ByJARI TANNER Associated Press
Friday November 17, 2023
Migrants arriving from Russia board a van to be transported to the Joutseno Reception Centre at the Nuijamaa border station between Russia and Finland in Lappeenranta, Finland, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023. The government in Finland is considering whether to close some crossing points on the country's long border with Russia to prevent people from trying to enter without proper documentation, the Nordic nation's interior minister and prime minister said Tuesday. (Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva via AP)
The Associated Press
HELSINKI -- Finland will close four crossing points on its long border with Russia to stop the flow of Middle Eastern and African migrants that it accuses Moscow of ushering to the border in recent months, the government said Thursday.It runs a total of 1,340 kilometers (832 miles), mostly through thick forests in the south, all the way to the rugged landscape in the Arctic north. There are currently nine crossing points, with one dedicated to rail travel only.
Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo and Interior Minister Mari Rantanen said the southeastern crossing points -- Imatra, Niirala, Nuijamaa and Vaalimaa -- will be closed at midnight Friday on the Finland-Russia land border that serves as the European Union’s external frontier.
“Operations of the Russian border authorities have changed,” Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo told reporters, adding that the four crossings would remain closed until Feb. 18.
He referred to dozens of migrants, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, who have arrived in the Nordic nation over recent days without proper documentation and have sought asylum after allegedly being helped by Russian authorities to travel to the heavily controlled border zone.
This represents a major change, since Finnish and Russian border authorities cooperated for decades in stopping people without the necessary visas or passports before they could attempt to enter either country.
Finnish authorities said this week that Russia has in recent months started allowing undocumented travelers to access the border zone and enter crossing stations where they can request asylum in Finland.
The Finnish Border Guard says migrants have in the past days arrived mainly from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Turkey and Somalia, and nearly all have arrived at the border zone on bicycles that Finnish and Russian media reports say were provided and sold to them.
Most of them used Russia only as a transit country to enter Finland and the EU, officials said.
Some 280 third-country migrants have arrived in Finland from Russia since September, border officials said Thursday.
In a post on social media platform X, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said “Russia’s instrumentalisation of migrants is shameful. I fully support the measures taken by Finland” and thanked the Finnish Border Guard “for protecting our European borders”.
Finnish President Sauli Niinistö on Wednesday linked Russia’s actions to Finland's NATO membership in April after decades of military non-alignment, a move that infuriated Moscow, which has threatened Helsinki with retaliatory measures several times.
He noted that Finland, which joined the Western military alliance in the wake of Moscow's attack on Ukraine in Feb. 2022, must be prepared for “certain malice” from Russia.
“Yes, we’re constantly being reminded (by Moscow) that Finland has joined NATO,” Niinistö told reporters during a visit to Germany.
Finland’s Foreign Ministry announced last month that the country of 5.6 million has concluded a deal on a new bilateral defense agreement with the United States. Among other things, the so called DCA pact allows Washington to send U.S. troops and to store equipment, weapons and ammunition in agreed locations in Finland.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday when asked about Finland considering the closure of the border crossings that Russian authorities “deeply regret that the leadership of Finland chose the path of deliberate distancing from the previously good nature of our bilateral relations.”
Neighboring Norway, which has a 198-kilometer-long (123-mile-long) border in the Arctic with Russia, said it had so far not recorded a comparable increase in border traffic from Russia at the sole crossing point at Storskog.
“We are following the situation closely, and it may be appropriate for us to close the border at short notice if necessary,” Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl told Norwegian news agency NTB.
Meanwhile, authorities in Russia’s Baltic neighbor Estonia, a NATO and EU member, said that eight Somali migrants attempted to enter the country from Russia without proper documents in the border city of Narva on Thursday.
Estonia's Interior Minister Lauri Läänemets said the migrants were likely helped by the Russian authorities who transported them to the border zone.
“It’s unlikely that these Somali citizens came up with all this (idea) on their own. They shouldn’t be able to cross the Russian border without the proper rights,” he said, adding that the African migrants were directed back to Russia’s territory.
Estonia’s Police and Border Guard Board said later Thursday it was ready to close all border crossing points between Estonia and Russia if necessary.
Associated Press writer Daria Litvinova in Tallinn, Estonia and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of global migration at https://apnews.com/hub/migration