Finland's authorities have taken a bold step by announcing the closure of the land border with Russia from November 30 to December 13, 2023, except cargo transport. The move has come as Finland grapples with a sudden surge in refugee arrivals from the Russia.
This decision follows Finland's prior near-total border closure with Russia, leaving just one solitary crossing point operational — Raja-Jooseppi, a distant outpost four hours away from Murmansk, open for a meager four hours each day.
In an address on November, 28, 2023, Finland's Prime Minister, Petteri Orpo, unveiled the comprehensive border shutdown. He attributed this drastic measure to an unprecedented rise in asylum seekers from third countries trying to enter Finland via Russia. “This is Russia’s influence operation and we do not accept it” Orpo firmly declared earlier at a press conference in Brussels on November 27, 2023.
It was speculated earlier that such an influx of asylum seekers would be a deliberate ploy orchestrated by Russia. Finnish authorities believe Moscow is steering refugees towards their borders in response to Finland's NATO membership and strengthened defense ties with the United States. However, the Kremlin denies these allegations.
Recent data from the Finnish Border Guard paints a telling picture. According to his testimony to YLE on November 26, 2023, an estimated 900 asylum seekers, hailing from diverse regions including Afghanistan, Kenya, Morocco, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, entered Finland through the Russian border in November 2023 alone.
NATO's Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, weighed in on Monday, November 27, 2023, dubbing this as another instance of Russia employing migration as leverage to pressurize other European nations.
“I think this is another example of how Russia is using many different tools to put pressure on neighbours. We have seen them using energy, we have seen them using cyberattacks, we have seen them using different kinds of clandestine operations to try to undermine our democracies,” said Stoltenberg in his speech in Brussels.
The restrictions have swiftly taken effect. On Monday, a paltry three migrants crossed the border into Finland via Raja-Jooseppi, and the following day, the Finnish border guards stood firm, refusing entry to anyone from the Russian side.
Speaking to the BBC, Colonel Matti Pitkäniitty from the Finnish Border Guard acknowledged the struggle in fully sealing the border, citing Finland's obligation to safeguard refugee’s rights. Similarly, Pia Lindfors, head of the Refugee Aid Center in Finland, expressed grave concerns about the total border closure as it might drive refugees to attempt illegal crossings through forest paths spanning hundreds of kilometers.
However, the interior minister Mari Rantanen defended the decision citing the issue of national security in such exceptional circumstances. “This is an organised activity, not a genuine emergency,” she added.
Finnish uthorities have indicated that asylum seekers will have restricted access, only able to seek protection at open border crossing points for air and maritime traffic, namely ports and airports. However, as the decision raises concerns regarding potential illegal border crossings and the safeguarding of refugee rights, the broader impact of the amendment’s integration is yet to be unleashed.
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