With winter setting in, Norwegian government officials fear the Arctic areas around the Norwegian-Russian border could turn into an area more dangerous, and just as fatal, for asylum seekers than the Mediterranean has been. The officials claim they’re cracking down not only to stem the influx of refugees into Norway, but to ward off a human catastrophe.
“Have you ever been caught in a Norwegian snowstorm?” State Secretary Jøran Kallmyr of the Justice Ministry asked foreign correspondents in Oslo on Tuesday. He went on to warn that you can’t see things right in front of you, that temperatures can plunge to 20 to 30 degrees below zero. That people can freeze to death.
“This is a warning we have to get out,” Kallmyr said. “The situation is very critical.”
He and other government officials, including Prime Minister Erna Solberg, are concerned that asylum seekers flocking to the border between Norway and Russia face a far more hazardous route than they may realize. A bicycle, the standard mode of transportation used by asylum seekers in order to conform with regulations on the Russian side of the border, is no safe way to travel in a storm, or in Arctic winter temperatures and winds.
“We’re actually concerned about people losing their lives,” Kallmyr said. The so-called “Arctic Route” that suddenly became heavily trafficked this past summer and autumn “can be an extremely dangerous route, even worse than the Mediterranean.”
Yet the asylum seekers keep coming, in record numbers this past week. Kallmyr said that Norway’s border station at Storskog, east of Kirkenes, only received “two or three” asylum seekers a few years ago, and 10 in 2014. Now more than 4,500 have crossed the border so far this year, he said, “at a place where there was no capacity” to handle all the asylum applications and asylum seekers’ need for accommodation.
Norwegian officials have been scrambling to deal with the situation, and impose tough new asylum procedures aimed at halting the influx. Calls to close the border ended up being turned down late last week and Kallmyr said diplomatic efforts are continuing to get Russian officials to stop allowing the asylum seekers to head for the border. The area on both sides of the border is restricted, and military area in Russia, yet the thousands of asylum seekers have been allowed to pass. Kallmyr wouldn’t elaborate on the “diplomatic dialogue” going on, nor on the content of discussions with Russian border commission officials. Asked how Russian authorities have responded to questions as to why they’re allowing all the asylum seekers to approach the border, without the required visas and even with expulsion stamps on the papers they do have, Kallmyr said only that the answer was “not satisfactory.”
Speculation has swirled as to what’s behind the refugee influx. The Russian Embassy sent a written explanation to news bureau NTB suggesting that “some of these foreign citizens” have hidden or given misleading information upon arrival in Russia, or haven’t revealed that they intend to simply pass through Russia on their way to Norway.
Russia’s consul general in Kirkenes made headlines on Monday when he told the website High North News that “Norway is much too kind,” and that’s why asylum seekers are heading for the country. He denied Russian officials were intentionally sending asylum seekers towards Norway. “If someone wants to go to Norway, how should we stop them?” the consul, Sergej Sjatunovskij-Bjurno asked. “If people with residence in Russia want to go to Norway and seek asylum, there’s nothing we can do to stop them,” adding that Russia “has its own refugees to take care of.”
Response to sanctions
Others, including several Russian foreign policy experts, suggest the refugee influx is all part of Russia’s ongoing conflict with the west, and a strategy of using “non-military weapons” against the west, in this case Norway. After being good neighbours for decades if not centuries, tensions have risen dramatially between Norway and Russia during the past two years following Russia’s highly controversial annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine. That led to Norway going along with EU sanctions against Russia, and some suggest Russia is now punishing Norway, by allowing so many asylum seekers to head for the Norwegian border.
“The refugee stream puts political and economic pressure on Norway,” wrote Lt Col Geir Hågen Karlsen, an instructor in strategic communication at the Norwegian Defense Department’s officers’ school, in a commentary in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Tuesday. “It’s reasonable to think that Russian authorities can turn the pressure up and down, as it suits them. They raised the pressure when they expelled refugees who clearly could have been returned to Russia.”
Karlsen also warned that a looming humanitarian crisis around the northern border area can’t be ruled out. He wrote that it’s also “reasonable to think” that the refugee influx is organized. The border zone on the Russian side is under guard at all times, he wrote, “and no one, not even Russians, can get close to the border without approval of security forces. He called the situation a “solid” response to Norwegian sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine.
‘Divide and conquer’
While Karlsen claims the Russians are exploiting the refugee crisis and the chaos it’s created in Europe, not least to help divert attention from the Ukraine crisis, others think the Russians are also opting for a “divide and conquer” strategy. Researcher Iver B Neumann of the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI told newspaper Dagsavisen that he thinks the Russians are trying to wear down their Norwegian counterparts, “and ‘divide and conquer’ is the oldest trick in the book.”
Lars Rowe, senior researcher at Fridtjof Nansens Institute, cautioned against concluding that the refugee influx over the Russian border is an active and conscious policy rooted in Moscow. “But it’s easy to see that no one on the Russian side is lifting a finger to stop the asylum stream towards Norway,” he said.
Kallmyr, Prime Minister Solberg and several other top Norwegian politicians seemed determined for Norway not to be split over the refugee crisis, and many are stating needs for “solidarity” and a joint effort to resolve the crisis. Among them is Jonas Gahr Støre, leader of the opposition Labour Party and a former foreign minister who worked closely with the Russians for years. He’s been among the most anxious to answer Solberg’s call for a dugnad (common effort) to agree on refugee policy.
Meanwhile, the weather around the border at Storskog is bound to get worse as winter cold and darkness descend on the Arctic. “We’re very concerned,” Kallmyr repeated. “We don’t know what kind of facilities the Russians have on their side of the border (to care for stranded refugees),” he said, adding that “we have to use the channels that work best with Russia” and, hopefully, ward off a humanitarian catastrophe in the Arctic.