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26th Feb 2024

Finland's closure of Russia border likely violates asylum law

  • Inbound asylum seekers from Russia have been arriving on bicycles at the Finnish land border (Photo: Finnish Border Guard)
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Finland's closure of its land border crossing points with Russia likely violates both international and EU asylum laws, according to the executive director of the Finnish Refugee Council.

"We will not now be entirely in line with our international agreements or the EU and international law with this decision," said Annu Lehtinen of the Finnish Refugee Council, speaking to EUobserver on Wednesday (29 November).

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On Tuesday, Helsinki announced it would close its last remaining border crossing with Russia at the far north Raja-Jooseppi from Thursday, until December 13.

"This is not only about the number of visitors but the phenomenon itself. This is about Russia's influence [on] activities and we do not accept that," said Finland's prime minister Petteri Orpo.

But the move is raising alarm among rights advocates. Among them is Lehtinen, who says people will no longer able to file asylum claims at the land crossing points with Russia.

And those transiting from Russia to seek asylum in Finland won't be able to file their claims at airports or ferry harbours either, she said.

"The fact of the matter, of course, is that none of these [airports in Finland] are accessible coming from Russia," she said.

The Finnish government's decision to close all its land border points with Russia came after some 900 people arrived over the span of a month.

This is relatively high for Finland, when compared to preceding months. In October, the Finnish Border Guard registered 32 arrivals, 13 in September, 12 in August, and 15 in July.

But politics aside, Lehtinen said the Finnish asylum system could have easily absorbed 900 asylum claims.

"This is a slightly unexpected and unusual decision for a country like Finland," she said of the closures.

And although the Finnish government says it will allow vulnerable people to still file asylum claims at the border points, Lehtinen says it is unclear how those vulnerabilities will be identified.

'Instrumentalisation' — Achilles heel of asylum

The Finnish announcements also precludes wider discussions at the EU-level on an 'instrumentalisation' regulation, the term for countries such as Russia, but also in the past Turkey, using asylum seekers as a political pawn by pushing them into neighbouring countries.

The bill has become part of a wider overhaul of the EU asylum and migration reforms.

The instrumentalisation regulation has generated intense scrutiny by academics and civil society, who say it will further curtail asylum rights because it proposes a host of derogations from existing laws.

It was tabled by European Commission in December 2021 as a response to Belarus shuffling thousands of prospective asylum seekers into Poland, Latvia and Lithuania.

This has since led to collective pushbacks along those borders, as well as other rights abuses, according to civil society.

The commission has also been faulted for not carrying out an impact assessment on the proposal.

It says the proposal will help EU states in times of emergency, while respecting fundamental rights, whenever a country such as Russia tries to blackmail them into accepting asylum seekers.

But a recent European Parliament study says the commission has presented no evidence to support such claims.

Instead, it says the bill violates the rule of law, as well as article two of the Treaty that spells out the need to respect human rights.

And it says lowering asylum rights cannot stop or prevent Russia or Belarus from carrying out a so-called hybrid war.

Meanwhile, the Council, representing member states, in October integrated the bill into a separate proposal, which outlines new rules in times of crisis — as part of the wider EU overhaul on asylum.

For its part, the European Parliament is still debating the finer points.

And it has yet to go to a committee-level vote, which is likely only to happen in January at the earliest.

Some, including Dutch Green MEP Tineke Strik, said the instrumenaltisation bill would just end up punishing people seeking asylum.

"Those who are a victim of this instrumentalisation are victimised again," she said.

"It's a dead end street," she said of the proposal, noting concerns that the parliament could eventually cave into council demands on the bill in order to reach an agreement on the entire asylum and migration reform package.

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