Green Party joins political opposites in proposing sending Syrian refugees to Svalbard despite numerous legal and practical issues

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Locals seem willing to accept them. Two totally opposite political parties are suggesting sending them here (although the motives of one are questionable). But despite much of Europe increasingly slamming the door on the deluge of refugees fleeing Syria, housing them in Svalbard would be a nearly unworkable logical, legal and social challenge.

“I would definitely help them,” said Mouawia Lababidi, a Syrian who moved to Longyearbyen in 2010, a year before the civil war now raging in his homeland began. But “my personal opinion is this is not a good idea. This is a harsh climate.”

Norway’s Green Party is asking The Governor of Svalbard to determine the legality of sending refugees to the archipelago, arguing it would be beneficial to both the Syrians and local residents who are both in a time of crisis.

“A reception center would of course create jobs, but that is a positive side effect of something much more important than coal mining, that’s not our primary concern,” said Espen Klungseth Rotevatn, head of leader of the Svalbard Green Party, in an interview with Vårt Land. “Europe is on fire, and it is now that our values and ethical standards are put to the test.”

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Mouawia Lababidi, a Syrian native living in Longyearbyen, describes the plight of refugees from his homeland during a fundraiser this week at the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The legal obstacles alone are numerous. Svalbard is not part of the Schengen free movement area, thus limiting the archipelago’s ability to accept and given them asylum status. Furthermore, it would violate Svalbard’s financial and health “self-sufficiency” requirements.

“We do not have social security and we do not have those type of benefits,” said Gov. Odd Olsen Ingerø, in an interview with Dagbladet. “Longyearbyen is a community that is created for employable, healthy people. It is difficult to get jobs and Store Norske is now in a downsizing period.”

People, including other refugees, have come to Svalbard and been forced to leave because they were unable to supported themselves, Ingerø said.

“But this is a political question,” he said. “If a political majority in Norway wants to make this happen, then it is not legally impossible. But in that case it has to have been fully funded by the state. This is not under our purview.”

The only other group to propose sending refugees to Svalbard is the anti-immigration Progress Party. Norway has agreed to accept 8,000 refugees during the next two years and Christian Eikeland, group leader for the Progress Party in Vest-Agder, suggested they be sent to a camp in Svalbard because mainland cities lack the capacity for them. He later retracted the statement, saying he was simply arguing the mainland doesn’t have sufficient space for the refugees.

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Visitors to Svalbard during the total solar eclipse in March endure temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius by staying in large tents set up in Adventdalen to compensate for the lack of guest housing for the more than 2,000 travelers spending one of more nights here. Lababidi said housing refugees in such conditions would be a “no-go.” Photo courtesy of Get Together Tours.

But even if the legal and political challenges could be overcome, the practical problems of sending refugees here would still be enormous, Lababidi said.

“If they’re going to put them in tents, that’s a no-go,” he said.

Furthermore, Lababidi said that unless the government or some other entity essentially pays for all of the refugees’ expenses, there’s no way they could survive on the wages they earned in Syria.

“They’re going to be broke in the first day,” he said.

The social and physical isolation of such a remote place would also be a hardship, to say nothing of how people from one of the warmest regions of the world would endure the extreme Arctic climate.

However, some refugees are already seeking asylum in Arctic regions, including about 150 people without Schengen visas that have entered the Norwegian border town of Kirkenes through Russia this year, according to BarentsObserver. Finland has increased its border control in the far north due to a similar inflow.

One aspect of Svalbard that would likely work in the refugees’ favor is the diverse international population, with residents from more than 40 countries living in the archipelago. That means locals may be less hostile toward Syrians, who are finding it increasingly difficult to find countries that will allow them to enter.

That list of countries includes Norway, as Minister of Justice and Public Security Anders Anundsen said this week “increased border control is one of the things we are considering” if the inflow of refugees becomes too great.

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