Norwegian authorities have begun a controversial new practice of using busses to transport asylum seekers back to Russia. The move has sparked a hunger strike among some migrants opposed to leaving Norway.
The Norwegian Directorate of Immigration [UDI] confirmed late Tuesday that they had begun the controversial move to bus asylum seekers back the Russian border.
Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper reported that a bus carrying 13 people had crossed into Russia late Tuesday night after leaving a refugee center in the Norwegian town of Kirkenes, in the far northeastern part of the country.
Immigration Minister Sylvi Listhaug told the British paper the refugees would be taken to the Russian towns of Nikel and Murmansk.
"If Norway is to have a fair asylum policy, we need to send back those who are not entitled to protection," Listhaug told a parliamentary sitting on Tuesday evening. Any asylum seekers with a valid Russian visa will be deported, she added.
However, it remains unclear exactly where the asylum seekers will be housed once returned.
Oslo recently approved stricter asylum legislation enabling them to begin returning more than 5,000 refugees who entered the country through Russia last year.
Refugees resist deportation
Meanwhile, around 40 people fled the Oscarsgata asylum center in Vadso, likely out of fear they would be sent back to Russia, Norwegian newspaper "VG" reported Tuesday.
"It's both Syrians and Afghans," Hilde Meyer, the center's deputy leader told the paper. "Thus far, we have reached a figure of 40 after going around and counting."
It is mostly young, single men who have vanished, Meyer added.
The center can house up 280 refugees at any one time.
Local broadcaster NRK reported an unnamed asylum seeker as saying the men left "because they heard that the police had come to the center and they are afraid."
Fear, the asylum seeker added, was rampant among those at the center. "We haven't slept well these past few months because we think the police can come at any moment and take us," they added.
Russian news agency TASS reported that the men fled following reports that Moscow had agreed that Norway could bus back asylum seekers holding Russian visas.
NRK reported some of the migrants being housed in center where the men are missing started a hunger strike, with others refusing to board the buses taking them to Russia.
"When they brought us here, they said we would be interviewed by the UDI, but we haven't been. We haven't been given any information," Rami Haddad, an asylum seeker from Jordan told NRK on Monday.
"It feels like we are in prison. We can't go out or do anything, the police are everywhere," he added.
Both children and adults, he added, were partaking in the hunger strike.
Thousands of those being housed in Norway used bicycles to cross the Arctic border dividing Norway and Russia in autumn last year.
The so-called "Arctic route" was used last year by more than 5 million refugees from Asia and the Middle East as they made their way to Europe, a route through Murmansk, a Russian city bordering Norway and Russia.
Norway is not a member of the European Union, but is part of the Schengen Agreement, which grants people in Europe passport-free travel, however, Norwegian law deems migrants who have traveled via the "Arctic route" to be illegal, as Russia is a safe country where refugees are able to claim asylum.
In 2015, Norway returned 371 people from Syria, Afghanistan, Syria, Nepal and Pakistan via Storskog, a border crossing station on the Norwegian side of the Norway-Russia border.
Migrants in Norway are to be given courses in preventing violence against women, especially rape, and to teach them how to interpret customs in a country that may seem surprisingly liberal to them, it was announced on Wednesday. The courses are particularly topical after complaints of a large number of sexual assaults on New Year's Eve in the German city of Cologne, by a crowd of mostly North African and Arab men.
European migrant influx
Europe has seen over a million migrants make their way to the continent, which has prompted a number of demonstrations across Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel has come under increased pressure to change her open-door policy for refugees.
German Foreign Minster Frank-Walter Steinmeier said there is no easy solution to the migrant crisis that saw more than 1 million refugees arrive in Europe last year.
Closing borders, as some countries have done, Steinmeier added, won't prevent people from trying to enter Europe.
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