OSLO (Reuters) - Norway is seeking to return a growing number of Syrian asylum seekers arriving in the Arctic north back to Russia, government ministers said.
About 1,200 people have made the journey this year, up from a dozen in 2014, the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration says. The journey is a more roundabout, but legal, and safer, way to enter Europe than by crossing the Mediterranean.
But from next week the Nordic country will seek to return Syrians who have lived in Russia for an extended period prior to entering the country.
"Some of the people who are passing the Storskog border crossing have lived for a long time in Russia and have leave to remain there. So they are not fleeing war, need and hunger," Justice Minister Anders Anundsen told public broadcaster NRK on Wednesday.
"They have had a safe place to be in Russia. We have had a return agreement with Russia and we should use it," said the official, who is from the anti-immigration Progress Party.
Foreign Minister Boerge Brende addressed the issue with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in a phone call late on Wednesday.
"I asked for a briefing on what he (Lavrov) thinks are the causes of this," Brende, a member of the centre-right Conservatives, told NRK early on Thursday. "What type of visa do they have in Russia. Have they (the refugees) had residency for a long time?"
The Progress Party and the Conservatives rule Norway in a minority coalition government. The Nordic country is a member of the passport-free 'Schengen' area but not of the European Union.
Reporting by Terje Solsvik and Gwladys Fouche; Editing by Clarence Fernandez