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.