Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Russia Migrant Shuffle

On January 17, a young man, part of the unprecedented wave of migrants trying to make their way to a better life in Europe, died en route to Finland.

In the past year that has seen nearly 6,000 people die struggling to reach the shores of Greece or Italy – the most heart-rendering of which was the small Syrian boy washed up on a beach in Turkey – the death of this Finland-bound man is sadly just a drop in a tragically large bucket, one that will surely continue to grow.

His death was also in some ways surprising, and very different from those of hapless refugees overcrowding flimsy rubber rafts in the Mediterranean. This man, whose name has not been made public as far as I know, froze to death in unforgiving Arctic conditions – after sitting in his car for five days.

An often overlooked chapter in the recent saga of refugees trekking to the West is the obscure Arctic route through Russia. Not the most obvious approach to reaching the West, I would say, it is a bit like taking a long detour through Europe’s back yard in order to crawl through the kitchen window.

The most popular destination on this pathway seems to be Kirkenes, Norway, where well over 4,000 migrants have passed through the nearby Storskog crossing, the only official border post on Norway’s frontier with Russia. Kirkenes, a town of some 3,000 people, is situated on a windswept inlet of the Arctic Ocean. That tells you something about how far north these desperate migrants had to travel to reach a tiny sliver of “The West” in Norwegian Lapland. It is indeed the extreme edge of Europe, with an extreme environment to match.

This back-door approach to Europe has gotten the attention of the international media mostly because of the unexpected mode of transportation the migrants employ to reach the promised land. Due to a quirk in Russian law, travelers crossing the Russian border are forbidden from doing so on foot. And apparently, Norway sees the bringing of immigrants without proper visas across the border by car as human trafficking and forbids it.

This situation has forced refugees from Syria and other trouble spots to instead complete the last few meters of their long journey on bicycles.

On the Russian side of the border, in the nickel-smelting town of Nikel, asylum seekers are reportedly paying upwards of $185 for the one-time use of the bicycles, mostly children’s bikes because those are cheaper. (It’s unclear whether that price also includes the 225-kilometer (140-mile) taxi ride from Murmansk to the border.)

After the migrants pedal across the frontier, they promptly abandon the bikes at the Norwegian customs station, where piles of discarded bicycles have to be cleared away every few days and destroyed.

Compared to dangerous sea crossings in the Mediterranean, the land route through Russia is no doubt much safer, even if you have to go so far north that you almost run out of land.

But, you might ask, why is it necessary to go that far north in the first place?

Why was it that, when migrants began taking the Russian detour in earnest in late summer, they completely bypassed Finland and its eight border crossings with Russia? Why did they instead home in on Norway’s one little crossing?

Why indeed? There was some speculation in the Norwegian media that the funneling of refugees to Storskog, and conspicuously not to Finland, was a provocation by Russia against NATO member Norway. Who knows?

You might think it was a matter of logistics, since the migrants are probably going north by train to Murmansk, and when viewed from Murmansk Norway does seem closer.

But the northernmost crossing on the Finnish border, Raja-Jooseppi, is only some 30 kilometers (12 miles) further from Murmansk by car (and 140 kilometers (90 miles) closer to the heart of Europe). So what is the attraction of ending up in Kirkenes and not Ivalo (the nearest town to Raja-Jooseppi)? Wouldn’t it be more convenient to enter Europe closer to civilization?

The people smugglers who have facilitated this Arctic exodus are, of course, surely not looking at it this way. They most likely have economic interests in Murmansk and Nikel that are best served by moving people along the Storskog route. That could be the reason, or maybe it's just that the road to Storskog is better.

Or maybe, as the Russian embassy in Oslo suggested in November, it is Norway’s reputation for its “liberal asylum policy, attractive living conditions and social benefits” that draws refugees fleeing Russia to choose Norway. Desire for such a happy environment would, of course, explain why asylum seekers would choose not to stay in Russia itself. But it doesn’t quite explain why they (or rather, their smugglers) see Norway as their only option, rather than Finland. Why aren’t they crossing into Finland?

Only except, now they are. This year some 650 asylum seekers have already entered Finland at Raja-Jooseppi and at another, equally remote, Lapland border crossing near Salla.

However, these migrants are making their way into Finland on four wheels, rather than two. The Finnish Border Guard, citing safety concerns, has decided that migrants on bicycles will not be allowed to enter Finland. This is probably a boom for enterprising folks on the other side of the border with shoddy cars to sell. Migrants, making the last leg of their journey to what they hope is a better future, are now arriving in second-hand Ladas.

Cars, more practical and dignified than children’s bicycles, also offer more protection from the elements. But only up to a point. Not in -30-degree (-22 F) temperatures, as the death ten days ago amply shows.

According to media reports, the man stayed in his car for five days despite the extreme cold (not hours, but days), as he waited in a queue of some fifty cars at the Priozersky checkpoint near the Russian village of Alakurtti. I can’t imagine sitting in a parked car at those temperatures for more than a couple of hours, let alone five days. Witnesses said he refused to leave the car for fear of losing his place in line, apparently so desperate was his desire to reach Finland.

Other details about the case are murky, at least to me. It’s not clear why the man, along with his fellow travelers, was forced to wait so long. Was there really a five-day backlog at the Salla crossing? The Priozersky checkpoint sits some 60 kilometers from the border itself, so it’s not clear if it’s a border checkpoint, or a Russian military one. The Russian side of the border is often occupied by a wide military zone, so access beyond Priozersky might be heavily restricted.

Also, the man was Indian, presumably not someone escaping the Syrian civil war or some other hot conflict. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been seeking asylum in the West; it just makes it harder to think he had legitimate reasons for doing so. Whatever his reasons were, he sadly paid the ultimate price for his bid for a better life.

An even more obvious question is, why go to Lapland at all? The Syrians, Afghans, etc., making their way north to Storskog, and now to Raja-Jooseppi and Salla, have surely transited through St. Petersburg on their way. That’s a scant 200 kilometers (125 miles) from the southern Finnish border post at Vaalimaa, on the highway to Helsinki.

To me, traveling all the way to Lapland in order to reach Europe is bizarre. If it’s possible to cross the border and ask for asylum at Salla, why not just as well at the much more convenient Vaalimaa crossing. I have seen no explanation for this in the media. Again, maybe it depends on which is the more lucrative route for the smugglers. One Syrian family reportedly paid $22,000 to take the Arctic route to Storskog. (A one-way train ticket from St. Petersburg to Murmansk, by comparison, goes for something like $45.) 

A different question is why not stay in Russia, just as far from the turmoil of the Middle East as Finland or Norway, and theoretically, just as safe. In fact, some of the asylum seekers reaching Norway are said to have lived for months or even years in Russia, which begs the question: what is wrong with Russia that so many refugees can’t, or choose not to, seek refuge there? 

Once making it to Russia, which after all is part of Europe, why the pressure to continue onward? 

Or maybe the answer to that is obvious. In any case, the issue of refugees from Russia is causing increased friction between Russia and its neighbors. Norway has attempted to deport migrants with valid Russian visas back across the border, and Russia has refused to accept them and has now closed its border at Storskog. 

Some local Norwegians, protesting the deportations on the grounds the refugees would not be safe in Russia, have helped three asylum seekers take sanctuary in a nearby church and have themselves been arrested. It is becoming messy, to say the least.  

One slightly whimsical footnote to this undeniably serious, even tragic, turn of events is the question of what to do with all the Ladas. Just as discarded bicycles have piled up at Storskog, the Salla border post is now overflowing with discarded automobiles, thanks to Finland’s no-bicycle policy. There is now some debate about what to do with these cars, many of which are decrepit.

Many of them are vintage Russian Ladas, which has piqued the interest of Finnish collectors of the legendary Soviet creations – yes, it’s an uncommon breed of hobbyist, to be sure, but they do exist. They are understandably excited by the prospects of so many old Ladas, a treasure trove of original spare parts, now being deposited on this side of the border.

Call it a truly unexpected, and minor, consequence of harsh geopolitics in lands that once seemed impossibly far away from the quiet and secluded wilds of Lapland.

Road sign in Ivalo pointing the way to Murmansk, 
via the Raja-Jooseppi crossing.


  1. A strange story of Mankind's cruelty toward one another.

    1. Well, it's also about the stupidity of people who supposedly want to help. People leave refugee camps because there's nothing there - there's no future. The best bang for buck is not importing people. That's actually the worst. It's just the most expensive way to help the least amount of people, cause most problems and feel very pleased with yourself about it. The best way to help would be to build physical, economic, social and political infrastructure in the refugee camps, so that when there's a chance of returning to home, they have education, model, resources and experience in rebuilding their life and running a society. And if they don't want to return, the camp works as a town in of itself or they will be able to be productive members of society in that neighbouring country, both of which will reduce problems in the host society and may even help with its problems and bring positive change to it.

      Why a neighbouring country then? Because that's where most of the refugees are and that will have a culture, which will be close to what the feel at home with, and there will be less of a language barrier, if any, etc. There's a real chance for all of them.