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Norway adopts stricter asylum regulations

Almost 5000 asylum seekers have crossed the Norwegian-Russian border since the European migrant crisis arose. The Norwegian government decides to toughen the asylum regulations.

The crisis flared up this September, when the situation in the Middle East became critical. Syrian refugees started to seek shelter in Northern Norway, massively crossing the border from Murmansk Oblast to Finnmark County by bicycles. According to the law, it is forbidden to cross the border by foot. As a result, a big pile of vehicles appeared near the Storskog crossing point, something that has gained much attention in the media.

The NRK reported that, in Russia, the situation has turned into a well-elaborated business: representatives of a special organization meet refugees in Moscow, after which they are brought to Murmansk by train or by plane, then by bus to Nikel, where they finally switch to bicycles. For all of these services the refugees pay around $600.

As the migrants enter Norway, they are brought to a transit reception center, located in the border town of Kirkenes, before they are distributed to various asylum reception centers in Northern Norway. According to NRK, there are currently 13,880 acute places for asylum seekers in Norway, distributed between 85 temporary reception centers. Around thirty of these centers are located in Barents Norway.

According to statistics from Patchwork Barents and the East Finnmark Police District, the migrant flow to Northern Norway began with 215 asylum seekers in September. In October, their number was already nine times as high as in the previous month: 2,018 people crossed the Storskog border crossing point in October. The figure continued to grow further. Only in the first week of November, the police district registered 818 refugees crossing the border.

Also on the Russian side of the border, there was a strained situation. At the beginning of the month, more than two hundred migrants settled in a small hotel in Nikel, called “Severnoye Siyanie” (“Northern Lights”). Since the hotel did not have enough space for two hundred people, many of them had to sleep in halls and corridors, something that started to worry locals, as SeverPost previously reported. The regional administration of Pechenga even posted a warning on their official website about a possibility of terror attacks due to an increased refugee flow. However, the warning eventually disappeared from the website.

A week later, almost all of these migrants had left Nikel and crossed the border to Norway. Only two families were still staying at the hotel, writes B-port with reference to the local government of Pechenga. Currently, it is unclear whether there will be another rush of refugees into Nikel.

The daily number of refugees crossing the Norwegian-Russian border between September and November 2015. Patchwork Barents

Norway adopts stricter asylum regulations
The Norwegian government is very concerned about the situation with refugees in the country. As the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) recently reported to NRK, Norway already spends over 325 million NOK every month on emergency centers for refugees.

Last month, the Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg declared that helping asylum seekers could eventually cost Norway up to forty to fifty billion NOK. In addition, it became known that many of those attempting to come to Norway through Murmansk Oblast have already been living in Russia for longer periods, and went to Norway just in search of a better life. The UDI has since been warning about possible deportation of such people.

On October 9, SeverPost reported about the first deported refugee, with reference to its own source of information. After that, the Norwegian media also started to report similar cases. Last Monday, the chief constable of the East Finnmark Police District, Ellen Katrine Hætta, informed NRK that forty people who came to Norway from Russia without a valid Schengen visa were sent back from the border.

Finally, Norway has decided to make asylum regulations stricter as an attempt to reduce the migrant flow. According to information from its official website, the government intends to 

“(…) reduce benefits for people living in reception centers by twenty percent; benefits for families with children will be reduced by 10%; change the period of residence to become eligible for permanent residence from 3 to 5 years; issue temporary residence permits and facilitate return if the situation in the country of habitual residence changes; use integration criteria for the granting of applications for permanent residence; limit family reunification and family establishment rights for refugees; collaborate with the Iraqi authorities to establish structures for return to safe areas of Iraq, so that Iraqis and internal refugees in Iraq who have been ordered to leave Norway can be referred for internal flight.”

The government especially warns that Afghans not entitled to residence will be deported.

“Anyone crossing the border into Norway must have a visa. Norway will return people who are not entitled to residence in Norway to their country of habitual residence. Applications that appear likely to be denied will be given priority and fast-tracked. People from safe areas of Afghanistan or who have been granted residence in another country will have their application rejected and will be deported”, says the website.

“People from areas that are not considered safe, may be returned to other parts of Afghanistan. Very many Afghans who have their application rejected will be referred for “internal flight” to Kabul”, the government informs.

In 2014 and 2015, more than five hundred people have been sent back from Norway to Afghanistan.

Furthermore, the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public security has reportedly “instructed the Directorate of Immigration (UDI) and the Immigration Appeals Board (UNE) to reject applications from asylum seekers arriving in Norway after having resided in Russia, without considering individual cases in depth”.

The instruction came into force this Thursday, although last weeks’ data from the East Finnmark Police District has already shown a considerable decrease in the number of migrants. While the daily figures nearly approached two hundred people in the beginning of November, this week, they went down to twenty-four people.  

Seen from the Barents perspective
The refugee crisis has made different impact in the other Barents countries. Sweden, for example, has accepted the largest number of refugees, while Finland the lowest.

Interestingly, the national immigration services in Sweden, Norway and Finland also report considerably different asylum application figures. So far in 2015 (January-November), Sweden has received 112,264 asylum applications, which is thirty-eight percent more than it received in the twelve months of 2014. Norway received 21,946 asylum applications in 2015, while Finland only received 4,453 applications.

At the end of June 2015, the Russian Federal Migration Service reported that the total number of people registered as asylum seekers in Russia was 315,313. Among these people, only 816 had the status of “refugee”.

See Patchwork Barents’ visualizations of asylum statistics below.

This story is published in cooperation with Patchwork Barents.


Murmansk opens the Arctic "super university"

With the Arctic becoming an object of steadily growing attention, Murmansk Oblast establishes the “Arctic University” to prepare Barents students for jobs in Arctic oil and gas projects. 

The first news about the establishment of the Arctic University appeared in the local media last autumn, when the government had created a special working group. Today, the topic is being actively discussed both on the regional, national and international level. 

The Arctic University will reportedly offer unique resources: more than six hundred professors and teachers, and more than twenty groups of higher education majors. A base for the Arctic University will be the present Murmansk State Humanities University.

“This will help to create a “super university” with more than twelve thousand students, covering virtually the entire spectrum of professional training needed for realization of Arctic projects”, writes the government of Murmansk Oblast in a press release.

This September, the head of the Russian Ministry of Education and Science, Dmitriy Livanov, supported the initiative; and a few weeks ago, the issue was discussed at a meeting between the governor of Murmansk Oblast, Marina Kovtun, and Vladimir Putin.

“Getting support from the President will be the starting point in the establishment of the Arctic University with twelve thousand students. The aim of our new personnel policy is to ensure that young Northerners are employed in Arctic oil and gas projects. I am sure that with the establishment of the Arctic University we will reach this goal,” Kovtun recently stated in the regional government’s daily briefing.

From October 26, the Murmansk State Humanities University is officially called the “Murmansk Arctic State University”. From now on, the university expects great changes, said the SeverPost incumbent principal of the Murmansk Arctic State University, Irina Shadrina. In addition, she said that the Kola branch of the Petrozavodsk State University, and the Hibiny Technical College, will join the university. It has also been reported about a possible joining of the Murmansk State Technical University to the Arctic University.

Barents Russia: highest number of students, but lowest level of education
Today, there are at least twenty institutions of higher education in the Barents Region, shows an overview put together by Patchwork Barents. The overview shows the institutions’ size according to the number of students. According to the data assembled by Patchwork Barents, the largest number of students (131,800) is found in Barents Russia. Almost half of them study in Petrozavodsk State University, which educates sixty thousand people. 

Barents Finland and Barents Sweden educate around fifty and forty thousand students, respectively.

Barents Norway, as a whole, has the lowest number of students – all in all, about twenty thousand. The University of Tromsø (The Arctic University of Norway), which is the largest institution in Northern Norway, has only 10,500 students. The other institutions in Barents Norway that are included in the overview, educate between two hundred and six thousand people. 

The Karelian State Pedagogical Academy in Petrozavodsk, built in 1931, is among the oldest higher education institutions in the Barents Region. The youngest institution, Lapland University of Applied Sciences, was established in Rovaniemi in 2014.

According to the latest data from Patchwork Barents, Sweden takes first place in the Barents Region by level of education. In 2013, about thirty percent of the population in Barents Sweden held a higher education degree. Barents Sweden is followed by Barents Norway (25.2 percent in 2013) and Finland (24.3% in 2012). In Barents Russia, on average, only 18.3 percent of the population held a higher education degree, shows the latest data (2010) from Rosstat.

This story is published in collaboration with Patchwork Barents.

DNA testing leads to new understanding of bears

A century and a half ago, Norway was home to roughly three thousand brown bears, the majority of bears in all of Scandinavia. By 1930, the bears were virtually extinct. Decades of aggressive management tactics and bounties had wiped out one of the area’s most iconic species. 

Brown bears have made a miraculous comeback in the time since.

“There is some research now that shows that probably there have been a few refugee areas, like mountainous and forested areas, where they maybe retreated to and have now expanded from,” said Alexander Kopatz, a researcher at Bioforsk Svanhovd, one of the leading brown bear research centers in Europe. 

One of these refugee areas may have been in the Pasvik Valley, where the Svanhovd DNA lab is located. Svanhovd has been collecting detailing genetic information for just over 10 years; the data and research have not only lead to better local bear management, but a more thorough understanding of population recoveries and bear biology as well.

“I was actually very happy to see the genetic patterns in recovery, because normally wildlife conservation genetics is all about endangered species. This is a success story,” Kopatz said. “It gives you some hope that things are not that bad as they can be.”

Norway now has two distinct genetic populations of brown bears, one in the Pasvik Valley and the other along the Swedish border. Both were exterminated in the same manner, and yet, the population recoveries have happened in dramatically different processes.

According to Kopatz’s research, the Northern bears were bolstered by Russian bears migrating west, into Finland and Norway. Southern bears have a completely different genetic profile, sharing DNA with Swedish bears.

“The Russian bears helped the Finish bears, and probably the bears here too, to recover, and probably in a very rapid manner. Within a few decades,” he said. “You would not expect that based on older studies and theoretical studies.”

Both Norwegian bear populations are on the edge of larger regional populations, according to Miljødirektoratet wildlife advisor Veronica Sahlén said. This not only makes Norwegian management heavily dependent on what happens on the other side of its borders, but also means that the populations in Norway recover quite differently, and rely on the migration of mature female bears.

“We’ve always known we have a shared population, but these results kind of emphasize and confirm our suspicions as managers,” she said. “It’s natural, because we have such a long border, that we start collaborating with Sweden, but we’re of course hoping that in due time we can also collaborate with the Finnish and Russian management as well to find common monitoring systems.”

Sweden had about 2,550 bears in 2005, but because of efforts to reduce the population, is losing more and more bears every year.

“We do have a female population on the Norwegian side, so if they can continue to grow and reproduce and have that possibility, then they can sort of be delinked from what goes on on the Swedish side,” Sahlén said. “But we are largely dependent on our neighboring countries’ management strategies.”

According to Svanhovd director Snorre B. Hagen, the DNA research at Svanhovd only reinforces the need for cross-border cooperation and joint management plans.

“The bears don’t care about borders,” he said.

Bordering countries’ bear populations significantly affect Norway’s bears, which is one of the reasons why Norway is below its target population numbers in each of its management zones. While the national target is 13 litters born every year, it was estimated that just six litters were born in 2014.

Nevertheless, DNA analysis shows that there are at least 136 bears in Norway, and according to Kopatz, these populations are quite stable.

The same cannot be said for Russia’s bears. In fact, almost nothing can be said about Russia’s bears.

“Russia is a big black box. Nobody really knows how many bears are there,” Kopatz said, but added that he and his team are working with partners in the Kola Peninsula and other parts of Russia to analyze DNA samples.

Bioforsk Svanhovd uses both fecal and hair samples to study DNA. It relies on a few genetic markers to be able to tell an individual bear’s gender and if it is a breeding individual. Currently, the research team is looking at the Y chromosome of bears’ DNA to see how male bears migrate and influence the genetics of local populations.

“It is easier when you have these facts available to have a discussion about how we solve some of our mutual challenges,” Sahlén said.

Before the DNA research, evidence of Norway’s bear recovery was largely anecdotal, and wildlife advisors had to rely on bear observations, which is highly subjective to error. With this new database, management organizations have a far more accurate tool to judge how and in what way to handle Norway’s brown bears.

Kopatz says that the local management is very interested in bears’ pedigrees, but that the amount of data to detail family trees just is not there yet. He himself hopes that one day, the data will be used to identify illegal hunting.

 “One of our goal as researchers and people that study bears is to increase the knowledge about bears, not just overall, but also locally,” Kopatz said. “It is very clear that the more people in the area know about bears, the more they are likely to tolerate them or like them and to support these issues.”

More research and international cooperation needed in the Arctic

REYKJAVIK: The climatic changes taking place in the Arctic are a call to action for the world. We must answer with more international cooperation and more research, says Tore Hattrem, State Secretary of Norway’s Foreign Ministry.

“For Norway, the High North is not just at the top of the world; it is also at the top of our list of foreign policy priorities,” Hattrem said in a speech at the Arctic Circle 2015 conference in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The Arctic region is of vital importance to Norway. 80 percent of the country’s maritime areas are north of the Arctic Circle, and almost 90 percent of its export revenues come from sea-based economic activities and resources. “We have always been a nation of seafarers and fishermen. The Arctic waters are our natural home,” he said.

Hattrem believes that the changes taking place in the Arctic should spur the COP21 process forward, and provide an incentive for a strong agreement at the Climate Change Conference in Paris in December. Arctic climate change has worldwide implications and can lead to serious effects as more extreme weather and rising sea levels.

Harpa concert house and conference center, Reykjavik. Photo: Trude Pettersen

“In the long term, the fate of the Arctic environment – and the pace of global climate change – depends on our collective efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Svalbard as research hub

The state secretary called for more cooperation on scientific research to better understand the ecosystems in the Arctic and how they are affected by the changes going on. The Norwegian Government intends to develop Svalbard further as a platform for international research cooperation. For decades, scientists from around the world have used Svalbard as a base for their Arctic research. Institutions from 13 countries have permanent research stations in Svalbard. More than 700 scientists from 30 nations were active in Svalbard and adjacent waters in 2013.

Shipbuilders caught stealing from Navy

About 200 million rubles have been stolen from Zvezdochka, the Northern Fleet yard in Severodvinsk.

A source in the Russian law enforcement authorities confirms to TASS that about 200 million rubles have been stolen from yard. The money stolen was orginally to be spent on the repair of Navy support vessels, the source says to the news agency.

This is ”not the first case of its kind” at the yard, the law enforcement representative, reportedly a member of the FSB’s unit at the Northern Fleet,  adds.

The case will be reported to the court, TASS informs.

The Zvezdochka is a main yard for the Northern Fleet’s ship repair. It is located in Severodvinsk, the closed military town in Arkhangelsk Oblast.

Like most other Russian shipyards,  the military orders today account for the lion’s share of Zvezdochka’s operations. An estimated 90 percent of the yard’s orders come from the Ministry of Defence.

Also in other yards, the number of military orders are on the increase, while civilian orders are declining. According to numbers obtained by newspaper Kommersant, navy orders the first nine months of 2015 amounted to 60 billion rubles, while civilian orders only totalled 5,8 billion rubles.

That is the opposite situation compared with year 2010. Then, civilian orders included more investments than the military, respectively 74,4 billion rubles compared with 52,2 billion.


Our Arctic policy is transparent

“Partnership should and shall shape the development of the Arctic, therefore cooperation is the starting point for our Arctic policy,” Vladimir Barbin, Senior Arctic Official and representative to the Arctic Council, said at the Arctic Circle 2015 assembly.

In his speech at the plenary session “Russia in the Arctic”, Russia’s representative to the Arctic Council said that cooperation in the Arctic is going on as normal and is not affected by “problems on the international arena”.

Russia is convinced that it is the Arctic states that have the biggest responsibility for the Arctic, but an international cooperation is needed in order to solve all challenges. Many non-arctic states are now involved in Arctic matters, which Russia sees as vital for a sustainable development of the region.

“All our activities in the Arctic are in compliance with international law. We do not want any more rights than any other coastal state, but we want the same rights,” Barbin said, and added that “there are no challenges or problems in the arctic that can be solved with military means.”

The main national interests of the Russian Federation in the Arctic are: the use of the Russia’s Arctic regions as a strategic resource base that can provide solutions to the task of socio-economic development of the country; preservation of the Arctic as an area of peace and cooperation; conservation of the unique ecosystems of the Arctic; use of the Northern Sea Route as a national unified transportation line of Russia.

There is no split in Russian leadership when it comes to Arctic policy. The international legal regime clearly states the rights of arctic coastal states and other states. The laws are not contested by anyone, Barbin underlined.

Russian authorities emphasise to have a transparent Arctic policy. All main documents that serve as the guideline for Russia’s Arctic policy are published on-line and open for all to read. “Our Arctic policy is transparent. Glasnost is still relevant,” Barbin said.

Refugee overload for Arctic border town

As Syrian refugees in the hundreds cross over from Russia, capacities in Kirkenes reach the limits. Now an abandoned military compound is turned into refugee reception center.

On a windy hill outside Kirkenes representatives of the Norwegian Directorate of Civil Protection show journalists around in buildings, which formerly housed military units guarding the nearby border to Russia.

Just a couple of hundred meters away, noisy aircrafts taxi down the local airport runway and take off towards far away destinations.

Now, this will be a major reception center for the refugees running from conflict in Syria, through Russia and across the Arctic border to Norway. In only few weeks, the number of Syrians crossing the Russian-Norwegian border has exploded. In the course of the first eight months of the year, about 200 refugees had crossed the border. One and a half month later, the number exceeded 1200. And the flow of people keeps growing.

Information from the Norwegian police in East Finnmark show that close to 600 refugees have crossed the border only the last week.

In order to cope with the situation, Norwegian authorities in mid-September opened a refugee reception center with 150 people capacity in a local shelter originally built for cold war conflict situations. Later, all rooms in two local hotels were hired. Now, the abandoned military compond is to give additional relief to the situation.

The new transit center will have capacity to house 600 people, and receive as many as 300 new people per day, Lars Sørsdal from the Directorate of Civil Protection says.

With all the capacities in place, Kirkenes will be able to handle about 1000 refugees in transit.

A number of institutions are involved in the operation with the new refugee center, among them the local hospital, the police, the Civil Defence and the Directorate of Immigration.

It is the latter Directorate of Immigration which is to formally run and operate the new center.

The involved authorities are now in full swing with preparing the facility. A local construction company is making necessary renovation and adjustments in the building. A number of temporary housing blocks will be placed on the site.

According to the plan, the center will be operational already by first week of November.

”Time is the key issue”, Sørsdal underlines.

He does not dare to predict whether the 300 per day capacity will be sufficient.

Likewise, he does not dare say how long the refugee facility will be in operation. ”We will take half a year at a time and make assessments underway”, Sørsdal says.


Northern Sea Route – focus on domestic projects

REYKJAVIK: Transit cargo between Europe and Asia plummets, but cargo to and from Russian ports along the Northern Sea Route is increasing considerably, Deputy Minister of Transport Olersky says..

“Low bunker oil prices has made the Northern Sea Route less attractive for ship-owners,” Russia’s Deputy Minister of Transport Viktor Olersky said at the Arctic Circle 2015 assembly on Saturday.

In the plenary session “Russia in the Arctic”, Olersky presented the latest updates on traffic along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and prognosis for the future.

Cargo in transit along NSR has gone down from 1.3 million tons in 2013 to 300,000 tons in 2014. By October 1, 2015 less than 100,000 tons had been transported between Asia and Europe on NSR:

Cargo to and from Russian ports along NSR has gone up from 2.8 million tons in 2013 to 3.7 million tons in 2014, and 4.5 million tons in 2015. Most of this increase comes as a result of large oil and gas developments in the Russian Arctic, like the huge Yamal LNG project, and the Prirazlomnaya platform in the Pechora Sea.

Crucial role in Arctic offshore projects
Russian authorities still sees a bright future for shipping along its northern shoreline, but not as a busy international shipping route. “It is 100% sure that the Northern Sea Route will be no alternative to the Suez Canal”, Olersky said in in interview earlier. But for Arctic offshore projects it will play a crucial role.

The latest prognosis that the Ministry of Transport are using, show that cargo traffic will increase in the coming years and reach a total of 83 million tons by 2030. But this will be mainly cargo to and from Russian ports – oil, gas, ore concentrate, as well as supplies and cargo for the new industrial projects.

The prospects for transit cargo in 2030 are put to only 5 million tons.

Olersky informed that a development project for NSR in the period to 2030 has been approved, and will be released soon. 

Regional aspect important in Arctic cooperation

REYKJAVIK: The Arctic Council should learn from the Barents Euro-Arctic cooperation and focus on the regional level when it comes to cooperation in the Arctic, says Rune Rafaelsen, Senior Adviser in the Norwegian Barents Secretariat.

“The Barents Euro-Arctic cooperation is a over twenty years long success story and should work as an example of how cooperation in the Arctic should be organized,” Rafaelsen said.

Economic development is the answer to development of the Arctic, Rafaelsen said and explained that what is needed, are more concrete projects. This can best be solved on the regional level.

Rafaelsen, who is the newly elected Mayor of Sør-Varanger municipality in Finnmark on the border to Russia, has wide experience in Norwegian-Russian cooperation after leading the Norwegian Barents Secretariat for nearly two decades.

“The Arctic Council has no window to the local communities,” Rafaelsen said. “Barents Cooperation has been a success because it is wanted on both sides of the border.”

Rune Rafaelsen spoke at the seminar “Russia and the Arctic – Regional perspectives”, a break-out session during the Arctic Circle 2015 assembly organized by the Northern British Columbia.

He underlined that cooperation with Russia should be a priority for Norway. “Russia is the main stakeholder in the Arctic.” According to Rune Rafaelsen the cross-border cooperation with Russia is the most important peace project Norway has.

Anton Vasiliyev, Ambassador of Russia to Iceland and former member of the Arctic Council, spoke at the same seminar about Russia’s policy in the Arctic. He agreed with Rafaelsen that the Arctic Council lacks a regional perspective, but says that the council is moving in that direction and is becoming more and more concrete and practical.

Germany, Iceland cooperate on new port for Transpolar shipping

REYKJAVIK: Iceland and Germany are cooperating on building an ice-free, deep-water harbour that can be a hub for Arctic shipping and petroleum activity.

The German company Bremenports has concluded an agreement with Icelandic authorities and the Icelandic engineering company Elfa on a feasibility study of a large, deep-water harbour to facilitate international Arctic shipping and petroleum activity. The harbour is planned to be located in Finnafjörður on the North-eastern point of Iceland.

Preparations for construction have started, Robert Howe, Managing Director of Bremenports said at the Arctic Circle 2015 assembly in Reykjavik on Friday.

“Safe and sustainable shipping in the Arctic needs concrete projects, this is one of them,” Howe said.

Bremenports is investing ISK 450 million (€2.2 million) in the preparations, website Islandsbloggen writes.

The port will have three main purposes: a base port for oil and gas operations in the Arctic, a hub port for trans-Arctic shipping, and a service port for both offshore petroleum activity and Arctic shipping. The plans for the port include LNG bunkering facilities and a search and rescue base.

The first weather stations were put up in the planned area for the harbour in August 2015. Further research and planning will take place in 2016-2017. This part of the preparations include studies of wave regime, sea floor conditions, sedimentation and erosion, as well as examination of the flora and fauna and documentation of archeologically relevant objects in the area.

“This fjord is very suitable for safe shipping infrastructure in the Arctic”, Howe said. The North-eastern shores of Iceland are ideal for a port for shipping along the Transpolar Sea Route, a future Arctic shipping lane running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean across the center of the Arctic Ocean. Due to the increasing decline of Arctic sea ice extent, the route is slated to emerge as the predominant Arctic shipping route by 2030.

In contrast to the Northern Sea Route and North-West Passage, the Transpolar Sea Route largely avoids the territorial waters of Arctic states and lies in international high seas.

New ice-free and safe hubs are needed at both ends of this route. They could be located in Alaska and Iceland, the developers believe.