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The World This Year
Finland in 2023: Challenges at Russia's border

  Rishika Yadav
Rishika Yadav is a Research Assistant at NIAS.

On 15 December, Finland's Border Guard reported that more than 200 migrants crossed into Finland from Russia following the reopening of select border crossings. The move came after a two-week total closure between the countries. Minister of Interior Mari Rantanen assured there were no human rights concerns, mentioning that asylum could still be sought at alternate entry points from sea and air routes. On 28 November, Prime Minister Petteri Orpo confirmed Finland's decision to close its final border passage with Russia, attributing the move as a "hybrid operation" by Russia. Rantanen announced the closure's implementation overnight, effective until 13 December. The surge in undocumented migrants seeking asylum prompted this action along the 1,340-kilometer-long border shared by both countries. Rantanen emphasized that Finland viewed this as a national security concern, citing nearly 1,000 migrants entering without visas through eastern border points since August. This month, more than 900 people from countries including Iraq, Somalia, Syria and Yemen have crossed into Finland from Russia to seek asylum, according to the Finnish border guard – a considerable increase on usual numbers.

Major Issues in 2023
First, there are growing anti-immigrant sentiments by right-wing parties in Europe. There is a growing anti-immigrant sentiment fueling right-wing parties in Europe due to an ongoing crisis that has brought more than 1.5 million refugees and migrants to the West since 2015. These sentiments stem from multifaceted factors—economic, cultural, and symbolic. These sentiments arise from the perception of immigrants as economic threats, believed to lower wages and strain social welfare systems. The present Finnish coalition government, regarded as the most right-wing in history, includes the far-right Finns party, known for its anti-immigration stance. These parties exploit concerns over immigration, resonating with nationalistic sentiments. 

Second, deteriorating relations due to the Russia-Ukraine war. The Ukraine conflict catalyzed Finland's alignment with NATO, altering its security dynamics and intensifying suspicions toward Russia. This geopolitical event triggered tension between the countries, leading Finland to join NATO as a defensive measure. This move marked a significant shift in Finland's security policy and strained its relations with Russia. Subsequently, Finland accused Moscow of manipulating migrant influxes to destabilize the country, prompting the deployment of Frontex personnel to reinforce border control. 

Third, hybrid warfare. Finnish officials assert that the recent surge in refugees is a calculated move orchestrated by Russia, termed a "hybrid operation" aimed at unsettling Finland's security. They cite instances of observed Russian assistance to migrants and visas issued from Russian embassies in the Horn of Africa. This atypical behaviour indicates a deliberate push of individuals toward Finland's borders. Finnish intelligence sources, like Iltalehti, suggested that after legally entering Russia, these individuals receive aid, potentially in collaboration with Russian entities, aiming to channel people toward what is termed as the "Suomen route." The Finnish government views this influx as a national security threat, alleging that Russia manipulates migrants as a tool in hybrid warfare against Finland. They emphasize that the refugees arriving, ill-equipped for extreme cold, could not have made this journey independently, pointing to organized assistance from groups in Russia. Finland considers this situation as a deliberate act by Russia to manipulate and use migrants as a tool in hybrid warfare against their country. Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen: "Undoubtedly Russia is instrumentalizing migrants" as part of its "hybrid warfare" against Finland. Rantanen was clear: "Finland is the target of a Russian hybrid operation. This is a matter of national security."

Fourth, an increase in problems for refugees. The closure of Finland's borders is a significant challenge for the asylum seekers. The sudden closure disrupts their arduous journey, leaving them stranded in harsh weather conditions, inadequately prepared for extreme temperatures as low as -25 degrees Celsius as winter starts. The Finnish Refugee Advice Centre executive director, Pia Lindfors, fears that the border closure will push asylum seekers to risky routes away from official posts, especially with winter worsening the dangers of crossing through forests and rivers. She commented: "Now winter has arrived, this could be even more dangerous." Despite closures, she urged Finnish authorities to aid those in need on the Russian side without pushing them back illegally. She added: "I have to trust that Finnish border guards will not break these fundamental principles." It is feared that this decision could force them to attempt crossings away from official border posts, navigating through vast forests and rivers. With winter setting in, these routes become even more perilous, increasing the dangers of exposure, accidents, and extreme weather-related risks.

Moreover, closing the borders raises concerns about violating fundamental rights, especially the right to seek asylum, as warned by the UN, refugee advocates, and Finland's non-discrimination ombudsman. The absence of accessible official border crossings, located hundreds of kilometres away from the capital, limits the legal avenues for asylum seekers, compelling some to resort to illegal and hazardous routes. The closure challenges the principles of international law, as asylum seekers might face pushbacks or lack essential assistance when attempting illegal crossings. There is a plea for Finnish authorities to uphold these fundamental principles by providing aid to those in need on the Russian side and ensuring that border guards do not compromise essential rights during these challenging circumstances. 

2024: Looking Ahead
First, potential to end up as "no-man land." In 2021, 3,000 to 4,000 asylum seekers became stranded in a no-man's land on the border between Poland and Belarus as Warsaw deployed security forces to stop people from entering amid freezing winter temperatures. This crisis foreshadows potential risks for the Finland-Russia border in 2024. The EU accused Belarus of luring migrants to the border, similar to Finland's claims against Russia. With rising tensions, the Finland-Russia border may face a similar scenario, becoming a hostile no-man's land, leading to migrant exploitation.

Second, Russia will continue as a transit country. Russia has emerged as a transit hub for refugees. This trend predates the Ukraine war, with Russia's efforts to address its demographic decline by attracting foreigners through dual-citizenship laws since 2022 by Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, the Ukraine conflict added momentum to this trend. Russia's position as a transit route for refugees is likely to persist in 2024 as well. It suggests that the country will sustain its role as a migrant transit point. 

About the authors
Rishika Yadav is a Research Assistant at NIAS.

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