OSLO (Reuters) - Three Syrian asylum seekers who sought refuge in a church in Arctic Norway on Thursday, fearing that they could be deported back to Russia, can stay in the building, the parish council has decided.
Norway’s right-wing government has tightened asylum rules in response to the influx of migrants and refugees to Europe, saying some of the 31,000 who arrived last year did not qualify for protection.
Measures include sending back to Russia any who have a long-term residence permit there. Critics say Oslo is violating asylum seekers’ rights by not allowing them to appeal.
Two men and a woman arrived at the Protestant church in the town of Kirkenes earlier on Thursday from a nearby migrant center.
“They have asked for asylum from the church,” said Wenche Jessem Dervola, an administrator at the Soer-Varanger parish.
The South Varanger parish council said on its website it could confirm that three Syrians were in the church “and are to be viewed as under church asylum”.
The parish council said it did not want to turn people away and will seek to clarify their needs and wishes.
Norway’s refugee agency, NOAS, had established contact with the group, and the police, who were present outside the church, were informed about the situation.
The local police chief, who is also a member of the council, abstained from the decision, Norwegian NTB agency reported.
Two Norwegians who had helped to drive asylum seekers to the church were arrested by the police, the agency said.
Temperatures on Thursday were about -25 degrees Celsius (-13 Fahrenheit).
On Tuesday, Norwegian police sent a group of 13 people to Russia by bus. They were from Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan. A second group was due to depart on Thursday, but their departure was canceled.
It was not immediately clear whether the three people were supposed to be among them.
Police declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.
About 5,000 asylum seekers arrived in Norway in 2015 via Russia, out of the total 31,000 asylum seekers that came last year. Germany took in over 1 million asylum seekers in the same period.
Norway, which is not a member of the European Union, is one of the richest countries in the world per capita thanks to decades of wealth from offshore oil and gas production.
Reporting by Camilla Knudsen, Gwladys Fouche and Nerijus Adomaitis; Editing by Alister Doyle and Raissa Kasolowsky, Larry King