I am pleased and honored to be invited by the Drop in the Ocean to participate at the opening of this Drop-In- Center at the Myrtillo cafe – for relocation candidates going to Norway.
It is for me also a matter of inspiration that this initiative could take place in KAPAPS premises that signify such great traditions in the bilateral relationship between Greece and Norway. Please let me start by taking you back a couple of years: The migration influx to Europe in 2015 was of a magnitude that Europe had not experienced for generations. Almost a million refugees and migrants arrived in the Aegean archipelago of Greece in the course of 2015. That migration influx called for emergency measures on a scale that took Europe completely by surprise. The urgency required a rapid and extensive humanitarian response to safeguard basic human needs.
As the crises unfolded, the EU relocation program was adopted in September 2015, while several hundred thousand asylum seekers and migrants were passing through Greece.
A solidarity mechanism was born - in order to improve the management of the influx, and to give these people a safe and legal access to different countries in Europe.
This was proximately at the same time as the Drop in the Ocean started its operation on Lesvos, and was established as a volunteer organization.
The pictures of people arriving at the shore of Lesvos in the summer of 2015 reached the TV screens in Europe and Norway. And I am proud to say that many Norwegians felt an obligation to come forward and offer their voluntary assistance to people escaping from war and conflicts. Many of them found their opportunity through the Drop in the Ocean, which by now has facilitated for more than 3 500 volunteers contributing in Greece – each of them affecting the lives of migrants and asylum seekers in different ways. This is not only impressive. It’s more than impressive.
And please let me dwell a bit on this: volunteerism, meaning the responsible and considerate commitment from the civil society to solve societal problems, characterizes the way we are doing things in both Norway and Greece. It is a fact that democracies become more robust and well-developed with a strong contribution from the civil society. A vibrant democracy is dependent on impulses from its citizens, and the NGOs serve as an important communication channel between the public and the private areas. The civil society contributes to both welfare and democracy. It is in itself a platform where population can experience social inclusion and be recognized for valuable contributions to the community.
So, while the Drop in the Ocean already were present and carried out highly needed support in Greece, the Norwegian Parliament decided to voluntary participate in the EU Relocation Program offering 1 500 places for asylum seekers - of which approximately 700 from Greece.
The first places were offered to Greece in September last year. By next month, almost all of the asylum seekers will be transferred to Norway.
Even though the Norwegian contribution through this program has been swiftly fulfilled – due to great cooperation with the Greek Asylum Service, IOM and UNHCR - the waiting period for most of the asylum seekers in Greece has been long. Very long! Many of them were moved from the islands in the Aegean Sea to the mainland of Greece in April 2016, and have since then been waiting for a destination.
Those that have been designated for Norway as the country of destination can, through this wonderful initiative, come to KAPAPS center and the Myrtillo café and have a chat about what Norway is like. In this way the Myrtillo café have served and will continue to serve as an important arena for the mental preparation that is needed for those who will embark on a new direction in life.
The Norwegian Council for Refugees was strongly involved in 1957 with the operation of this centre, by financing and equipping three educational workshops. The intention was to support handicapped refugees who had difficulties in obtaining work. At these workshops, they were taught crafting skills that eased their further integration into the Greek Society at that time. The Centre was then known as KAPAPS and stood for Centre for Rehabilitation of the Disabled.
The technological equipment came from Norway and several of the machines can still be seen today. In 1961, the then Prime Minister of Norway, Einar Gerhardsen, visited the centre, demonstrating the interest, engagement and solidarity by Norway. As Ambassador of Norway, I am proud that my country is linked so intimately with this centre’s past.
With changing times, the use of the center also changes. I am therefore very encouraged by this excellent initiative from the Drop in the Ocean - to create a space for the asylum seekers to meet up with Norwegians - giving them an opportunity to learn a little about Norwegian language and culture before they go to Norway. And at the same time perhaps shorten the waiting time at the final stretch.
Please let me also address a few points on Norway’s broader engagement in Greece for the coming years.
We have the new funding period in front of us leading up to 2021 with a total allocation of almost €120 million. Negotiations are still ongoing and hopefully we will be able to finalize the pertinent MOU with the Greek State before summer.
In the context of the new program, the area of migration and asylum management will be highly prioritized. The capacity to tackle the migration challenge has to be supported. We should all acknowledge that this crisis is not a national responsibility only, it is a European responsibility that commits us all.
Norway will also support entrepreneurship and innovation, in particular with a view to the young educated people; Greek research and technology innovative efforts; green energy and resource management programs, Greek civil society organizations, and support to the poorest segment of the Greek society.
All these areas stand out as important benchmarks for us.
In concluding, I would also like to comment the Deputy Mayor of Galatsi, Mr. Eleftherious, who took the lead in providing hospitality for 22.000 immigrants and refugees at the "Palai" Olympic Games Stadium in Galatsi area at the end of 2015. This was broadly commented by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Greek and International media as well as by many relevant NGOs and Greek citizens. On this background, Mr. Eleftheriou was invited to Norway as Guest of honour, in order to take part in series of three-day events. He was invited by the Mayor Of Oslo, Ms. Marianne Borgen and also the Mayor of Stavanger Ms. Christine Sagen Helgø.
Finally, I would like to I wish you all many good conversations over an excellent cup coffee or tea at this wonderful café.
Thank you for your attention.