Why Norway now pushes for stricter asylum rules

Up to 100,000 people are expected to apply for asylum in Norway in 2016. Many of them are Syrian war refugees.

(Haakon Mosvold Larsen /NTB scanpix via AP)
Norway's Minister of Immigration and Integration Sylvie Listhaug talks, during a press conference in the Ministry of Justice, in Oslo, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015. Norway’s center-right government on Tuesday proposed tightening the country’s asylum rules to avoid what the immigration minister described as “violent consequences” for the country’s welfare system. The measures, which would need parliamentary approval to take effect, include making it more difficult for refugees to bring family members to Norway and raising the requirements for permanent residence permits.

Norway's center-right government on Tuesday proposed tightening the country's asylum rules to avoid what the immigration minister described as "violent consequences" for the country's welfare system.

The measures, which would need parliamentary approval, include making it more difficult for refugees to bring family members to Norway and raising the requirements for permanent residence permits.

The move comes after more than 30,000 asylum-seekers sought shelter this year in the wealthy country of 5.1 million people. Immigration Minister Sylvie Listhaug, of the right-wing Progress Party, noted that's one of the highest numbers in Europe in relation to population size.

She said 10,000 to 100,000 people are expected to apply for asylum in Norway in 2016.

"If we are anywhere near the latter number it could have violent consequences for our welfare society," Listhaug was quoted as saying by Norwegian news agency NTB.

Refugees are entitled to many of the same welfare benefits as Norwegians.

The government's proposals met fierce criticism from refugee rights advocates.

"It is very serious that politicians are using punitive measures that would make life more difficult for a number of asylum-seekers who are entitled to protection," Andreas Furuseth, of the Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers, told NTB.

The coalition government also called for restrictions on who can get refugee status, which comes with more rights and benefits than other forms of protection.

Currently Norway grants refugee status to a wider group of people than those considered refugees under U.N. standards, including people who would be at risk of the death penalty in their home countries.

Listhaug told public broadcaster NRK that the measures would "make it less attractive" for asylum-seekers to come to Norway, whose offshore oil and gas resources have made it one of the world's richest countries on a per-capita basis.

The Christian Science Monitor reported that Syrian refugees have been bicycling to Norway from Russia. 

The direct border crossing between Norway and Russia at Storskog, in the Arctic Circle, opened only within the last three years, the Barents Observer reported. Russia does not allow foot traffic at the border, and in an effort to deter human trafficking, Norway is clamping down on drivers who bring travelers across. Many are now cycling across the border.

"No bus or taxi will take the Syrians to Norway because they do not have valid visas and the drivers would be fined by the Norwegians and stripped of their permits to work on international routes," an unnamed source told Reuters. "The local shops are empty of bicycles."

Some 1,200 refugees have crossed into Norway this year from Russia, but by Oct. 29, the Russian town of Nickel had become a bottleneck for 500 refugees after the town ran out of bicycles, Reuters reported. Meanwhile, the bikes pile up on the Norwegian side, and police don't want to send them elsewhere because the cheap bicycles don't meet Norway's safety standards, Norway's national news agency NRK reported. 

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