Located north of the Arctic Circle halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole, Svalbard is a harsh, unforgiving place dominated by vast, glacial nothingness. In fact, 60 percent of the mountainous archipelago is covered with glaciers while large swaths of Svalbard’s frozen terrain are protected as national parks or designated nature reserves.
While celebrated for its stunning and unfettered beauty, Svalbard isn’t the kind of place where most would eagerly volunteer to reside. That is, unless you’re a polar bear, in which case you’d feel right at home as those noble — yet best-to-be-avoided — beasts famously outnumber human residents on the islands.
Despite the bone-chilling weather and isolation, people do live in Svalbard on a permanent or temporary basis. Human habitation is limited to the archipelago’s largest island, Spitsbergen, where there are several settlements including a small handful of mining outposts and the administrative center of Longyearbyen, where roughly 2,000 residents enjoy paved roads and access to a hospital, schools, recreation facilities, library and small shopping district. Hell, there's even a Radisson.
Functioning as a tourism hub during the summer months, Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost settlement with a permanent population exceeding 1,000. Further north on Spitsbergen, the teeny-tiny research town of Ny-Ålesund is the northernmost settlement in the world.
Under one proposal recently pitched by Norway’s Green Party, the island of Spitsbergen could see a dramatic population bump as the new home of hundreds, potentially thousands of Syrian refugees.
While providing refuge to asylum-seekers — asylum-seekers largely accustomed to a comfortable Mediterranean climate — on a frozen, polar bear-filled island just south of the North Pole may seem unusual, the proposal is nothing but altruistic in nature.
There’s certainly the abundant raw space to house refugees along with job opportunities in the mining and tourism industries. Although it would likely need to be improved upon, the infrastructure, in Longyearbyen at least, is there. And, above all, Svalbard, unlike Syria, isn’t an active war zone. There are isolated instances of violence in Svalbard but most of it, unfortunately, is perpetrated by polar bears.
Outside of coal mining, which has struggled in the region as of late, jobs would be created in the building of a “reception center” for Syrian refugees. Espen Klungseth Rotevatn, leader of Svalbard’s Green Party, explained to the local news media: “A reception centre would of course create jobs, but that is a positive side effect of something much more important than coal mining, that's not our primary concern.” He adds: “Europe is on fire, and it is now that our values and ethical standards are put to the test.”
“I can hardly imagine a better place to integrate,” Rotevatn remarks, noting that the existing workforce on Spitsbergen is comprised primarily of migrant workers. Most are of Russian or Ukrainian descent.
The Independent notes that the Green Party’s Svalbard plan has been greeted with little opposition aside from Progress Party, which takes a hard anti-immigration stance. In the past, the Progress Party has suggested populating the islands not with refugees fleeing war-torn nations but with “addicts and criminals” who would reside in Arctic prison camps.
Local politicians are reportedly prepared to support the plan “100 percent” if it's ultimately found to be legally viable. On the legal front, the potential to house Syrian refugees on the archipelago is iffy for now as Svalbard, not technically part of any established Norwegian county, falls outside of Europe’s Schenegen “free movement” zone, which would make it easier for political refugees to settle on the islands.
"Among other things, Svalbard is not part of Schengen, so we must know whether it is formally and practically possible,” says Rotevatn.
On the Norwegian mainland, refugees have used a legal loophole to gain entry into the northern part of country by bike via Russia. Entry into the Norway via foot or car without the requisite immigration paperwork is forbidden. Bikes, however, are excluded from the law.
While it’s unclear if the Svalbard plan will ever see the light of the midnight sun, a recent survey showed that Norwegian citizens overwhelmingly support welcoming a set number of UN-registered Syrian refugees into the country. One of Norway's richest men, hotelier Petter Stordalen, has flexed his humanitarian muscle in a very public manner and, earlier this week, the anti-immigration Progress Party experienced a staggering blow in election results.
And it would seem that the seeds have already been planted — or stored, rather — on the Svalbard archipelago for an influx of Syrian refugees.
In 2012, an intrepid team of scientists from the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), a renowned gene bank located outside of the war-ravaged city Aleppo, began sending copies — “back-ups," if you will — of its sizable cache of seeds out of Syria for safekeeping. These seeds are now under the care of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a state-of-the-art “doomsday” facility outside of Longyearbyden that was established in 2008.
Built deep into the side of a sandstone mountain and cocooned in permafrost, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault — described as the “ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply” —the vault is the largest secured seed repository in the world. It's designed to withstand fire, flood, asteroids impact, nuclear war and all other forms of natural and manmade disasters, global warming included.
Boasting a 4.5 million variety capacity, the vault currently holds over 864,000 samples from across the world, including nearly 150,000 samples sent from ICARDA's researchers in Syria. (ICARDA itself has since temporarily relocated to Beirut.)
Agricultural cold storage aside, Svalbard isn't the only remote island locale that's been pitched as a safe haven for displaced Syrians. Egyptian telecommunications billionaire Naguib Sawiris is reportedly in the process of acquiring two privately owned Greek Islands which he plans to transform into migrant housing hubs, in potential cooperation with the UN Refugee Agency. Sawiris would name one of the islands as "Aylan Island" in memory of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose drowned body was recovered on a Turkish beach earlier this month.
Via [The Independent]