Norway, Ethiopian refugees: why brazen solution?

by Keffyalew Gebremedhin

June 6, 2012 (Transforming Ethiopia) – For several decades, Norway has been known internationally as one of the pillars of United Nations efforts in ensuring respect for fundamental human rights nationally and internationally. In that respect, its important contributions towards alleviation of the refugee problem both through the evolution of the normative processes within the United Nations system, such as the development of international instruments, and its steadfastness in giving protection to asylum seekers within its territory have been widely acknowledged.

Therefore, if Norwegians feel special pride in their country’s human rights records, it has been duly earned. When people from across the globe have paid through the years their great respect to that record, it has also been a recognition duly deserved.

Nonetheless, since 2009 the Norwegian government’s implementation of the so-called ‘assisted returnees’ program, without adequately ensuring returned refugees would not be exposed to dangers once they are back in their home countries have continued to give rise to serious concerns.

For instance, Amnesty International’s complaint in 2010 against Norway, along with four other European countries (Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom), for forcibly returning Iraqi refugees to “the Iraqi provinces of Ninewa (Mosul), Kirkuk, Diyala, Salah al-Din, Baghdad, and to other particularly dangerous areas such as parts of Al Anbar province”, before the situation in that country had stabilized, has continued as a practice.

Worse is the forced removal of children to different countries. Two Norwegian papers Arbeidets Rettand Møre si Nettutgåve in their 21 March 2012 editions reported that as many as 2,434 children born and raised in Norway have been returned to their home countries, once the asylum requests of their parents have been rejected, i.e., without giving due consideration to the plight of the minors.

Similar criticisms are being darted in Norway’s direction at this very moment, following the government’s decision in 2011 to deport hundreds of Ethiopian refugees who have lived in that country for several years. This is not being remarked upon casually or out of denial of a nation’s prerogatives whom not to keep or not to keep within its territory, so long as the actions being acted upon are not in conflict with voluntarily assumed international obligations. In fact, since Norway is expected to be good example for others because of its past records, the bar of necessity would be higher to keep it as yardstick for respect of fundamental human rights.

Because of such considerations, Norway’s position has been found untenable. There is strong claim of tensions between this decision Oslo has predicated on its agreement with the Ethiopian government, signed on 26 January 2012. The evolving consensus is that it is in total disregard of its longstanding international obligations, beginning with the 1951 Convention on the Status of refugees and subsequent international instruments ranging from the protection of individuals from torture to inhuman and other forms of degrading treatments.

Division with Norwegian society

Consequently, ever since that decision, as in any democratic country Norwegians as individuals, NGOs, churches, political parties and the press have all been embroiled in the rights and wrongs of the Labor Party government’s polices. The media in Norway have reported that at times the discussion were overly heated, according to VG Nett and Adresseavisen of March 15, 2012.

Surely, for the ruling Labor Party of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, if the policy were designed with the current anti-immigrant sentiments sweeping Europe in mind, the anticipated gains do seem to warrant the disagreements the country was compelled to experience. In fact, it proved to be one of the most divisive issues in recent years, within the ruling party as well as across political parties.

For some, their opposition to the government’s policy are strictly anchored on principle, for others on politics and for a good number of Norwegians on ethics and morality.

In a summary of four news articles from two Norwegian papers (VG Nett and Adresseavisen) of 14 & 15 March 2012, collectively dubbed as Internal dispute in the Labour Party on asylum policy, compiled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the tension and political division in Norway arising from this issues is characterized as follows:

The return agreement between Norway and Ethiopia has led to a heated debate in Norway. We call for greater justice and solidarity, says Vegard Grønlie Wennesland, leader of the Labour Party’s youth branch in Oslo. He adds that asylum policy will be one of the topics at the annual Labour Party meeting this weekend. A new opinion poll carried out by InFacts show that only 15 per cent of the Labour Party’s voters are in favour of the deportation of 450 refugee children. Of all the pople asked half say that the children should stay while 24 per cent say they should be returned, and 24 per cent have no opinion. Internally in the Labour Party there has also been a divide, and some local politicians have criticised the asylum policy openly. Minister of Justice Grete Feramo does not wish to comment on InFacts’s survey.

This frustrating situation for the governing party has obviously become a boon for the opposition Liberal Party. According to Stavanger Avisen of 20 April 2012, it has gained 3.5 percent support in public opinion polls. The newspaper translates this to mean that, if elections were held that weekend in April when the party had held its convention, it would have received 7.8 percent of the votes. In terms of parliamentary seats, according to Stavanger Avisen, this could have landed the Liberal Party to becoming holder of 14 seats in parliament, instead of the present two.

Speaking of that unrealized success, Party Leader Trine Skei Grande simply noted people needed “a better environmental policy and a humane asylum policy.”
Internal and external pressure compel Norway to have second look on its January 26 Agreement with Ethiopia

This clash of views amongst citizens and political institutions in Norway on the plight of Ethiopian refugees and its consequences mentioned above has not stopped the ruling party from rejecting the law suit brought against it by 342 Ethiopians. Analysts saw this as evidence of its determination to proceed with its deportation policy.

Three Norwegian newspapers (Aftenbladet of 20 April 2012, NRK of 20 April 2012 and Vårt Land of 20 April 2012) reported this rejection in a matter of fact manner. In that connection, they indicated that the Attorney General’s office was of the view that the general security situation in Ethiopia did not indicate that all plaintiffs would be in any real danger of capital punishment, torture or other forms of inhumane or degrading treatment upon their return.

However, Norway internally was clearly aware that this seemingly iron clad certainty was only disguising efforts behind the scenes in which it was engaged on one hand with the Ethiopian government and on the other trying to address the publicly expressed official concerns of the United Nations, as contained in its official letter of March 23, 2012 on this very matter.

Clearly, the government of Mr. Stoltenberg was only trying hard to put a brave face on difficult situation, which could not escape shrewd observers’ notice. For instance, overtly it has been exuding confidence in the agreement of January 26, based on which it has made the decision to deport over 400 Ethiopians. At the same time, it was engaged in back-room cobbling up of an entirely separate agreement with Addis Abeba to wax any leaking holes it has caught on at a later stage. Possibly that must have been initiated, after receipt of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants Prof. François Crépeau’s letter, which is detailed in its expressions of the Human Rights Council’s concerns.

In the circumstances, fulfilling the task of flying to Addis Abeba to re-engage the Ethiopian government fell on the laps of Minister of International Development Heikki Holmås, who flew to Ethiopia and sign the new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU II) of 9 May with Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Hailemariam Desalegn.

After signing the new MOU, Heikki Holmås said with a face saving response, “Ethiopia has chosen a path of green development that is lifting people out of poverty. Given that it is one of the world’s poorest countries, its plans are impressive. The new MoU creates a good departure point for helping to improve the human rights situation in Ethiopia.” He further added, according to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, “there are aspects of the human rights situation in the country that give grounds for criticism. The new MoU will enable Norway to step up its dialogue on these types of issues in a more systematic manner.

There is no doubt about it that this comes out of realization on the part of Norway that the January 26 agreement they signed with Addis Abeba could not ensure at all the protection of the returning refugees, for which Norway has taken upon itself to ensure their safety and security through these two instruments (MoU I and MoU II).

More importantly, Mr Holmås visit came in the wake of the deportation order given, among the many, to Nathan Eshete, a seven-year old boy born and raised in Norway, according to The Foreignerbecause his parents’ request for asylum has been rejected.

The Eshete family

The Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers (NOAS) is livid at the situation as it stands now.The Foreignerquotes Secretary General Ann-Margrit Austenå of NOAS, who says, “A number of Ethiopian children have lived in Norway for quite some time, and we believe their situation must be addressed. The government must postpone cases and make a new assessment if it is serious about their best interests.”

Those opposing the government’s policy hold the view that the child’s right and future should have been a priority for the immigration authorities. During parliamentary debate on Norway’s asylum policy on 21 March 2012, according to the 21 March publication of VG NettSarpsborg Arbeiderblad Gudbrandsdølen Dagningen , andNettavisen Møre si Nettutgåve (22 March), PM Jens Stoltenberg stated:

“It is important to consider the child’s best interest, but it should not overrule other considerations. We want a fair and predictable set of rules. That is why we cannot open up for a system which awards people who cheat with their identity, and give wrong information about where they come from. Moreover, we cannot give special treatment in cases where parents push their children in front of them…Softening the rules for the children in question would be a pull factor for parents as well as siblings since families make up 40 per cent of all asylum-seekers. Asylum policy must be fair and asked what he should tell the 600 children who were returned last year if the rules are liberalised now. Jens Stoltenberg announced possible changes to the asylum legislation by limiting the current comprehensive right to appeal. These changes may already be announced in the Government’s white paper later this year.”

Could the Norwegian government believe that it has satisfactory responses to the various issues raised by the UN?

From my reading of what has transpired in the media, it is very doubtful, especially given the seven questions the Special Rapporteur listed down, in addition to the concerns expressed about minors rights and safety of refugees, in line with the provisions of the various international human rights instruments to which Norway is a signatory. The seven questions are:

  1. “Are the facts alleged in the above summary of the case accurate?
  2. How will your Excellency’s Government mintor how ARRA spends the money i receives for the implementation of the return and reintegration programme?
  3. What is the role of the National Intelligence and Security Services in the return and reintegration process?
  4. How will your Excellency government ensure that the authorities in Ethiopia comply with the absolute prohibition of torture vis-à-vis the returnees?
  5. What measures has your Excellency’s Government taken or does it intend to take to ensure an individual assessment of all Ethiopian nationals subjected to forced return; those who may be in need of international refugee protection or who are in need of human rights protection for other reasons?
  6. What measures has your Excellency’s Government taken or does it intend to take to ensure an evaluation of the best interests of the child in relation to each Ethiopian child (any person under the age of 18 years) who may be subjected to forced return?
  7. Please provide information on the status of negotiations relating to other repatriation agreements between your Excellency’s Government and other countries, please indicate the contents of these agreements, and please send me a copy of the draft texts of the agreements, if available.”

Clearly, it is a while now since Norway has hardened its position about returning refugees back to their countries of origin. At the beginning of this piece, this article has already mentioned the case of refugees from Iraq. Years after that, there was also the famous case of Behrooz Kafaei Zendehel. He is an Iranian who was converted to Christianity. The Norwegian Immigration Appeals Board (UNE) rejected his case alleging that, according to Nettavisen of 20 March 2012, there was nor risk in Iran in connection with conversion to Christian faith!

In the past three years, according to Dagen and Aftenposten (21 March 2012), 2,434 refugee children have been returned to their home countries, despite objections and intercessions by church groups and NGOs involved in refugee related issues. The papers indicated, “As many as 73 per cent of the 2,434 cases have been deportations. As of 1 March this year 1,173 children who had received final rejection on their applications lived in reception centres.”

Notwithstanding all this, no matter the hard corner Norway has pushed itself into, three issues would continue to reverberate as deficiencies in its current refugee policy in general and the cases of the Ethiopians in particular persist. They revolve around the question of why Norway should make such a radical change in its longstanding humanitarian refugee policy to the extent that it should decide to abandon its humanitarian and international obligations and choose to:

  • Deport minors born and bred within Norwegian cultural milieu because their parents’ asylum applications have been rejected
  • Deport individuals after allowing them to work in the country and pay their taxes for some years and were already settled in the country
  • send the refugees back home to whims of a government from which they have fled in the first place, entrusting Oslo’s hopes for their safety and security in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Ethiopia and Norway signed at the end of January 2012. Although some have returned, out of fear or refusal to be further humiliated by being deported, most of those who are still in Norway continue to express fears that they would be imprisoned or suffer discrimination against because of their political activities when they were at home an in Norway as refugee activists.

Ethiopians in Norway protesting their possible deportation from Norway last April

Elise Kipperberg, a researcher at Stavanger University, recently surveyed the situation of 16 undocumented Ethiopians, according to NRKof 2 March 2012. Her finding supports the pledge for reconsideration of the families’ situations. She said, “Those I have talked to have been in Norway up to 14 years. They all speak Norwegian very well and are integrated into society.” She added, “Ethiopia has a brutal regime and it is surprising that Norway, as the only country in Europe, has implemented a return agreement.”

At the same time, let there be no mistake that the ruling party, which faces election next year strongly believes that the majority of Norwegian voters are in favor of strict asylum policy, although opinion in the polls also shows contradictory signals.

What makes Norway’s agreement with Ethiopia incomprehensible is also its decision to cooperate with the Ethiopian government’s request for intelligence information on each returnee during his or her stay in Norway. In all honesty, this is a huge let down by a country with a great record in its respect for human rights.

The January 26 Agreement states in three places makes reference to the information to be furnished. In Article 3, paragraph 4, it is stated: “The Norwegian side shall provide the Ethiopian side with as much information as possible with regard to the returnees. The details of this are further specified in Annex 2, where it states:

“2. The return application shall contain the following information:

  • all available particulars of the concerned person to be returned (e.g. given names,
  • surnames, date and place of birth, sex and the last place of residence);
  • all available means of evidence regarding citizenship;
  • where necessary, a statement indicating that the person to be returned may need help or care, provided the person concerned has explicitly consented of the statement;
  • any other protection or security measures which may be necessary in the individual return case. A form to be used for return applications is attached as Annex 3.”
The form in Annex 3, mentioned above, specifically indicates in Paragraph C makes references to:
  • State of health:
  • Indication of particularly dangerous person:

I remain clueless as to the rationale of such resistance on the part the Norwegian government, given the much reported on and heavily criticized poor records of the Ethiopian government on human rights.

Why did Norway want to amend its January 26 Agreement with Ethiopia?

Not more than six weeks ago, the United Nations also jumped into the fray through its Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants Prof. François Crépeau in the Norwegian refugee imbroglio. Through his letter of 23 March 2012 (attached). He sought, without wanting to “prejudice the accuracy of these allegations [he complaints has received from Ethiopians in Norway or their representative]“, he expressed concerns whether Norway is fully shouldering its treaty obligations regarding the situation of the Ethiopian refugees in that country.

One possible reason why Norway sent its minister of development cooperation to Addis could be part of its preparation to address loopholes in the 26 January Agreement it has signed with Ethiopia, discussed above. The Special Rapporter particularly singled out the case of minors. In that regard, he wrote:

“While noting that your Excellency’s Government is currently working on a white paper on asylum-seeking children (Stortingsmelding om barn på flukt), it is of particular concern that the MOU does not seem to take into account the particular protection measures that should be put in place for children. In this regard, allow me to remind your Excellency’s Government of article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Norway on 8 January 1991, which provides that in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration. In this respect I would like to refer to the concern expressed by Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2010, that in Norway, “the principle of primary consideration of the best interests of the child is not yet applied in all areas affecting children, such as […] immigration cases (CRC/C/NOR/CO/4, para 22). I would also like to recall article 2(2) of the Convention which provides that appropriate measures shall be taken “to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinons, or beliefs of the child’s parents, legal guardians, or family members.”

Besides the question of safeguards upon the return of the refugees and reintegration into Ethiopian society, the Special Rapporteur also brought out why this time Norway wanted, unlike past such agreements, by which it said it would share personal information of the refugees secured from their application forms with the receiving government – Ethiopia. The concern here is that the returnees would be exposed to harassment, threats, persecution, discrimination and criminal prosecution because of such information.

Moreover, the Special Rapporteur has touched upon a number of issues, drawing from the agreement signed by the two countries and laying them bare through the lens of international instruments to which Norway is a party. For its response, Norway is given to provide its response to the office of the Special Rapporteur within 60 days of the receipt of his letter. It is understood that a nearly similar letter has been communicated to the Ethiopian government.


Having discussed this matter extensively, one thing that requires mentioning now is also why Norway’s policies on asylum seekers have changed to the extent of hurting its image. The problem of hosting refugees is increasingly being felt in a number of countries – even in those benefitting by the presence of refugees.

Clearly at a time of shrinking resources, there are concerns about adequacy of social infrastructures, such as education facilities, health services, housing, civic utilities, transport and correction and justice. For instance, in the course of this prolonged conversation in Norway with the fate of Ethiopian refugees, some institutions or the media were complaining about the housing problems and other services, especially as the number of refugees increased.

Unfortunately, what they do not talk about is that the solution is not and cannot be keeping the refugees in suspense for several years and kicking them out of the country all of a sudden.

There is not doubt that responsible governments get preoccupied with threats and the rise of social tensions in meagre years. Unfortunately, these governments do not come out in good time and give civic education on the roots of the problem. Governments find it easier to suddenly turn against refugees, whose options are limited or non-existent, for that matter.

The New York Times on 28 July 2011 had an article by Kenan Malik, a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. It is entitled The Best Way to Deal With Xenophobia.

Its main point is that there is need to politically engage tension infused and tension creating far right organizations. Kenan amplifies that by stating, “This does not mean pandering to their prejudices. It means, to the contrary, challenging those prejudices openly and robustly. It means, for instance, challenging the idea that immigration is responsible for the lack of jobs and housing, or that lower immigration would mean a lower crime rate, or that Western societies are becoming “Islamized.””

Nevertheless, as far as the writer of the above article is concerned the problem is:

“Most mainstream politicians have, however, taken the opposite approach, responding to the advance of the far right not by challenging its prejudices but by appropriating its arguments, believing that the only way to stem support for such groups is by promising to further cut back on immigration, to step up deportation of asylum seekers and to curtail civil liberties. “We know we need to target immigrants,” seems to be the argument, “but only respectable politicians should be allowed to do that, not those who belong to far-right organizations.” It is an approach that can only deepen the belief that Europe’s social problems stem from too much immigration and so strengthen the hand of reactionary figures. The question many Europeans are asking is “How can we stop the far right?” The question they should be asking is “How can we challenge anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiment?” The answers to the two question may seem to be the same. They are not necessarily so. The danger is that in being obsessed by the first question rather than by the second, politicians help strengthen, not weaken, xenophobic attitudes.”

Transforming Ethiopia

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