Think of refugees and you probably picture them fleeing to Turkey, crossing the Mediterranean to Greece, or making their way to Western Europe. You probably don’t imagine them biding their time in the Arctic. But many are doing just that, whiling away their days in small towns throughout Norway.
Some 5,500 refugees arrived there last year alone. Around one hundred of them found themselves in Nieden, a remote fishing village on the country’s northern edge, inside the Arctic Circle. There isn’t a lot to do there, something Italian photographer Alessandro Iovino discovered during his week there. The photos in his series Arctic Prison capture the quiet isolation of living in so foreign a place, awaiting asylum. “[Neiden] is an OK place to spend vacation,” Iovino says, “but not to spend days on end with nothing to do.”
The families crowded into a small hotel so far from all they know are among the millions who have fled warfare and other horrors in Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Although most flee by sea to Greece or overland into Europe, some have followed the Arctic route, a journey that brings them through Russia to Norway. Many of them rode into the Scandinavian country on bicycles, exploiting a loophole in border law—Norway does not admit drivers carrying undocumented workers and Russia does not allow crossing on foot, but neither country addresses bicycles.
Regardless of how they arrived, Norway is housing refugees in towns like Alta, Kirkenes, Vadso and Neiden and struggling to keep up. The government has a backlog of 24,000 pending asylum applications, about 9,000 of them from Syrians. Late last year the country tightened its asylum laws and started fast-track procedures to send some refugees back to Russia. Though the government insists it grants asylum to those fleeing persecution, its latest moves drew criticism from Human Rights Watch and others.
Mansour Hanna Youssef is familiar with the Neiden Hotel. Although he does not appear in Arctic Prison, he did appear in Iovino’s previous project, Polar Route. Youssef, who worked for an airline in Damascus, was vacationing in Russia and nearly broke when he decided to seek asylum in Norway rather than return home to Syria. He flew from Moscow to Murmansk, took a cab Nikel, and then rode a bicycle across the border. Norwegian officials put him on a bus with other migrants and sent him to Neiden.
The town sits amid snow-covered hills on border with Finland. It’s less a village than a smattering of farmhouses, a community so small it doesn’t have a supermarket or even a gas station. Temperatures can reach 40 below zero during winter, and even in summer is rarely visited. “Neiden was [a] bad introduction to Norway,” says Youssef. “I am sure [it] was planned to be this way.”
Migrants are greeted by an iced-over statue of a bear holding a fish that stands outside the Neiden Hotel, a beige clapboard building of about 30 rooms with red carpet, wood paneling, and rustic furniture. Iovino heard about the village while documenting the Arctic route last fall, and returned to photograph Neiden in January. When he arrived, some Afghan men greeted him and invited him in for coffee, but the hotel manager wouldn’t admit him. Over the next four days, he says, she refused to meet him and ignored his calls. “She said she didn’t want to create any ‘stress’,” he says.
Barred from entering the hotel, Iovino photographed refugees smoking outside and taking walks before twilight settled in mid-afternoon. Using a Canon film camera and an Olympus digital camera, Iovino captured them trekking knee-deep through snow, sometimes with children on their shoulders. Some wore nothing more than sneakers, sweatpants and hoodies. Others wore donated jackets and scarves. Everyone looked really cold.
Finally, after five days in Neiden, the manager allowed Iovino inside for three hours. He counted 96 people, including 36 children who attended school with five Norwegian children. The adults, some of whom were doctors and businessmen back home, spent their time socializing in the main hall, where they also ate meals and watched the news while awaiting word on whether they might be granted asylum. Iovino’s photos reveal the boredom and uncertainty of their lives. In one image a young boy in flannel pajamas and a plaid shirt sits on an orange sofa. Two windows behind him look out on a snowy field dotted by bare gray trees. “I wanted to capture the boredom, but it’s very difficult to convey that,” Iovino says.
The government has since decided to shut down the hotel and send the refugees to other asylum centers. For many of these people, the future remains uncertain, and few have any idea what to do. And so they wait, in a foreign land far from home.