22nd Feb 2024

Finland forces Russia-incoming asylum seekers north of Arctic Circle

  • Finland spooked by 35 asylum seekers at the Salla border crossing point (Photo: Finnish Border Guard)
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Asylum seekers arriving by land in Finland from Russia will now be required to lodge applications some 300km north of the Arctic Circle — at the remote Raja-Jooseppi border post.

"This is Finnish winter time," said Annu Lehtinen, executive director of the Finnish Refugee Council, speaking to EUobserver on Thursday (23 November). "I think our biggest concern was that if the whole eastern border would have been closed for asylum seekers," she said.

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Finland has closed all other border crossing with Russia after some 700 people since August arrived seeking international protection.

Many are reportedly from war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. Others come from Kenya, Morocco and Pakistan.

Despite the relative low numbers, the EU's border guard Frontex is now sending an extra 50 officers to Finland in what appears to be an increasing panic.

Frontex chief Hans Leijtens framed the issue as a security threat, noting that the Warsaw-based agency stands "against hybrid challenges affecting one of its members".

Only earlier this week, Ylva Johansson, the EU's home affairs commissioner, said that the possibility to apply for asylum would be maintained at the Vartius and Salla border crossings in Finland.

She evoked past grievances with Belarus, where thousands had sought to cross into Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, leading to a clamp down on borders amid reports of rights abuses and illegal pushbacks.

And also she blamed Russia for stoking tensions by shuffling people to Finland in response to Helsinki joining Nato in April.

The Spanish EU presidency seemed less convinced.

"It remains to be seen whether the situation in Finland actually constitutes a case of the instrumentalisation of migrants," said Ángeles Moreno Bau, speaking on behalf of the presidency.

Meanwhile, applications for asylum in Finland have been on the downward trend since 2017, according to the Finnish Immigration Service.

And the past 11 months have seen around 7,000 decisions on asylum, of which just over 44 percent were positive.

Estonia worried

Estonia is also now increasingly worried because 75 people, mostly from Somalia and Syria, had tried to enter their border from Russia.

They say none claimed asylum, amid fears it could escalate due to an alleged orchestrated Russian plot.

"[The] ongoing migration pressure on Europe's eastern border is a hybrid attack operation," an Estonian spokesperson for the interior minister told Reuters.

Last summer, Estonia passed legislation which rights defenders says attempts to legalise collective pushbacks.

"This is of course against the European Convention on Human Rights but also the European Union's asylum aquis," said Eero Janson of the Estonian Refugee Council.

Janson said the legislation was passed in response to the 2021 Belarus incursions, as well as EU-wide proposals on crisis and instrumentalisation that aim to achieve similar objectives.

This comes despite most people fleeing war and conflict end up in neighbouring countries elsewhere around the world, or are internally displaced within their own country.

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says low and middle-income countries host 75 percent of the world's refugees and other people in need of international protection.

But with few other options to enter the EU, some prospective asylum seekers have also for years attempted dangerous and costly trips for the chance to gain international protection in Europe.

At over 90 percent, Syrians have also consistently had some of the highest recognition rates for asylum in the EU.

And in August, they ranked as the largest group of people seeking asylum for the first time in an EU member state, followed by Afghans, Venezuelans and Colombians.


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