Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

A royal visit from Crown Prince Haakon of Norway

His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon of Norway has been a patron of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) since 2017. He visited our head office this month where he spoke of his interest in standing up for and protecting refugees globally.

During his visit on 13 January, the Crown Prince received a tour of NRC’s headquarters in Oslo and met with various staff helping people forced to flee. He and his family have been interested in protecting and championing the rights of refugees for many decades.

In recent years, the Crown Prince has visited NRC field sites in Ethiopia, Colombia and Jordan. On his visit to our head office, he explained why the refugee cause is so important to his family:

“It’s always been an underlying part of our belief in the importance of humanity. That we are all people, and that we have a lot in common, and that fighting for the rights of people is important.”

Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC
Crown Prince Haakon meeting with members of our team at NRC head office in Oslo. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

A personal connection

The Norwegian royal family feels a personal connection to the plight of refugees. During the occupation of Norway in World War Two, the Crown Prince’s family themselves had to flee. Their lives were in danger. Some of the family accepted refuge in the United Kingdom, and others in the United States.

This is something that the Crown Prince touched upon during his visit:

“[My family] were threatened. Their security was threatened. They had to move, and the family was split for years which is the same as is happening to many refugees today.”

Crown Prince Haakon, Crown Princess Mette Marit and Foreign Minister of Norway Børge Brende visit a NRC kindergarden in Zaatari, Jordan, where children can play while their parents or siblings go to the youth centre to learn. Photo: Tiril Skarstein, NRC
HRH Crown Prince Haakon, and his wife Crown Princess Mette-Marit, on a visit to an NRC kindergarten in Zaatari, Jordan in 2014. Photo: Tiril Skarstein/NRC

Prioritising youth

NRC has focussed on protecting and supporting displaced youth for many years with special assistance programmes. We offer a range of innovative education solutions for displaced youth that includes academic, employability and soft skills training. We also provide information campaigns for youth in Norway to raise awareness of the global refugee crisis.

We are therefore delighted that the Crown Prince and his family have made youth a priority through their work. The Crown Prince and his wife, Crown Princess Mette-Marit, established a humanitarian fund in 2001 that supports projects for youth at risk of marginalisation.

When asked why he thinks youth should be a priority in humanitarian work, the Crown Prince said: “Youth are important in themselves. [It’s important] that young people grow up in a safe environment and that they’re able to use their potential to build a good life for themselves.”

Winta, 16 years old, Furtuna, 15, Lidia, 14, Fiyori, 16, Fiyori, 14, Weyni, 15 and Adkonet, 12 live together in a house in Hitsat refugee camp just outside Shire, a district in northern Ethiopia. The camp houses about 10,000 refugees from Eritrea. Most of them are minors, and about one in ten have fled alone. 

The waiting room

Inside two small houses in a refugee camp in northern Ethiopia, seven girls and three boys wait for the Crown Prince Couple of Norway to visit.  All the children fled across the border from Eritrea, alone. “Off course we miss our families, but we cannot return now,” the children say.

It’s lunchtime and 15-year-old Furtuna sits next to a pot, stirring with all the strength she has. A sauce of tomatoes, paprika and onion simmer inside. She is preparing food together with the eldest children, while the youngest girls have other tasks, like fetching bread or cleaning. The seven girls, who live in the house together, didn’t know each other before they came to Hitsats refugee camp. 

“Now, we’re like sisters,” Winta says. For almost two years, the 16-year-old has stayed in the children’s collective run by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). “Our friendship means a lot now.” 

The room is no larger than 20 square metres, yet the seven girls use it as a bedroom, a kitchen and a living room. They also share the three beds. On the left side of the house lives an adult who is responsible for the girls, watching out for them and helping them when needed. On the right side of the house live six boys who also fled Eritrea to Ethiopia, alone. 

As one of the eldest, Winta explains why they left their home country: “We’re all afraid to end up in the military and to lose the opportunity to get education. In the military you never finish and you have no choice. They come to get you, perhaps in the middle of the night. That’s why many of us had to leave.”

The girls crossed the border to Ethiopia on foot, all alone. “We heard people were shot on the way. In school, they told us that many girls were raped while trying to get away,” says Winta. The other girls nod their heads in affirmation. 

In the camp, the children attend school and get food. The girls are happy to live safely in the neighbouring country. “The very best is that we don’t have to be afraid anymore. And we have the opportunity to go to school and learn,” Winta says. 

The next door boys are 12, 14 and 15 years old. They have the same stories as the girls – grateful to be in safety, to escape the endless military service and to have the opportunity to go to school. 
“The education helps us grow and to make us stronger,” says 15-year-old Meyhaw. He came to the camp five months ago. 

When you ask the children if they have relatives in Europe, they all nod their heads. Uncles in Sweden and brothers in Germany. In the boys’ house, they plan to go further abroad. 

“We’re thinking that we have to travel to Sudan, Libya and then Europe. But for now it’s too strict, so in the meantime we’re happy to get more of an education,” says Meyhaw. 

The girls are not quite convinced as the boys about leaving Ethiopia. “I have a brother who left with a cousin, but only my brother made it over the sea,” says 15-year-old Weyni. “There are days when all I want is to travel, but then I feel it’s hopeless. We know how dangerous it is.”  

For now, the children want to stay in the children’s collective. The boys love their soccer practice and some of the girls have recently joined a drama group. If they were to wish for something better in life, they would wish for electricity to do homework. They would wish for some new clothes and maybe a cinema, so they could watch movies and forget about reality for a while. 

Photo: Beate Simarud/NRC 

Facts and figures:

Eritreans are the third largest group of refugees living in Ethiopia, with 37,321 refugees currently registered in refugee camps in the Shire area camps. 

Currently there are 163,281 Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia.

It is estimated that nearly 40 per cent of Eritrean refugees leave the camps within the first three months of arrival, and 80 per cent leave within the first year, with significant numbers of the population departing irregularly from Ethiopia to third countries – often with the assistance of smugglers and at great risk to their lives. 

The population in the Shire camps is unique, with a large number of children below the age of 18 and unaccompanied children. 

As of June 2017, 72 per cent of the refugees living in Shire were under the age of 18, including 4,725 unaccompanied and separated children, representing approximately 11.5 per cent of the total refugee population. 

Unaccompanied and separated children live in a variety of care arrangements, including community care, foster care, or family-based care.
Pictured are some of the young women that the Crown Prince met during a visit to NRC’s field site in Ethiopia. He mentioned on his visit to our head office that meeting them was particularly touching because he had children on the same age. Photo: Beate Simarud/NRC

Having hope for the future is important for youth. Facilitating hope in young refugees can enable them to plan for a future that is better than the challenging past that they have faced. As the Crown Prince explains:

“If young people are given an education, if they believe in their future, if they can build a good life for themselves, it’s actually … a good resource for their country. So, it’s something that we need to tackle … because it’s key to a good life and a good society.”

Royal approval

Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC
Crown Prince Haakon with the staff at NRC head office in Oslo. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

The Crown Prince’s visit came at an important time. A record 70.8 million people around the world have fled their homes due to war and crisis. The need for the international community to share responsibility for protecting refugees and victims of war is greater than ever.

Having the backing of the Crown Prince helps to strengthen our work across the globe.

“I, of course, know this organisation quite well. I’ve been following [NRC’s] work for many years and it’s really great when I’m travelling around the world to hear about the great work that the NRC is doing …It always makes me proud that NRC is a Norwegian organisation, but a very international organisation and that you are doing such great work.”