Finland has announced it will close all but one of its border crossings with Russia after a rise in the arrivals of refugees and migrants whom the government claims Moscow is intentionally pushing to the country’s frontiers.
Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo said on Wednesday that as of the end of Friday, only its northernmost border crossing with Russia, Raja-Jooseppi, will remain open.
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Finland had already shut four of its eastern border checkpoints last week and is set to close three of the four remaining crossing points.
“Raja-Jooseppi is the northernmost [border crossing], and it requires a real effort to get there,” Orpo said at a press conference.
‘Surge’ in arrivals
More than 600 asylum seekers have entered Finland via Russia in November, compared with only a few dozen in September and October. They were mostly from countries such as Yemen, Afghanistan, Kenya, Morocco, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria, according to border officials. Most were young men in their 20s, but some were families with children, border guard data and photos from news outlets showed.
Officials also said Finnish border guards and soldiers have begun erecting barriers, including concrete obstacles topped with barbed wire, at some of the crossing points.
After the recent closures, arrivals shifted north along the countries’ 1,340km (832-mile) border to Vartius and Salla, two border stations that still accepted asylum applications, Finland said.
“Undoubtedly Russia is instrumentalising migrants” as part of its “hybrid warfare” against Finland, Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen said on Wednesday.
Moscow has denied it is funneling desperate migrants and refugees to the Finnish border.
Finland joined NATO in April after decades of military non-alignment and pragmatic friendly relations with Moscow. Its border with Russia serves as the European Union’s external border and makes up NATO’s northeastern flank.
Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday that Russian authorities are ready to work together with Finnish officials to reach an agreement on the border issue. Finland should have “put forward its concerns to work out a mutually acceptable solution or receive explanation”, she argued.
On Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Finnish ambassador in Moscow to lodge a formal protest over the closure of the most used checkpoints on the border.
About 30 to 70 refugees and migrants are arriving each day at the Vartius checkpoint in Kainuu and the Salla checkpoint in Finland’s Arctic Lapland region, where winter conditions have meant temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit) and plenty of snow.
Andrei Chibis, governor of northern Russia’s Murmansk region, which borders Finland, on Wednesday posted pictures of migrants in a tent near the Salla checkpoint set up by the regional authorities to let them warm themselves up, eat and drink hot tea.
He described the situation as a “humanitarian crisis” and blasted the Finnish authorities, saying “foreign citizens can’t cross the border” to the Finnish side.
“At the EU border with Finland, Russian border guards have been letting people through without Schengen visas or EU residence permits. People who are being misled. People who are being used by Russia,” EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said on Tuesday.
“The Finnish border is the EU’s border. The European Union is behind you,” Johanssen said, adding that Finland has requested additional operational support from Frontex, the EU’s border agency, and up to 60 officers.
In 2011, 3,000 to 4,000 asylum seekers became stranded in no-man’s land on the border between Poland and Belarus as Warsaw deployed security forces to stop migrants and refugees from entering at a time of freezing winter temperatures and lack of access to vital supplies and medical care.
Lithuania and Latvia also reported sharp increases in the number of people trying to cross their borders at the time.
The EU accused Minsk of deliberately enticing migrants and refugees to Belarus and then funnelling them westwards with promises of easy entry into the bloc as part of a “hybrid attack” on its member states in retaliation for sanctions. Warsaw accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of masterminding the crisis.
Both Belarus and Russia denied the allegations.
Human rights groups accused Poland of conducting illegal pushbacks at its border and raised concerns for the wellbeing of the stranded refugees and migrants.