Serious calls are being issued this week, also on the floor of Parliament, to close Norway’s far northern border to Russia. Years of border cooperation between Norwegian and Russian authorities is now threatened by the record and “unsustainable” numbers of asylum seekers now using the border crossing every day.
Regional and state authorities simply can’t handle the influx of asylum seekers whom Russian authorities have allowed to head for the border crossing at Storskog, east of Kirkenes. The area is otherwise restricted, and the would-be refugees haven’t been allowed to approach border crossings between Russia and Finland. Those heading for Norway via the so-called “Arctic Route” have, however, mostly been allowed to proceed.
Norwegian police officials have gone so far as to suspect that their Russian counterparts are keen to have refugees and immigrants from Syria, Afghanistan and as many as 30 other countries leave Russia and seek their fortunes in Norway instead. Norwegian immigration officials contend that many of the people now seeking asylum at Norway’s border to Russia have no need for protection because they hold residence permission in Russia, have lived in Russia for several years and speak Russian well.
In some cases, though, Russian authorities have revoked their residence permission as they neared the border, allegedly to force their Norwegian counterparts to allow the asylum seekers to enter Norway. Some local officials in Finnmark County and politicians in Oslo as well wonder whether Russia is trying to punish Norway over its earlier criticism of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its intervention in Ukraine and Norway’s decision to go along with the resulting sanctions against Russia. Relations between Norway and Russia have grown tense over the past two years, after centuries of being good neighbours.
Now several Members of Parliament have had enough. “We can’t just sit and watch what’s happening,” Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, leader of the Center Party, told newspaper Aftenposten on Thursday. “We must have much, much stricter border control, especially at Schengen’s most outlying border to Russia.” Vedum was referring to the so-called “Schengen region” of Europe, within which borders are generally open.
Per Olaf Lundteigen, a colleague of Vedum in a party otherwise keen to increase the population of Norway’s outlying areas, said on national radio Thursday morning that anyone lacking a visa to Norway, the Schengen region or a local residence certificate should be turned away at the border. “They (the asylum seekers) are already safe in Russia,” Lundteigen argued on state broadcaster NRK’s morning debate program Politisk kvarter. He claimed he and his party are in favour of “warm and consistent asylum policies,” but suggested the influx of people now trying to enter Norway from Russia constitutes an abuse of the asylum system.
Justice Minister Anders Anundsen has been trying to restrict the border crossings via the Arctic Route but is frustrated in his efforts. His government colleague, Foreign Minister Børge Brende, asked for an explanation from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov several weeks ago. Lavrov reportedly said he would “look into” the issue but Anundsen said the diplomatic efforts have yielded no results.
Asked whether Norway may simply close the border, Anundsen told Aftenposten “we are holding all possibilities open.” He said “dialogue” was continuing with the Russian authorities “but so far that hasn’t given any results.”
After another 173 asylum seekers crossed the border on Wednesday, following a record number of 196 on Tuesday, Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre said he also was viewing a border closure as a possibility. Støre, a former foreign minister, was one of the main proponents for easing border restrictions at Storskog, not least for everyone living within 30 kilometers of it. They’ve been allowed to freely cross back and forth for several years, which in turn has enhanced years of otherwise good relations between Norwegians and Russians, especially in the far north.
“The question is whether this stream of asylum seekers is a violation of Russian regulations regarding what applies in order to get permission to approach the border of another country,” Støre told Aftenposten. “We’re seeing different practice (regarding restrictions around the Finnish and Norwegian borders), and that’s unacceptable (behaviour towards a neighbouring country) in the long term.”
Prime Minister Erna Solberg claims it’s in the interests of both Norway and Russia to practice consistent and predictable border control. She claimed there has been some follow-up after the meeting between Brende and Lavrov. “And now the border commissioners are having talks,” Solberg said. “We are following the clear, diplomatic playing rules.”
Asked whether Norway has lost control over its borders, Solberg told Aftenposten that no country can have full control. As her government and immigration officials struggle to process the applications of thousands of unexpected asylum seekers, and feed and house them in the meantime, she said that “what’s important now is to have a good process to handle those who have arrived, and those with no need for protection will be sent back to their original homeland.” Or back to Russia.