For Finland and Norway, the Refugee Crisis Heats Up Along the Russian Arctic

The faster and safer Arctic route has emerged as a viable alternative for asylum-seekers to the rough seas that have claimed thousands of lives crossing from Turkey to Europe.


In the face of an increasingly perilous journey across the Mediterranean by boat, another crossing for asylum-seekers fleeing violence or joblessness at home is heating up: the Arctic Circle. Despite the cold temperatures, growing numbers of migrants and refugees are using the Russian north to enter Norway and Finland, causing the Nordic countries to consider drastic measures in response.

On Tuesday, Petteri Orpo, Finland’s interior minister, met with Col. Vladimir Kolokoltsev, his Russian counterpart, to discuss the increase in crossings from Russia, which have grown to 900 since last November, eclipsing the entire total for 2015. The meeting comes after Finnish officials expressed concern that Moscow was orchestrating the flow of asylum-seekers into Finland after Russia declared on Sunday that it is blocking their return in a dispute over some 5,400 migrants that Oslo wants to deport.

The faster and safer Arctic route has emerged as a viable alternative for asylum-seekers to the rough seas that have claimed thousands of lives crossing from Turkey to Europe. The Arctic Circle border crossing of Storskog, on the Russian-Norwegian border, has become a popular point of entry for would-be asylum-seekers who obtain Russian visas and then fly to Moscow where they make the journey by train near the Norwegian border, crossing by bicycle. Similarly, the Russian border town of Alakurtti is a growing conduit into Lapland, Finland’s northernmost region, where many asylum-seekers have entered by car.

Speaking at a European Union migrant crisis meeting on Sunday, Orpo told reporters that Helsinki was worried over the growing number of migrants and refugees coming from Russia, adding that “no one moves forward in the Russian border zone without Russian authorities being aware of it.”

Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini told Yle, Finland’s state broadcaster, last week and on Monday that the increased asylum-seeker traffic was linked to organized crime and did not rule out closing the northern border crossings with Russia.

“The impression that someone is organizing and regulating things on the Russian side is probably true,” Soini said.

The Finnish-Russian border has not been a popular crossing throughout Europe’s migrant crisis. Only 700 asylum-seekers crossed from Russia in 2015, but a recent report by the Finnish Border Guard said that number could swell to more than 7,500 for 2016 at the current rate. According to the same report, nearly half of the arrivals from Russia in 2015 were Afghan citizens, with many living in Russia for months or even years before crossing into Finland. In total, some 32,000 asylum-seekers arrived in Finland in 2015.

Cooperation along the massive, 830-mile (1,340 km) Finnish-Russian border has been a bright spot for Helsinki and Moscow, whose relations have been muddied by the Ukraine crisis. During an extensive late December interview in Helsinki, Soini told Foreign Policy about the necessity of good relations and open dialogue with Russia along the border.

“It’s in our interest and in Russia’s interest that there are no surprises happening in our neighborhood,” Soini told FP.

Jussi Niinistö, Finland’s defense minister, told FP in Helsinki that while the government has so far managed to handle the flow of refugees and migrants coming from Schengen zone countries, “what happens on the Russian border will determine whether we are overwhelmed by refugees or not.”

Norway had been the main destination for asylum-seekers entering from Russia, but Oslo has adopted stricter methods than Finland to deal with the influx across its Arctic border — effectively sealing the crossing to prevent further arrivals.

Some 5,400 asylum-seekers arrived in Norway via Russia in 2015. Although Norway is not within the European Union, it is a member of the Schengen passport-free travel zone, allowing migrants and refugees to bypass border checks in Europe.

However, Norway’s Arctic refugee crisis has also strained the country’s hospitality, with Norwegian authorities capturing and returning the thousands of asylum-seekers who had been living legally in Russia or had entered Russia legally. The flow across the border has also revived tensions between Moscow and Oslo, with Norwegian politicians and analysts accusing Russia of facilitating the surge in asylum-seekers as retribution for sanctions over the Ukraine conflict — a claim Moscow firmly denies.

Many of the asylum-seekers took advantage of a loophole in border rules which allowed migrants and refugees to cross on bicycle. While Russia did not allow people to cross on foot and Norway did not let in drivers carrying people without documents, both countries permitted bicycles. To cut down on the practice, Norway began returning many of those who had crossed into the country back to Russia. Last weekend, Oslo announced it would temporarily suspend the practice. Finland has banned border crossings by bicycle. 

In December 2015, Sylvi Listhaug, Norway’s new right-wing immigration minister, unveiled tough asylum rules changes and urged parliament to adopt the bill in February to avoid “violent consequences” for Norwegian society.

Photo credit: JUSSI NUKARI/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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