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29th Feb 2024

Asylum seekers biking into Finland from Russia

  • A pile of bicycles at the Finnish Vartius crossing point in Kuhmo with Russia has caused a traffic jam (Photo: Kainuun Raja)
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The Russian army is telling Syrians where to cross into Finland by bicycle, according to posts on a Telegram account with around 7,500 subscribers.

"The Russian army receives you. They let you buy a bicycle for $250 [€228] and then tell you where to go," notes the 18 November post written in Arabic, and seen by EUobserver.

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It says people are taken by cars from Minsk in Belarus to Moscow and then towards checkpoints with Finland.

"You must have at least $200 in your pocket as a precaution," it says, noting those who have lost their visa first get a court-ordered exclusion order.

The bikes appear to be corroborated by the Finnish border police.

On Sunday (19 November), they said traffic at the Vartius border with Russia had stopped due to a pile of bicycles.

And they say 19 people seeking asylum had also arrived.

"Bicycles left on border line hinder traffic. Finnish authorities cannot go to Russia to remove bikes," said Matti Pitkäniitty, Finland's border guard international affairs director on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The development comes after Finland closed four border crossing points in the southeast with Russia last Friday.

And the closures come amid accusations Russia is deliberately shuffling migrants and asylum seekers onto the border in order to stoke up tensions with Finland because it joined Nato.

The Finnish Defence Forces have since sent troops to Vartius to help build barriers, amid plans to erect a permanent border fence around the Vartius border post next year, reports Finnish state media, YLE.

Some 71 asylum seekers arrived at the border crossing points on the eastern border over the weekend, 67 of them through Vartius.

And YLE cites a Finnish deputy commander as saying Russia is forcing the asylum seekers to cross.

The EU has termed such mechanisations by Belarus, Russia and others as the "instrumentalisation of migrants".

Politics vs high asylum-recognition rates

But it also exposes the political toxicity of asylum in the EU.

Most of those crossing into Finland reportedly come from Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. All four are countries with relative high rates of asylum recognition in the EU.

Syrians have had a recognition rate above 90 percent almost consistently for the last two years. Yemenis have around an 80 percent rate, followed by 66 percent for Afghans and almost 60 percent for Iraqis.

This is because countries wrecked by conflict often forces people to seek refuge elsewhere. Most often they go to neighbouring countries. Others are internally displaced.

With few legal pathways towards the EU, some opt for dangerous and often expensive journeys.

And the numbers to Finland, relative to other EU states, are also small. Around 160 asylum seekers arrived in Finland from Russia last Thursday, a day before Finland closed its four south eastern border points.

Last year, Finland had just under 5,000 first-time asylum applicants. Around 1,700 were Ukrainians, followed by just over 1,000 Russians, and some 200 each from Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq.

Frontex, the EU's border force, says it stands ready to shore up the Finnish border.

It says they are preparing to provide immediate assistance through the additional deployment of its standing corps officers.

"Frontex is assessing the wider impact of these developments on other neighbouring member states," said a Frontex spokesperson.

Last Friday, Norway, which also shares a border with Russia, said the situation was calm and normal.

So too did Latvia.

"So far no cases have been found that would indicate increased migration pressure," said a spokesperson from the Latvian state border guard.

EU creating new incentive for illegal pushbacks

After years of negotiations, EU states finally reached a political agreement on asylum in order to start negotiations with the European Parliament. But a closer look at the details behind last week's agreement, reveals a new recipe for pushbacks.

Finland restricts Russian tourist visas

Russian citizens were circumventing the European airspace ban by driving to Helsinki airport, which was being used as a hub to fly to other tourist destinations. Finland is now restricting those border crossings.

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