Svalbard is already a haven for Syria’s crops that are under threat in the war-torn country. Now it’s being suggested thousands of refugees fleeing the country be sent to the archipelago as well.
Norway will accept 10,000 refugees from Syria during the next two years under a plan supported by a majority of Parliament, despite opposition from the Conservative and Progress parties in the ruling coalition. Opponents argue municipalities lack the capacity to take in the refugees – noting 5,000 are already in asylum centers awaiting resettlement- prompting the suggestion of using Svalbard as a sanctuary for the new arrivals.
“If the majority in Parliament says that we should accept 10,000 refugees instead of accepting that municipalities are saying there is not capacity, then Norway doesn’t have the space,” said Christian Eikeland, group leader for the Progress Party in Vest-Agder, in an interview with NRK. “If so, then putting it bluntly, we can create a refugee camp in Svalbard.”
The suggestion is being denounced as heartless and impractical by national and local politicians who support Norway’s acceptance of the refugees. Longyearbyen Mayor Christin Kristoffersen, a Labor Party member involved with refugee issues in Sweden before coming to Svalbard, said the archipelago’s limited facilities and government would make the plight of those suffering worse.
“It shows a total lack of empathy,” she said. “We don’t have the health care system. We don’t have the laws. We don’t have the possibility to offer them what they need.”
Svalbard, as an international community with residents from more than 40 countries, might in theory be more welcoming to the refugees than in towns on the mainland where their presence is controversial. But Kristoffersen said Eikeland’s proposal is about his party’s opposition to the refugees, rather than a concern for their well-being.
“Being used to prove this kind of point makes me bloody angry,” she said.
“It’s slightly colder here. It’s a slightly different way of living. It’s like they’re trying to make the situation for the refugees the most difficult possible.”
Eikeland acknowledged there are challenges posed by sending the refugees to Svalbard, but not enough to make the idea impractical.
“The climate can be a challenge, even if there is a fairly manageable climate in Svalbard in comparison to the refugees who are in Finnmark today,” he said. “If someone would like to work at a refugee camp in Svalbard I don’t see anything challenging in it. For the space is certainly there.”
He also posted his suggestion on Facebook, attracting mostly skeptical responses from Longyearbyen residents.
“His argument is that there is enough room on Svalbard,” wrote Kari Schrøder Hansen. “There is well enough room in Vest-Agder as well, so the argument has zero credibility. There must be something else… for example, that they should be sent so far away that Christian Eikeland not need to see them.”
The Conservative-led government is already making its anti-refugee stance clear as it is negotiating a deal with Eritrea to force asylum seekers from that country to return, even though the United Nations asserts a clear pattern of human rights violations is occurring and the refugees may face torture. Norway is the only European country taking such a stance.
Svalbard is offering one form of safe haven for Syrian citizens hoping to rebuild their country after the war, as seeds species from the country’s main crops are being housed in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The species were built up in an international storage facility in the Syrian city of Aleppo in Syria over a period of decades, but the facility is out of service due to the war and there are fears it may be destroyed.