Why Finland Closed Its 1,340-Km Border With Russia? All About The Dispute Over Asylum Seekers

Finland has decided to temporarily close its 1,340-kilometre border with Russia for the next two weeks as it accuses Moscow of helping migrants enter the country in large numbers. With the border posts witnessing a rise in the crossings this month, seven of them, out of the total eight, were shut earlier this month, media reports said. The last one, the northernmost crossing located in the Arctic Circle, was closed Wednesday, BBC reported.

Quoting the Finnish government, the media reports said around 900 people entered Finland from Russia in November, seeking asylum. The average per day number earlier was fewer than one. 

Finland is “determined to put an end to the crossings”, Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo was quoted as saying in a statement.

The two-week closure of the border will end on December 13. Only cargo trains can now operate between the two countries, the reports said.

Tension has been brewing between Finland and Russia for several weeks now over the asylum seekers. Helsinki has said Moscow is sending people to the border to avenge Finland’s decision to increase their defence cooperation with the United States, calling it an “influence operation” and a “hybrid attack”. The Kremlin has denied the charge, news agency Reuters reported. Russia has called the Finland move to shut the borders an “absolutely redundant measure”, the BBC report quoted above said.  

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Who Are The Asylum Seekers Crossing Into Finland? 

The government has said the asylum seekers are from countries such as Morocco, Syria and Pakistan. Quoting Matti Pitkaniitty from the Finnish border guard, BBC reported earlier that the migrants included people from Iraq and Yemen too who had arrived in Russia legally but were not authorised to enter the EU nation.

The Nordic country shares a 833-mile border with Russia, which is Europe’s longest.

Pitkaniitty told BBC that Russian guards usually did not allow people to reach the Finland border without proper documents, but the authorities appeared to have “definitely” changed their policy now.

According to the report, many of these asylum seekers were initially crossing into Finland by bicycle, thanks to an agreement in place that allows cycling across the border. Finland last week banned border crossings by bike.

Most of the border crossing activity has been seen around Nuijamaa and Vaalimaa in south-eastern Finland.

Migrant influx, however, is not new to Europe, the continent that has always seen a steady flow of asylum seekers.  

In 2021, hordes of migrants crossed into Poland and Lithuania after flying to Russian ally Belarus from Middle Eastern and African countries. The EU at that time had made similar allegations against Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko that he was using migration as a “hybrid warfare” tool to destabilise the EU.

Meanwhile, another BBC report said the non-discrimination ombudsman in Finland has expressed concerns that Helsinki might be jeopardising the people’s right to seek asylum under international law by closing the borders. The government has, however, said sea and air routes are still open and those arriving via these routes can still seek asylum in Finland.

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What Is The Dispute Between Finland And Russia?

Earlier this year, Finland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, the intergovernmental military alliance, after maintaining non-alignment for decades. The Nordic state changed its stand after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 — the war that has since continued.

After the Ukraine invasion, President Vladimir Putin had said he sees the expansion of NATO as a direct threat to Russia’s security, and that was why he launched the 2022 war. But the war only ended up extending the reach of NATO.

Finland’s decision to join the military alliance in April this year, hence, did not go down well with Russia. Its foreign ministry had said Finland was “warned” of the consequences. Russia also said it would have to take “countermeasures”.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Monday migration was being used by Russia as a tool to put pressure on Finland. “NATO stands in solidarity with our ally Finland,” he was quoted as saying in a Politico report.

Quoting a Finnish newspaper, the report said Russian embassies had started giving visas to people from the Horn of Africa to come to Russia and then go to the Finland border with the help of Russian security services.

While Moscow has denied the allegations, PM Orpo has said this is “Russia’s influence operation and we do not accept it”.

“Finland is the target of a Russian hybrid operation. This is a matter of national security,” Interior Minister Mari Rantanen said, as quoted by The Guardian.  

Orpo said Monday Finland had intelligence input that Russian authorities were helping people seeking asylum reach the border. “This is an organised activity, not a genuine emergency.” 

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