce a scheme to provide temporary collective protection for citizens of Ukraine. The scheme involves an exemption from the general rule that asylum applications are assessed individually, and allows protection of an entire group of people – for example, based on nationality. We are now working on the details of the scheme, with a view to it entering into effect through a Royal Decree tomorrow, Friday.
Temporary collective protection will make it possible to quickly settle refugees in the municipalities. This means that they will not have to spend as much time in reception centres as refugees who arrive in Norway through the ordinary arrangements, which is good.
Responsibility for settling refugees lies with the Minister of Labour and Social Inclusion. We are working together closely, and I know that hard work is being done on settling and following up refugees after they have been through the reception phase.
The Directorate of Integration and Diversity has asked the municipalities to provide input on their ability to accommodate refugees, and I encourage the municipalities to take steps to help settle the refugees quickly.
Swift settlement is important so that children can attend kindergarten and school, and for adults to begin working and participating in local communities nationwide.
It is my impression that Norwegians are very willing to help Ukrainians during this difficult time. We see that people are opening their homes, supporting humanitarian organisations working in Ukraine and its neighbouring countries by making donations, and some people are travelling to the neighbouring countries to help Ukrainians make the journey to Norway.
I am very pleased to see that people want to help, but immigration to Norway should take place within a proper framework. The refugees who have left Ukraine are safe in the neighbouring countries. They have managed to escape the acts of war. Great efforts are being made to provide immediate humanitarian aid, and there is great willingness in Europe to receive the refugees who will travel on to other countries where they have family and acquaintances, for example. I believe that it is important that the work to collect refugees and asylum seekers be organised by the Norwegian authorities and within a formal framework.
As regards travelling to a neighbouring country to bring people to Norway, it is important that one knows what one is doing and who is being brought. In principle, we advise against the organisation of private transportation of Ukrainian refugees between European countries.
Unfortunately, during major crises, there are people who exploit the opportunities that arise, and vulnerable people. In a chaotic situation with many private initiatives, there is a risk of human smuggling and human trafficking. There is also a risk of people with ill intentions in Norway slipping in among the refugee stream. It can be difficult for refugees to know whose intentions are good and whose are bad. When fleeing, this is a particular risk to women and children, including unaccompanied minors. This is also true in this situation, and is something we want to avoid.
I would like to commend and thank all agencies within the sectors affected, the county governors, and the municipalities, which are now doing their utmost to ensure that we are able to welcome the Ukrainians who come here. I would also like to thank the voluntary organisations, the humanitarian organisations, and the individuals who are committed to this cause. This joint effort is crucial.
I also think that it is important that we continue to have a close dialogue with the EU and UNHCR on developments in this refugee situation. I myself am participating actively in the European cooperation. I have attended two meetings with the other ministers of justice in Europe during the past two weeks, and will stay in close contact with my European colleagues also in the time ahead. I am very glad to have met with the High Commissioner. Together with other humanitarian organisations, UNHCR is doing important work to meet the immediate needs of the refugees in the neighbouring countries.
We are in the midst of a mass displacement in Europe and Norway, like our European neighbours, is prepared to be there for Ukraine and those who flee the country.
We must stand together in this very difficult situation. I hope that we achieve wide-ranging support on the work we must now do to welcome Ukrainians who need protection, and to protect our own security.
Together with other European countries, Norway wants to be a safe harbour for the people of Ukraine. We will be there for those who need protection, help, and compassion.
I would like to conclude by saying that even though the willingness and ability to help is great, we need to prepare for this to be a difficult process. Only 14 days have elapsed since the Russian invasion. There have been enormous developments during the past two weeks, from day to day and hour to hour. There is good reason to believe that this is only the beginning.
If thousands of refugees come to Norway over a short period of time, this will create many challenges. It may strain services, which may put pressure on people who are doing their utmost to help. Remember to take care of each other and yourselves. Remember that if we do too much too fast, there is a risk of reaching a breaking point.
We need to remember that this is not a sprint. It may turn into a marathon, a situation we need to manage for a long time.
It is therefore important to the Norwegian Government that this be dealt with in a responsible and structured manner. The reason we cannot answer all questions right away or provide all the details is that we must thoroughly assess the solutions we are planning. It is important that the solutions we are putting in place now can also be used later. We must also be aware that receiving a large number of refugees over a short period of time requires that we handle things faster and use simpler solutions than we normally offer.
We must welcome the refugees with warmth and compassion, put a roof over their heads, and offer them good help. We need to be realistic about what this will mean to Norwegian society.
The Norwegian Government is preparing the country to address this situation together, to stay in control, and for the practical solutions to work as best possible once we return to everyday life.