Migrants’ Shifting Path Through Russia Stokes Europe’s Fears


April 3, 2016

KANDALAKSHA, Russia — So many decrepit Soviet-era cars carried migrants into Europe from this frozen Russian town in recent months that border officials in Finland, who confiscate the rust-bucket vehicles as soon as they cross the frontier, watched in dismay as their parking lot turned into a scrapyard.

April 3, 2016

KANDALAKSHA, Russia — So many decrepit Soviet-era cars carried migrants into Europe from this frozen Russian town in recent months that border officials in Finland, who confiscate the rust-bucket vehicles as soon as they cross the frontier, watched in dismay as their parking lot turned into a scrapyard.

Migrants from African counties in a hostel in Kandalaksha, waiting to cross into Finland. The flow of refugees and migrants on the Arctic route has added a hefty dose of geopolitical anxiety.

To clear up the mess and provide some space for freshly confiscated cars, the Finnish customs service set up a separate dumping ground.

Then last month, as suddenly and as mysteriously as it had started, the parade of migrants in rusty old cars came to an abrupt halt, or at least a pause.

 “We don’t know what is going on,” said Matti Daavittila, the head of the ice-entombed Finnish border post near Salla. “They suddenly stopped coming. That is all we know.”

Compared with the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war or hardship who made the trek to Europe last year through Turkey to Greece, the flow of refugees and migrants on the Arctic route through Russia — first into Norway and later into Finland — is tiny.

But the stop-go traffic has added a hefty dose of geopolitical anxiety, not to mention intrigue, to a crisis that is tearing the European Union apart. It has sent alarm bells ringing in Helsinki, Finland’s capital far to the south, and in Brussels, where European Union leaders, at recent crisis meetings on migration, discussed the strange and ever-shifting Arctic route through Russia.

The intrigue flows from a growing suspicion in the West that Russia is stoking and exploiting Europe’s migrant crisis to extract concessions, or perhaps crack the European unity over economic sanctions imposed against Moscow for its actions in Ukraine. Only one of the European Union’s 28 member states needs to break ranks for a regime of credit and other restrictions to collapse.

“Unfortunately, this looks like a political demonstration by Russia,” said Ilkka Kanerva, Finland’s former foreign minister and now the chairman of its parliamentary Defense Committee. “They are very skillful at sending signals. They want to show that Finland should be very careful when it makes its own decisions on things like military exercises, our partnership with NATO and European Union sanctions” against Russia.

Unlike the flow of refugees and migrants into Greece by boat, in which the tempo is largely set by the weather in the Aegean Sea, the flow through Russia is almost entirely dependent on whether Russia’s Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the K.G.B., opens or closes roads in a heavily militarized border region crammed with bases.

In the first two months of this year, nearly 800 asylum seekers crossed from Russia into Finland near Salla, a crossing point west of Kandalaksha in the Finnish region of Lapland, compared with none in same period last year.

Sayid Mussa Khan, a 31-year-old Afghan who had worked for an American security company in Kabul, made it to Finland on Feb. 28, just a day before the traffic suddenly halted after a statement by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to security service chiefs that Russia should “tighten monitoring of refugee flows.”

Along with his family and around a dozen other asylum seekers, Mr. Khan set out at dawn from Kandalaksha in a convoy of old cars and, accompanied by Russian guides, breezed through three checkpoints to reach the Finnish border.

Sayid Mussa Khan made it to Finland with his family in February. He is waiting for his asylum application to be reviewed.

Mr. Khan, who sat with his wife and baby son in the back seat of a wheezing Lada, said he had never even heard of Finland when he left Kabul in 2014 and, after two years in Russia and Belarus, still was not really sure where it was he was going.

But he knew he wanted to get his family to Europe, and had been assured that he would get there once he had paid $6,000 to a facilitator in Moscow, who immediately arranged for the family to be issued with a deportation order by the Russian authorities.

“He asked me where I wanted to go and said: ‘No problem. We will get you to Finland. Everybody is going there now,’ ” said Mr. Khan, who is now in Finland waiting for the authorities to review his asylum application.

Jorma Vuorio, the director general of Finland’s Migration Department, said he had been surprised by the “completely new phenomenon” of asylum seekers arriving from Russia. But he added that there “was no proof, just speculation,” of involvement by the Russian state.

The traffic into Europe through the Arctic, which has involved relatively few Syrians, began late last summer, with more than 5,000 migrants on bicycles suddenly pouring across Russia’s previously tightly controlled northern border into Norway. But that cycle-borne flow ended abruptly on Nov. 30, after the Russian authorities reintroduced tight controls just as Norwegian officials arrived in Moscow for talks on how to stem the flow.

The migrants’ route then shifted southward to Russia’s border with Finland, as Russian guards on roads to two Finnish border crossings stopped blocking travelers without visas.

Finland swiftly banned cycle traffic across its 830-mile border with Russia, allowing only people in cars to cross. This killed a booming market for old bicycles in Russia’s far north but created a new market for cheap and decrepit Russian cars with just enough life left in them to limp across the border to Finland.

Mr. Vuorio said his Russian counterpart had informed him that Russia had more than 11 million foreigners living in its territory, a vast pool of potential migrants to Europe, but added that he doubted Moscow would allow a chaotic flood through sensitive border regions. Criminal gangs, not officials, he added, seem to be largely responsible for managing the scale and direction of migration to Europe through Russia.

He said the last halt in the traffic was not the result of any deal struck by Finnish and Russian officials, who have been engaged in weeks of intensive, high-level discussions. “Our only deal is that we have good relations,” he said, bewildered by the stop-go flow.

But that, said the Defense Committee chairman, Mr. Kanerva, is precisely Russia’s aim — to keep Finland off balance and thus wary of making any move toward NATO or making other decisions that would anger Moscow. Noting that Russia had shown itself adept in Ukraine at so-called hybrid warfare, the use of nonmilitary tools to pursue its goals, he said migrants “are part of a broader strategy.”

“They want to make us nervous and pay attention to their interests,” he added.

Like the conflict in Syria, Europe’s migrant crisis has given Moscow an opportunity to assert itself as an indispensable power that Europe cannot afford to ignore, much less antagonize. When Finland’s president visited Moscow last month, Mr. Putin scolded him over the damage to both Russia and Finland caused by sanctions. The two leaders agreed to bar all but their own citizens and citizens of Belarus at two Arctic border crossings for six months.

While Russian officials have strenuously denied steering migrants toward Europe, the Kremlin has taken thinly disguised delight in Europe’s troubles, particularly those of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who has dominated European policy toward Russia on sanctions and other matters. State-controlled Russian television has served up a daily diet of migrant-related horror stories, including a false report that migrants had raped a 13-year-old Russian-German girl in Berlin.

Mr. Putin, meanwhile, recently hosted visits to Moscow by two of Ms. Merkel’s most vocal critics, President Viktor Orban of Hungary and Premier Horst Seehofer of the German state of Bavaria.

Russia’s military actions in Syria, where the bombing of rebel targets often prompts the flight of civilians nearby, has further added to suspicions, especially in the United States, that Moscow wants to stoke Europe’s migration crisis for political ends.

Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee recently in Washington, NATO’s American commander, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, accused Russia of “deliberately weaponizing migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.”

A spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, dismissed General Breedlove’s allegations as absurd, noting that Europe’s refugee crisis began long before Moscow started its military action in Syria on Sept. 30.

The one group that needs no convincing about Russia’s manipulation of the migrant issue is the migrants themselves.

In interviews in Kandalaksha, stranded migrants from West and Central Africa said they had each paid thousands of dollars to “guides” who promised to get them to Finland and who worked closely with Russian officials. The system was highly organized, the migrants said, with no more than 30 people allowed to make the journey to Finland each day. Who went when, and in which vehicle, was established in advance, they said, with the guides and officials drawing up detailed lists with names, departure dates and cars.

“They are all in the same clique: the officials, the hotel people, the drivers. This is their business,” said Honoré Basubte, a young migrant from West Africa who had come to Russia as a student. Like many of the other migrants who traveled to Kandalaksha, he said he had been issued a Russian deportation order before setting out and been told to leave quickly for Europe.

“Now they say we can’t go because the border is closed,” he said. “This is all an ugly game.”

Courtesy: NY Times