29 January 2016

Last Tuesday, Norway deported 13 Syrian asylum seekers to Murmansk in Russia, in the face of criticism by human rights NGOs.  

In the last few months of 2015, around 5,500 asylum seekers mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, entered Norway through the remote Storskog border post, forging a new migration route to Europe. Due to a legal peculiarity, which prevented crossing the border by foot they cycled over the border in snow and sub-zero temperatures. The ‘Arctic Route’ has been favoured by many as a safer alternative to taking a boat across the Mediterranean which also avoids being registered in multiple Schengen countries on the way to their final destinations with the risk of being sent back to the first EU country they irregularly crossed into.

In response to this increase in asylum seekers, the Norwegian government rushed through a number of restrictive changes to its asylum law in under a week with very little consultation. In November 2015 it issued instructions for a fast track procedure for asylum seekers deemed to have arrived in Norway through a ‘safe’ third country where they were not persecuted, which included Russia. This means that asylum seekers do not have their claims individually considered and instead are liable to be rapidly returned to Russia under a readmission agreement regardless of whether they applied for asylum there or not. Those with residence permits, long term visas or multiple entry visas in Russia are assumed to be able to return and reside there safely with no risk of ill-treatment.

The Norwegian Minister of Migration and Integration wishes to send all those that entered via Storskog back to Russia, while Russia has only agreed to accept 700 of this group. Among these people are several asylum seekers who have no connection to Russia and merely transited through on their way to Norway, buying multiple entry visas from smugglers which would put them in a precarious position if returned. ECRE member NOAS believes that in Russia they will be denied access to a satisfactory processing of their asylum applications which ensures that those in need of protection will not be sent back to a country where they fear persecution.

The designation of Russia as a safe third country is questionable given a number of deficiencies in its asylum system. Vincent Cochetel, Director of UNHCR’s Europe Bureau, stated that those deported “can end up in a no-man’s land where they risk freezing to death. There are large cracks in the Russian asylum system. We believe Norway is wrong to regard Russia as a safe country for people who need protection”. UNHCR’s Director for Northern Europe Pia Prytz Phiri has echoed this denouncing the Norwegian measures for failing to comply with its obligations under international law, in particular, the right to claim asylum. Access to asylum in Russia is highly problematic with low recognition rates, inadequate assessment of claims, poor reception facilities, corruption among migration officials and a significant risk of detention and refoulement. Last October, the European Court of Human Rights found Russia in violation of the ECHR for attempting to forcibly return three Syrian asylum seekers, without adequately assessing their risk of ill-treatment.

NOAS, along with the Helsinki Committee and Amnesty International have expressed their concerns to the UNHCR that Norway is acting in violation of the right to seek asylum. The first group of asylum seekers was deported by bus to Russia on 19 January, with further returns planned. However, later that week deportations were temporarily suspended until further notice at the request of the Russian authorities, in order to better coordinate returns amidst disputes between the two countries as to which was responsible. Meanwhile, asylum seekers in Norway wait in uncertainty to find out their fate. Having gone on hunger strike earlier this month, many have now left Norwegian reception centres in fear that they will be sent to Russia and then returned to their countries of origin where they fear persecution.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 29 January 2016. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.