Norway tightens asylum rules; Balkan border controls leave migrants in limbo
November 20, 2015 | 5:35 PM
by Reuters
Migrants hold banners as they wait to cross the border from Greece to Gevgelija, Macedonia November 20, 2015. Balkan countries have begun filtering the flow of migrants to Europe, granting passage to those fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan but turning back others from Africa and Asia, the United Nations and Reuters witnesses said on Thursday. Photo - Reuters

Oslo/Geneva: Emergency laws tightening Norway's asylum rules came into force on Friday as the government tries to stem a sharp rise in the number of people arriving that has led support among voters for an anti-immigration party to surge.

Also on Friday aid agencies said that new border controls in the western Balkans are leaving thousands in limbo as winter sets in.

The Nordic country of 5.2 million people, which is a member of the passport-free Schengen area but not of the European Union, expects to receive up to 35,000 asylum applications this year. That figure has been revised upwards several times since August as Europe grapples with its biggest migrant crisis since World War II.

The ruling minority coalition, made up of the centre-right Conservatives and the anti-immigration Progress Party, announced the legislation only last Friday.

It was passed in parliament late on Thursday with the help of the main opposition Labour Party and several centrist parties and given formal approval by the cabinet and king on Friday.

Support for the Progress Party has surged by 7.3 percentage points to 17.5 per cent since October, a poll by Ipsos MMI for tabloid Dagbladet showed on Friday, while Conservative support fell by 3.3 points to 20.0 per cent.

The survey, conducted from November 16-19, marked a big turnaround from municipal elections held in September when Progress recorded its worst result in 22 years.

"The debate over refugees has shifted significantly during the autumn, from a discussion marked by sympathy and compassion to one concerned with the problems that refugees and immigrants bring," political scientist Johannes Bergh of the Institute for Social Research told the newspaper.

The new rules, which will be in force for two years, make it easier to refuse to process an asylum application if the asylum seeker has already resided in a third country deemed safe.

Other measures allow foreign nationals to be arrested and detained in cases where it is most likely that their asylum applications will not be processed, or to impose a duty to report to authorities and stay in a specific place.

Separately, a majority of parliamentarians agreed on a deeper, more long-term reform of Norway's asylum policy that includes fast-track deportation of asylum seekers with a criminal record.

The number of asylum seekers arriving in Norway remains relatively modest compared with other European countries. Neighbouring Sweden expects to receive 190,000 asylum applications this year.

But the numbers are rising rapidly, particularly on Norway's Arctic border with Russia, where more than 4,000 people have entered the country this year, up from just 10 last year.

Meanwhile, Balkan countries have begun filtering the flow of migrants, granting passage to those fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan but turning back others from Africa and Asia, the United Nations and Reuters witnesses said on Thursday.

The measures by Macedonia, Slovenia and other states are creating tension at border crossings and leaving some families stranded, the UN refugee and children's agencies and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a joint statement.

"There is urgent need to put in place additional reception capacity at the points of entry," the spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Adrian Edwards, told a news briefing in Geneva.

More than 4,000 refugees and migrants are flowing into Europe each day, he said.

"It is a decision made in urgency, out of desperation, they have to abandon their homes, their families. That is something that is not affected by the seasons," Edwards said. "There has to be a means to manage this situation."

Slovenia has started imposing selection criteria, leading to concerns that migrants might change routes via Bulgaria, where conditions are even more precarious, IOM spokesman Joel Millman said.

"Refugee and migrant children are amongst the worst off," said UN Children's Fund spokeswoman Sarah Crowe. People younger than 18 now account for about a third of new arrivals in Gevgelija, Macedonia, up from one in 10 in June, she added.

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