Sat, Nov 07, 2015 - Page 6 News List

Afghans overtake Syrians on Arctic route into Europe

Reuters, OSLO

Afghans have overtaken Syrians as the biggest group of asylum seekers crossing Norway’s remote Arctic frontier from Russia, even though many risk being sent back to Kabul, Norway’s top immigration official said on Thursday.

Many other European nations have also seen a surge in arrivals from Afghanistan, adding to Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II. On Tuesday, Austria’s Cabinet proposed a tough new bill to deter Afghans.

“It worries us that there are so many from Afghanistan... They should think twice,” Norwegian Directorate of Immigration Director Frode Forfang told reporters. “In the summer, it was primarily Syrians seeking asylum in the north, with about three quarters of all those crossing the border. Now 60 percent of the daily arrivals are from Afghanistan.”

Forfang said many Afghans wrongly believed they could automatically get work or study permits.

He said many risked being flown back to Kabul, a city Norway considers relatively safe, even though much of Afghanistan remains chronically unstable amid continued fighting between the Western-backed government and Taliban militants.

A record 196 asylum seekers, from all nations, crossed the Arctic border from Russia on Monday after a steady rise during the year, Forfang said.

Last year, only about 10 asylum seekers in the whole year crossed the remote border post.

Some Syrians fleeing civil war fly to the Russian Arctic port of Murmansk via Moscow and then take taxis to the border. They often buy bicycles for the final stretch because Russian law bars travel on foot in the region and Norway fines people driving migrants to the frontier under laws barring human trafficking.

Forfang said Afghans had started to take the same route, also using bicycles to cross the border.

Some of them seem to be residents of Russia or have visas, he said, adding that it was unclear exactly where the majority of them had come from.

Norway, one of the world’s richest nations, is a member of Europe’s passport-free Schengen Area, even though it is not part of the EU.

Oslo is considering using boats to help house migrants in the sparsely populated north, said Norwegian State Secretary of the Ministry of Justice and Public Security Joeran Kallmyr of the Progress Party, a junior partner in government and the least welcoming to migrants.

“There are not enough houses. It is winter up there now, but on the boats they will get shelter in a warm and safe place, but not much more than that,” Kallmyr said.

Temperatures in the border area were at about freezing on Thursday.

So far this year, almost 22,000 people have sought asylum at all of Norway’s frontiers, including 7,858 from Syria and 4,079 from Afghanistan.

The total could reach 30,000 or even 40,000 by the end of the year, Forfang said.

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