A New Migrant Route Towards Europe


Photo source: Euractiv

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Russia seems an odd place for migrants to cross into Europe. However, as it is currently invading Ukraine, Europe's southern and eastern routes are vulnerable.

To be clear, the route through Russia isn’t new. It caused a clash between Brussels and Moscow back in 2015-16. But it’s been so quiet of late that it wasn’t even mentioned in Frontex’s 2024 border crossing statistics. That seems to be changing. Some nine hundred people made the crossing in November 2023, raising concerns in Helsinki and Brussels.

Predictably, European authorities have cried foul. Finnish officials have accused Russia of instrumentalising migration to retaliate against Finland for joining NATO in April 2023. And it is unlikely that they’re entirely wrong. But their finger-pointing hides their own complicity.

However, according to a report in Balkan Insight by Claudia Ciobanu, the Kremlin denied it has been tempting migrants to the Finnish border and helping them to cross. However, the Finnish Border Guard pointed out that while Russia implemented a bilateral agreement with Finland whereby it would not allow travellers without proper documents to the border area until August 2023, it began allowing greater access to the border zone from that time on.

Interestingly, in some videos posted on Telegram channels on local Balkan media, migrants are seen communicating with people smugglers, and the Russian authorities are clearly seen organising the migrants near the Finnish border.

In one such video, published on one of the Telegram channels on November 2023, tens of migrants are seen hanging out in the snow next to tents and bikes, under the watchful eye of what appears to be a mix of uniformed local Russian police, border guards and traffic police, some of them carrying gun, alongside a municipal ambulance standing nearby.

While neither the location of the video nor when it was filmed or by whom has been verified by media, a road sign visible in the video points to the town of Priozersk, which is about fifty kilometres from the Finnish border in the Leningrad Oblast. The visible license plates were from the Murmansk region and Saint Petersburg.

In two other videos posted in November 2023 on the same channel, migrants are seen getting on a bus under the guidance of Russian officers and later getting on bikes that appear to have been carried in a truck accompanying the bus.

All this signifies that new migration routes open up when old ones become too dangerous. That is why deadly pushbacks, detentions and deportation have certainly made the Balkans and Mediterranean dangerous for people on the move. This lack of better options is what is causing migrants and smugglers to set their sights on Moscow, and the freezing forest routes beyond it to Europe.

Finland closed all the crossing points along its 1,300 km-long border with Russia following the sharp increase of migrants in late 2023. The decision was extended to April 2024. The Finnish government also announced that all asylum requests would be processed inside registration centres and that a two-hundred-kilometre wall would be constructed by 2026.

Finland and Europe have framed the rise of migrants arriving at the Russian-Finnish border as an attempt at hybrid warfare by Russia. Hans Laijtens, the executive director of Frontex, said in 2023 that the EU must be ready for Russia for using migration to advance its own geopolitical interests.

There is no hard evidence of Russia actively facilitating irregular migration to Finland, but a growing number of testimonies and videos hints at some kind of engagement from the Russian authorities. It’s unlikely the European accusations are baseless.

But it’s equally unlikely that Putin is the sole or even main reason why migrants are now bicycling through the snow to Finland. Smugglers and migrants are adapting to circumstances by going north. The reason they are entering Russia in the first place is because European policy has made southern and eastern migration routes incredibly difficult and dangerous.

That is why it is being said that in Lapland, a sparsely populated region of Finland, a new door to Europe seems to be open. Add to that, Raja-Joosepi is the northernmost checkpoint on Finland’s border with Russia.

The migrants now crossing into Europe in northern Finland are mainly the same nationalities as seen lately over the Russian-Norwegian border; Afghans, Nepalese, Palestinians and Iraqis.

Despite people smugglers advertising help to traverse this route, migrants were initially able to cross into Finland without paying intermediaries. Unlike the Belarus-Poland route, where migrants need help in cutting through fences or crossing rivers and marshes, the border crossing with Finland was done at official points, with the Finnish Border Guard accepting asylum applications there.

Famously, migrants used bicycles they had bought to enter Finland, as some border crossings did not allow foot traffic.

When learning about the Finnish route option, many migrants in Belarus too chose to return to Russia and head up towards the Finnish border.

If Putin is weaponising migration, then Europe, in a very real way, is channelling ammunition to him. By 'weaponising’, several analysts refer to Russia’s stance as ‘alleged steering of migrants to the frontier by Moscow to raise pressure on Finland and the wider European Union over their political and military support for Ukraine’.



Popular Posts