A (Very) Cold War on the Russia-Norway Border

The number of Syrians taking an unlikely route into Europe through the Arctic Circle has expanded from a handful to hundreds. And Oslo thinks Moscow is responsible.


MURMANSK, Russia — A small group of local drivers waited in the chilly gloom of this Arctic city on a recent morning, minivans idling, for the flight from Moscow. Ignoring the Russians filing off the plane, they closed in on a new type of client: asylum-seekers from the Middle East, who stepped bleary-eyed and too thinly dressed into the dim polar dawn.

Kirill, a Russian who refused to give his last name, haggled with a Syrian family of four on the price for the three-hour drive from Murmansk to Borisoglebsk, Russia’s remote border outpost with Norway. “We are here so they don’t wander, get lost; so that everything is organized,” he said, loading the family into a blue van. The car was already packed with four new, boxed-up bicycles — an absurd loophole around a ban on foot traffic at the border exploited by smugglers who would otherwise face fines or arrest by Norwegian police for driving migrants without visas. (By day’s end, two big dumpsters on the Norwegian side of the border that sat empty at daybreak were brimming over by nightfall with bicycles seized from migrants by border guards.)

Until recently, it was the rare tourist who ever used the far-flung crossing. But today, drawn by fast-spreading word of a new route to Europe’s visa-free Schengen Area, hundreds pass through each week. Police in the sleepy Norwegian border town of Kirkenes, with a population of 10,200 people, are bracing for 10,800 migrants by year’s end, said Mayor Rune Rafaelsen. And, like many Norwegians, including officials in the national government, he blames Moscow for enabling the influx.

Norway’s Arctic refugee crisis has strained the country’s hospitality, and revived tensions with Moscow that have mostly been dormant since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even some of Norway’s more Russian-friendly politicians and analysts have begun accusing Moscow of facilitating the sudden surge in asylum-seekers as retribution for sanctions over the Ukraine conflict, a claim Russia denies. Other Norwegians are calling for a return to the Cold War-era policy of keeping the border closed entirely.

Norway has been an active participant in the sanctions regime against Russia, said Rafaelsen, who previously headed the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, a state-funded body to promote cooperation with Moscow. “And now,” he said “it is payback time.”

In the midst of growing concerns about refugee flows in the wake of the Paris attacks, Norway’s government is proposing tougher asylum rules in the form emergency legislation. Oslo has advertised the impending law in a social media campaign designed to discourage future migrants — mostly from Syria and Afghanistan. “The current Immigration Act is not designed for the situation we are up against today,” said Prime Minister Erna Solberg.

Traffic along the Arctic route has grown so swiftly — to some 200 asylum-seekers a day, Norwegian police say — in part because it is viewed as a safer, faster alternative to the perilous Mediterranean Sea crossing, where thousands have drowned fleeing violence or joblessness at home.

“This is better: by sea is very dangerous,” said Kamal, a Palestinian from Damascus traveling with his pregnant wife, who preferred not to give his last name lest it harm their asylum application. As soon as he and his wife received Russian tourist visas last month, they flew to Moscow where they swapped planes for Murmansk and headed for Europe’s northernmost border. “This Russian road is new; I am the first from my family,” said the 29-year-old, a rare jovial character among the tight-lipped, fearful migrants making the journey.

Unlike Kamal, many of the migrants now heading north fled to Russia years ago and have lived there in limbo, unable to attain permanent visas, often working menial jobs in sweatshops and fast-food stands under constant threat of being deported. Although obtaining Russian tourist or student visas is relatively easy at consulates in Damascus, Kabul, Istanbul, or Baghdad, the long-term documents needed to build a new life are hard to come by.

Only three Syrians have been granted full-fledged refugee status and 2,000 temporary asylum by Russia since the start of the conflict in 2011, according to Russia’s Federal Migration Service (FMS). “And who knows how big a bribe they paid,” said Svetlana Gannushkina, a leading Russian campaigner for refugee and migrant rights. “It’s a very corrupt system.” For those denied asylum, news of a safe passage to Norway offers a second chance. “I couldn’t go home,” says Samir, a Syrian migrant who asked that his last name not be used, outside a Norwegian transit center for migrants. “I didn’t want to fight, to kill.”

While the Kremlin is aware of migrants using Russia as a transit corridor to Europe, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman told Russian news agencies in September that the burden for caring for them should fall “on those countries linked to causing the catastrophic situation.” Putin has blamed the refugee crisis on U.S. foreign policy for which its European allies “must bear the burden.”

In September, some 12,000 Syrians remained in Russia, according to the FMS. “As long as Norway is letting people in, they will leave Russia,” Gannushkina said. “Here, they are without a home, without social security, without a status.”

But in Norway, a country of 5.2 million people, overwhelmed officials have begun to balk at the surge. With two 150-bed complexes already full in Kirkenes and a former military base near the airport hurriedly being readied to accommodate 600 more migrants, the situation was described as “very demanding” by Joran Kallmyr, Norway’s state secretary at the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, in an email. “The large number of migrants arriving every day challenges our capacity and local resources,” Kallmyr said. Norway has currently agreed to accept 8,000 refugees by 2017 in order to meet United Nations quotas.

Frustrated officials point with suspicion to the tiny numbers seeking asylum across Russia’s far busier, far longer, 833-mile border with non-NATO-member Finland, which is also a member of the Schengen Area but with whom Russia has warmer ties. Norway’s Foreign Minister Borge Brende told public broadcaster NRK that he had challenged his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, at a meeting on the sidelines of a regional summit on Oct. 14 on “why hundreds of asylum-seekers are coming from Russia to Norway, while there is no one going from Russia to Finland.” He added: “Mr. Lavrov said he would look into the matter.”

On Wednesday, the Russian Embassy in Oslo dismissed as “baseless” claims that Moscow had a hand in directing the flow of migrants, saying the choice of Norway likely had more to do with attractive immigration and welfare policies. “Foreign nationals are free to choose the border crossing through which they want to leave,” it said, adding: “The Russian authorities have no reason to prevent them.”

Once migrants arrive by train or flight to Murmansk, they buy a seat in the minivans that wait at the airport to take them — and their bicycles — the 136 miles further through Russia’s forlorn, misty tundra to the border. It is a region closely monitored by the Federal Security Service (FSB), which controls Russia’s borders. Along the way, migrants encounter two control points, where Kalashnikov-touting guards flanked by German shepherds check identification.

While they scan for proper Russian visas, drivers and migrants say the guards aren’t concerned with whether they have Schengen ones. Some migrants stopped in Murmansk said they were visited by FSB officers but were wished safe travels when they told them their intention was to head for the border, Russia’s Tass news agency reported earlier this month. “Russia isn’t doing anything to stop the flow,” said Gannushkina. “From what Syrians have told us, the FSB employees practically showed them the way.”

“Now that Russia is seeing it can really get people riled up over this, it’s saying, ‘Let’s fuel it. Let’s at least not prevent it,’” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. “What do they have to do? Just be a little bit lax about border policy.”

But he also added that the influx “may be by omission, rather than commission” — that is, Russia might not mind the flow of migrants into Norway, but that doesn’t mean they’re actively encouraging it.

In the Russian mining town of Nikel — the last stop on the Arctic journey before the border — the influx has made for surreal scenes for local residents. “I saw like 20 guys cycling down the main street in the snow a week ago,” Daniel, a 17-year-old student, said. “It was so funny; it blew my mind.” By now, many local men have gotten in on the lucrative refugee-smuggling business, with drivers charging between $400 and $1,000 for the journey from Murmansk to the border. (And since bikes are no longer sold at sports stores in Russia’s north at this time of year, smugglers have a monopoly on that mandatory conveyance: They often sell rickety, child-size bicycles to desperate migrants for $200 each, sight unseen.)

The only hotel in Nikel — 30 rooms on the top two floors of a grey Soviet-era apartment bloc — has become the local hub for migrants, who are parked there by smugglers to wait, sometimes for days, for their turn to cross the tiny border post (open only from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.). The hotel halls are packed, with people spilling out into makeshift beds in the halls and stairwells, desperate to trade their last dollars and smartphones to be taken the final 22 miles to the border.

But as temperatures plummet, the migrants’ determination to complete their journey has raised humanitarian concerns voiced by rights activists and politicians on both sides of the border. Locals north of the Arctic Circle all have tales of the danger of the vicious weather, with temperatures plunging to negative 22 degrees Fahrenheit. On his first attempt to cross, Samir, was duped by a Russian driver who dropped him off 37 miles from the border. “I thought I was going to die on the road it was so cold,” he said. “The bicycle,” he said, gesturing knee-height, “it was like this.”

In an effort to stem the tide, Norway announced last month it would begin turning back migrants who had valid Russian visas to send a “clear signal” to those it believes have no need of protection. But Russia foiled those plans by denying reentry, said Kallmyr.

Norway’s northernmost Finnmark region has become one of the fiercest venues for bellicose posturing between Russia and NATO in recent months, with Norway holding its largest military exercise there since 1967 in March.

In response to the refugee crisis, Norway convened a special meeting of the foreign relations and defense committee in early November, where local media and analysts say the committee discussed the possibility of closing the 122-mile border.  For now, the country’s conservative government, citing concerns over potential economic and diplomatic fallout, has resisted calls to do so from leaders of the populist Progress Party, the ruling coalition’s junior member.

In the meantime, local Norwegian border police are left hoping the harsh winter will dissuade more from making the long, cold passage. “It will get much darker and much snowier,” said Goran Stenseth, deputy head of Storskog border post. “We will have almost complete dark 24/7; it’s a pretty new situation for those migrants.”

But with the anxieties of the journey — and their rickety bikes — left behind, most migrants were effusive upon arrival in the quaint, brightly painted streets of Kirkenes before the first snow settled at the end of October.

“Better the cold than bombs,” Samir beamed, showing off his temporary stay permit. “Life is fantastic here. It’s better than Russia. God willing things get better in Syria, I will go back immediately, but now the Russians are bombing there, too, so I don’t know when I can go home.”


Alissa de Carbonnel is a graduate student at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government who has spent seven years as a Moscow-based political correspondent.