Migrants Find Hope in Darkness of Remote Norway Refugee Camp
Few of the asylum-seekers expected to end up here, 280 miles north of the Arctic Circle, when they left their homelands.
After hiding below the horizon for two long months, the sun has finally risen in Hammerfest, casting a pale pink hue over the Arctic landscape surrounding the world’s northernmost refugee shelter.
Few of the asylum-seekers expected to end up here, 280 miles north of the Arctic Circle, when they left their homelands in the Middle East, Africa and Asia to escape violence, poverty, forced marriages or armies they didn't want to join.
Some were relocated by Norwegian authorities after entering the country from Sweden in the south. Others blazed a new trail into Western Europe by first entering Russia and then crossing its Arctic border with Norway.
Above: The view towards the refugee camp in Hammerfest, northern Norway, and an inlet from the Barents Sea on Feb. 4, 2016.
More than 5,000 people, mostly Syrians and Afghans, used the Arctic route last year before the government tightened the border in November and started deporting those who were not deemed to be in need of protection in Norway.
Though that's just a trickle compared to the 1 million people who entered Europe last year from the south across the Mediterranean Sea, it forced Norwegian authorities to quickly set up migrant shelters in small towns separated by mile upon mile of untouched wilderness.
Above: Arzoo Abdul Hakim holds a freshly caught cod fish as he chases other children round the temporary Altnes camp refugee camp on the island of Seiland, northern Norway on Feb. 2, 2016.
On Seiland island, a nature reserve west of Hammerfest, Stig Erland Hansen was asked to temporarily house dozens of asylum-seekers in a remote lodge where he hosts adventure tourists during the summer.
"At first I thought it was crazy," Hansen says, clasping a cup of black coffee inside the main cabin. "Is it possible to have people in darkness on an island?"
Yet the 36 asylum-seekers staying here, all but one from Afghanistan, seem surprisingly at ease. Hansen and Mannsverk say it's because they try to keep them active: fishing, chopping wood, sledding, skiing, and hiking instead of just sitting around waiting for a decision by the Norwegian Immigration Directorate, which can take more than a year.
Above: Stig Erland Hansen, center, owner of the Altnes camp, returns from a fishing trip with asylum seekers who show off their catch on the island of Seiland on Feb. 2, 2016.
Waiting for their asylum claims to be processed, hundreds of people in emergency shelters in Hammerfest and neighboring towns are slowly getting used to the extreme climate and unfamiliar customs of the High North.
Above: Asylum seekers leave the refugee camp in Hammerfest to walk to the town's center on Feb. 4, 2016.
Migrants say they have adapted to the cold — the temperature rarely drops below 14 degrees Fahrenheit along the coast, though it gets much colder further inland. It's the darkness that throws them off.
Above: The morning ferry arrives at the island of Seiland on Feb. 2, 2016.
From her modest room, Huda al-Haggar admires the wonderland of snow and ice, a sight so different from her native Yemen, where a Saudi airstrike destroyed her home, forcing her to flee with her young son.
"It's wonderful when I wake up in the morning and see this picture, the sea and the mountains. It's a wonderful place," the young woman says as 5-year-old Omar plays with Lego on her lap.
The wooden barracks where al-Haggar and her son live used to house oil workers until Europe's migrant crisis reached the jagged shores of northern Norway, where the continent drops dramatically into the Arctic Ocean.
Above: Refugee Huda al-Haggar and her son Omar walk outside the refugee camp in Hammerfest on Feb. 4, 2016.
The camp on Seiland is a far cry from the crowded and jail-like migrant centers in some parts of Europe. Afghan children laugh and holler as they sled down the slope from the camp to the rocky shoreline, where men speaking Dari rinse fish caught in the icy fjord.
Above: Asylum seekers gather round a fire as they cook a meal overlooking the temporary Altnes camp refugee camp on the island of Seiland on Feb. 2, 2016.
By the spring, the lodge will go back to its regular tourist business and the asylum-seekers will have to be transferred elsewhere, perhaps to permanent asylum centers like the one in Alta. The city of 20,000 has years of experience with integrating asylum-seekers into the local community.
Above: Afghan asylum seeker Roheek Yausofi waits his turn for food cooked on an open fire, with fish caught the day before by his father, on the island of Seiland on Feb. 2, 2016.
The camp at Seiland is a cluster of wooden houses facing a pristine fjord. Reachable only by boat, the isolated location gives you a sense of being at the end of the world.
Above: Afghan asylum seeker Helanar Nawabi looks out of the main entrance of the Altnes camp on the island of Seiland on Feb. 2, 2016.
The children's play area of the refugee camp in Hammerfest is covered in snow on Feb. 4, 2016.
Inside the camp, 62-year-old Shukria Nawabi tears up as she recalls the hardship her family faced in Kabul. She has lived on Seiland since October with her husband, daughter and grand-daughter Helenar, a 7-year-old with pigtails, pink tights and a sheepish smile.
Wrapped in a shawl, her daughter, Sufya, seems almost offended when asked whether the family struggled to adjust to the darkness on this desolate island. "If you were in my place," she says, "where bombs are going off in the street, where women are treated badly, and you come to this place, would you worry about the darkness and the isolation?"
Above: Afghan asylum seekers Sufya Nawabi, her daughter Helanar, pose for a photograph in her temporary apartment at the Altnes camp on the island of Seiland on Feb. 2, 2016.
Asylum seekers take their children fro a walk near the temporary accommodation at the Altnes camp on the island of Seiland on Feb. 2, 2016.