On Wednesday, U.N. refugee officials made a tragic announcement: Some time last week, a large ship carrying refugees from Libya to Italy capsized, and about 500 passengers may have drowned. Only 41 survivors have been rescued, almost all young men. The news is a grave portent for the expected summer surge of boats of refugees plying that route.
A day earlier, Norway's new immigration minister also found herself floating in the Mediterranean — but she didn't even get wet. In what many are assailing as an insensitive stunt, Sylvi Listhaug donned a bright-orange, full-body, life-preservation suit and jumped into the sea for a couple of minutes, before being "rescued" by a boat that never left her sight. All this, she said later, was an attempt to understand the plight of the refugees.
The Minister of Integration in Norway, Sylvi Listhaug, taking a bath outside Lesbos. "A taste of being a refugee." pic.twitter.com/KCArJ5ujcB
— Karl Eldar Evang (@KarlEldar) April 19, 2016
Listhaug belongs to the right-of-center Progress Party and is the country's first immigration minister since the department was founded in December. She has been in the headlines before for perceived insensitivity: In November, she invoked Jesus in an explanation for why Norway shouldn't accept as many refugees.
“What Jesus cared about is you should help as many people as possible — and that’s not as many as possible in Norway,” she said in an interview with state broadcaster NRK, presumably meaning that other countries should bear the burden, not hers.
"It is a completely different experience when you are wearing a survival suit,” Listhaug acknowledged in an interview with Norway's biggest newspaper. She said she was invited to the Aegean Sea by the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue. The few minutes spent in the water appear to have prompted a change in her tone, if not in her government's policy. “I think it’s crucial that we continue to rescue people both here and in the Mediterranean,” she said.
Norway took in 30,000 to 35,000 migrants and refugees last year, according to the latest numbers by the United Nations.
Nearly 6,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean have reached Italy since April 12, the International Organization for Migration said, warning that the surge in arrivals was set to continue. Not including the 500 feared dead in the shipwreck last week, 760 migrants and refugees have drowned this year.