On 17 May, Finland tightened its restrictions on giving residence permits to asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, stating that it was now largely safe for them to return to their war-torn home countries.
Authorities in Helsinki, where anti-immigration political groups have been on the rise, disclosed that security had improved to such an extent that refugees would generally not be at risk in any parts of the three countries, despite ongoing conflicts. While there was no immediate reaction from refugee agencies, the statement released by the Finnish Immigration Service comes in the face of a string of international assessments of the scale of the ongoing bloodshed and refugee crisis. In its statement, the immigration service disclosed that “it will be more difficult for applicants from these countries to be granted a residence permit,” adding, “it is currently possible for asylum seekers to return to all areas in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia without the ongoing armed conflicts of such presenting a danger to them only because they are staying in the country.” Under the new rules, asylum seekers will only be allowed to stay if they can prove that they are individually at risk. In 2015, around 32,500 people applied for asylum in Finland. This was up from 3,600 in 2014. Most of those applying for asylum were from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. This year, the numbers have declined significantly.
Somalia has been slowly recovering from more than two decades of war. The internationally-backed government, which is based in Mogadishu and which has little control outside the capital, continues to fight an Islamist insurgency by the militant group al-Shabab, which regularly launches gun and bomb attacks in the capital and in other areas of the Horn of Africa country. In Iraq, the so-called Islamic State (IS) group continues to hold key cities and vast swathes of territory in the northern and western regions of the country, which it seized in 2014. Furthermore, despite battlefield setbacks over the past year, IS militants have continued to attack civilians in areas that are under government control. This includes a string of attacks that occurred earlier this month in and around the capital, which killed more than 100 people. In Afghanistan, the Taliban launched a spring offensive last month, vowing to drive out the Western-backed government in Kabul and restore strict Islamic rule.
The last year certainly seen an increase of military activity in Eastern Europe. Both Russian military exercises, and joint NATO military exercises have been carried out in different places. On top of exercises, NATO continues to boost its military bases and troop presence in the eastern allies. The latest such addition is a new deployment of four battalions of 4,000 troops in Poland and the three Baltic States. From the Russian perspective the NATO build-up is an aggression in itself, something Moscow officials are not too happy about. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has explained that Russian manoeuvres are only close to NATO borders because NATO has let its border creep closer and closer to Russia. Previously Russia has accused NATO of using the situation in Ukraine as an excuse to move closer to Russian borders. From the US perspective, additional presence will increase US ability to conduct military exercises in the region. The Pentagon has announced plans to quadruple its budget for European defence in 2017. Russian aggression isn’t increasing in Easter Europe alone, but the Baltic Sea has seen a fair share of it as well. Russia’s more direct neighbours, the Nordic countries of Sweden and Finland, are concerned about what recent developments mean for their security. This has, among other things, led the Swedish military to revive an old military outpost on the Baltic island of Gotland, where a battlegroup is to be fully set up by the end of 2017. The Baltic Sea tension doesn’t necessarily mean a return to Cold War realities, but it causes a certain nervous atmosphere. Sweden and Finland are not member states of NATO, but debates have been going on in both countries, with Russia behaving in an increasingly aggressive and provocative manner. The Swedish defence minister is concerned with what is unknown. It is one thing to see what the Russians are doing, and quite another to know what it all means. An unprovoked attack on Sweden is certainly unlikely, but Moscow seems increasingly unpredictable. This has prompted a larger defence budget and a shift of focus to regional security after 20 year of focus on international operations. It has also fuelled the debate about NATO membership. According to polls, almost half the population favour a membership, with a slightly smaller number being opposed. The military’s ability to defend Swedish territory has been poor for a long time, but the Swedes have seemingly not cared too much about this, until recently. For Sweden it is a question of whether the long tradition of non-alliance can be set aside, and whether or not the alternative is better. It is the opinion of many that the country has been free-riding for too long, feeling safe because of its close cooperation with NATO, but feeling free without its obligations. If the Swedes are fed up of letting the security of Swedish territory depend on other states’ ability to deter the Russians, perhaps a NATO membership will be realised. Military chiefs are still embarrassed by the 2013 Easter incident, when Russian planes carried out a simulated attack on Stockholm, and the Swedish air force failed to scramble any of its jets, relying on jets from NATO’s quick reaction alert, deployed from Lithuania. In Finland, pressure to join NATO or find other ways of securing the nation’s borders has grown over the past several years, but recent polls show that roughly half the population would be opposed to the country joining NATO, with just 22 percent saying they would support it. Russia has made claims over the waters in the region, and last year they finalised the set-up of a military base in the Arctic. However, Finland has not been attacked by its neighbour since WWII, and both political and trade relations between the two have long been stable and prosperous. NATO has remained open to the idea of Finnish membership, but Helsinki has been reluctant, and has contented itself with close cooperation with the alliance, bearing in mind though that if Sweden was to join it would leave Finland even more exposed. However, the other way around – Finland alone joining, but Sweden staying out – would create an awkward situation, leaving Finland as a strategic outpost without territorial contact with NATO, experts have said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned Sweden in an interview with Swedish media, that technical-military measures will be deployed as a reaction, should any military infrastructure draw too close to Russia’s borders. Finland and Sweden must be ready to apply for NATO membership should it be absolutely necessary. For now there is a promise between the two to not surprise one another with a sudden membership. A membership would be a provocation. The question is whether the advantages of a membership could outweigh the negative aspects of such a risk.
Although it may seem a strange route and unnecessarily long detour to access Europe via Russia and the border to northern Norway, it has its advantages. The convenience of this route is that it bypasses a lot of the strict border controls of the normal routes. The route has been used by Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and other nationalities, and it’s not just refugees fleeing from war or oppression. It is also used by those who are, like so many, looking for better jobs and living conditions. Rather than defying the border fences of and strictly controlled crossings of southern and eastern Europe, not to mention the dangers of the Mediterranean crossing, some seem to prefer the so called ‘arctic route’ to Europe. Many of the migrants come much underdressed though and face tough challenges in the tough, northern climate. Whether or not this route has been easier than the more frequented travel routes to Europe is hard to say.
After flying via Moscow to Murmansk migrants must first try make their way from there, some 136 miles north, past barren tundra, an area of Russian military bases and heavily armed checkpoints, to the small mining town of Nickel. There, refugees face yet another challenge: Russian law bans foot traffic at the border and Norway fines drivers for carrying migrants across because it is considered human trafficking. Because of this migrants have taken to crossing the border by bicycle. The legal twist has prompted a brisk trade in used bicycles throughout Russia’s Northwest — any size or condition is accepted. Entrepreneurial Russian smugglers have made business of this, and even arrange package deals of minivans and bicycles.
News of this arctic route has spread and the fact that the crossing is actually possible has led to an increase in migrants coming this way. The small town of Nickel has seen the stream of people coming north and a lone hotel there has become a key stopover point before heading for the border. Syrians, Afghans, Egyptians, Palestinians, Iraqis and others have filled the hotel’s 30 rooms some nights and yet more migrants are left to seek refuge in a nearby student dormitory. Norwegian authorities have been relatively welcoming and offered temporary refugee status to the migrants. But the growing wave is testing the limits of Norwegian hospitality and as the weeks have gone by, the influx has grown larger than what can be handled. In Kirkenes, a small Norwegian town just across the border, mayor Rune Rafaelson, has said local police estimate 10,800 migrants may arrive by year’s end — in effect doubling the entire region’s population. Rafaelson is one of a growing number of Norwegian politicians who suspects that the Kremlin is driving the current influx, as neighbouring Finland – a non-NATO member that has warmer relations with Russia —faces no similar migrant surge. Storskog border crossing has seen more than 4,000 refugees arrive so far this year, the majority of them riding bicycles. Norway has started building new refugee accommodation at the airport in the nearby town of Kirkenes, where the refugees can stay before being flown south. While the number of asylum- seekers remains small compared with the hundreds of thousands of migrants who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean, their number is steadily rising, and with more than 1000 migrants per week, it has changed the hospitable attitude of the Norwegians.
With the tension between Norway and Russia the issue has since taken on a diplomatic dimension. The arctic route has been known among the migrants as a safe route to Europe, and relatively easy with the checkpoints as the Russians don’t bother anyone who wants to cross over to Norway, but it will be far less safe as the weather steadily gets colder. Besides this, Norway, like so many other countries in Europa, is not interested in taking on more refugees than it can handle. Authorities long refrained from closing this crossing point as it would possibly provoke the Russian government, but now have to consider it an alternative. That Russia allows asylum-seekers to cross the highly-militarised region is sometimes seen by Norwegian commentators and media as a bid by Moscow to destabilise its smaller neighbour. Some suggest it is a provocation, punishing Oslo for adopting European sanctions regarding the Ukraine conflict, or creating divisions in Norway. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg has said, earlier in November, that closing the border will not solve any problems but the government has sent warnings to asylum seekers that they risk being sent back, not just to Russia, from where they crossed into the country, but all the way to their home countries. It has been under discussion in the last couple of weeks that the border crossing of Storskog might be closed under the seldom used “Law on Access to Certain Areas”, which was brought in by the parliament right before the German invasion in April 1940. This would partly be to control the influx and partly a diplomatic reaction towards Russia.