Weaponized migration Chat groups show would-be asylum seekers offered transport through Russia to the Finnish border. Some suspect Moscow’s involvement.
In recent weeks, there’s been a surge in Middle Eastern and African migrants trying to enter Finland from Russia. Finnish officials have accused Moscow of orchestrating an artificial influx of asylum seekers at the border as retaliation for Finland’s accession to NATO, a view which the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry has called “very strange.” Migrants are reportedly allowed into Russian territory without proper documentation, driven to checkpoints, and sent across on bicycles in freezing temperatures. On November 24, Finland closed all but one border crossing with Russia and has now announced it will close the remaining one for two weeks, starting November 30. To better understand the situation, Russian and Finnish journalists analyzed group chats on messaging apps and on social media where citizens of third countries allegedly discuss how to transit Russia in order to seek asylum in Finland.
A ‘large turnover’
Even with the uptick in border traffic, comments in Arabic-language chats discussing migration to Finland show that details of the path through Russia remain unclear for many would-be travelers. Most asylum seekers, journalists note, are “confused” and trying to find out what awaits them on the journey. According to an investigation by St. Petersburg outlet Fontanka, migrants are taken to the Finnish border in vehicles with Russian license plates. There, they’re given bicycles and sent off to make their way across.
People in the chats frequently mention “intermediaries” who will help migrants get to Europe. Around 2,000-3,000 euros (about $2,200-3,000) buys a package that includes a Russian visa invitation, a plane ticket to Minsk or Moscow, travel to St. Petersburg, and transportation to the border. Russian visa costs and a bicycle which, until recently, could be used to cross the border, aren’t included in the package.
After Finnish authorities closed the three nearest checkpoints to St. Petersburg, the journey to the border became significantly more expensive, notes Fontanka. Currently, intermediaries take people no closer than 30 kilometers (around 18.5 miles). Russian law enforcement officers stop vehicles as they approach the border and check documents. A Fontanka journalist contacted one of these intermediaries and managed to negotiate transportation from St. Petersburg to the Salla checkpoint for four people for a cost of 1,800 euros (about $2000). The agent was unable to specify exactly how the people would be taken to the border.
Fontanka said it couldn’t find a “coordinated central system for guaranteed delivery of refugees to the Finnish border” or “evidence that the Russian authorities are deliberately pushing refugees to Finland,” but admitted that there is a market for selling services to refugees, and it has a “large turnover.”
In its own investigation, Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat found that public social media groups for those interested in traveling to the E.U. through Russia often have hundreds of members, including people from Syria, Iraq, Russia, the E.U., and Turkey. Many “tour” organizations are based in Turkey. One agent offered transport from Moscow to the Finnish border for “$2,800, including travel by car and bicycle.” Another said he could help a potential migrant from Baghdad obtain a Russian visa in Iraq within 25 days for $5,500. A third offered a visa to Belarus. A fourth promised those crossing the Finnish border a trip to Germany. Another group member backed him up, noting that there’s no need to stay in Finland because it’s “cold and there’s no work.” It’s impossible to tell the real offers from scams, according to Helsingin Sanomat. There’s also an unconfirmed rumor circulating that Russian border guards will let people through without a visa for a $300 bribe.
Closing the border
Starting at midnight on November 18, Finnish authorities closed four of the eight vehicle crossings along the Russian border. The Finnish Interior Ministry explained the measure as a response to the increased flow of illegal migrants who are seeking asylum after crossing the border. Over 500 refugees arrived in Finland this way in November alone. Finnish authorities hold that Russia is involved in creating the crisis at the border.
Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo said that it was not possible to resolve the problem with Russia through diplomatic channels. On November 24, three of the four remaining checkpoints were closed, leaving only the northernmost, the Raja-Jooseppi crossing, operational. Now, Finland’s government has announced it will fully close the border for at least two weeks in an effort to stem the tide of asylum seekers entering the country from Russian territory.
Residents of Kostomuksha, a town near the recently closed Vartius checkpoint in Russia’s Karelia, had varying reactions to the influx. Some complained about increasing bicycle thefts and wondered how people without Finnish visas gained access to the border zone, according to Mediazona. Others were profiting from the situation by transporting migrants to the checkpoint “for a good price” and selling bicycles for 30,000 to 80,000 rubles (about $300-$900), one resident told the publication.
On November 19, Kostomuksha authorities set up a warming station at the document verification point due to freezing temperatures. By the evening of November 20, they’d taken it down, saying there were “no gatherings of refugees in border areas.” Viktor Bozis, a city district administration employee, told Fontanka that migrants continued to arrive at the border even after the warming station was closed. “Even if they’re turned around on the highway and asked to go to another checkpoint, they still come,” he said, without specifying who was doing the directing. On November 21, temperatures dropped below seven degrees Fahrenheit.
According to Artur Parfenchikov, the governor of the Republic of Karelia, from November 15-21 over 150 foreigners without proper documents were detained by the police and now face fines and deportation. The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry has refuted allegations that Moscow may be involved in sending refugees to the Finnish border. On November 20, Finnish Ambassador Antti Helanterä was summoned to the ministry, where Russian officials protested the closure of the checkpoints. The ministry called the Finnish authorities’ decision “provocative,” accusing Helsinki of violating the rights of Russian and Finnish citizens and attempting to “further aggravate our relations.”
Sign up for The Beet
Underreported stories. Fresh perspectives. From Budapest to Bishkek.