Criticism is building over the Norwegian government’s decision to build a new fence along the country’s border with Russia. A retired Norwegian border inspector calls the fence a “rude symbolic gesture” against Russia.
The fence is under construction on the Norwegian side of the borderline and due to extend for 200 meters from both sides of the border crossing at Storskog. That’s where thousands of refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries crossed from Russia into Norway last year to seek asylum.
The refugee flow has since stopped, but Justice Minister Anders Anundsen and his fellow government ministers nonetheless felt it necessary to build the 3.5-meter-high fence in the area around Storskog. In other areas, the border that extends for 196 kilometers from the Barents Sea south to Nyrud runs through rivers and the scenic Pasvik valley.
Frode Berg, a retired verteran of the border commission in Northern Norway, thinks the entire project is unnecessary and even offensive. “I’m disturbed by this,” Berg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “I seems like this is a new hasty measure, forced through from Oslo. It’s a waste of money that could rather be used for other measures at Storskog to improve control of people who cross the border.”
Around 300,000 crossings occur annually at Storskog, with many of them involving permanent local residents on both sides who can cross without visas. Border cooperation between Russia and Norway has been hailed, and critics of the fence project think it will harm that cooperation.
Berg worked for 25 years as a border inspector based in nearby Kirkenes. He contends that the new fence won’t prevent anyone from illegally crossing the border, noting that they can simply go around it. Berg added that anyone trying to actually climb the fence, “which is so high that they probably can’t get over it,” is already legally viewed as being on the Norwegian side of the border.
“If the border fence had actually stood on the borderline, its construction could have been understood,” Berg told NRK. Since it’s in Norwegian territory, however, and relatively short, he can’t see how it actually can keep any determined refugee out. “Someone on the run can just walk 200 meters farther north and disappear into the forest when he meets the fence,” Berg said. “This fence is merely symbolic. It’s a rude symbol against our neighbour on the other side of the border.”
The border is currently under close watch by military personnel on both the Russian and Norwegian sides. Norway’s justice minister and the local police chief in Finnmark, Ellen Katrine Hætta, claim the fence is an extra security measure to hinder illegal crossings. Hætta said last week that the fence is also meant to prevent Norwegians from illegally entering Russia.
She admitted that the fence’s placement on the Norwegian side of the borderline means anyone getting caught by it would already have made it into Norway, “But we hope that doesn’t happen,” she told NRK, insisting that the fence remains a “security measure that hopefully will hinder people who have a need or wish to make an unauthorized move in or out of Norway.”
When construction of the fence began two weeks ago, the local Norwegian mayor also unleashed a barrage of criticism. Rune Rafaelsen, mayor for the Sør-Varanger region around Kirkenes, claimed it was not in harmony with Norwegian foreign policy. Lars Fordal, leader of the Barents Secretariat, said it smacked of the Cold War. Newspaper Aftenposten wrote that it “sent the wrong signals” to Russia. Meanwhile, the fence has received broad coverage in Russian media.
Berg, the retired border inspector, stressed that Norway’s official border policy has been to tear down fences since the collapse of the Soviet Union. “We were very much urging Russia to take down its fences,” Berg told NRK, “and now we’re building a fence ourselves.”