Facing asylum seeker surge from Russia, Finland mulls curbing access

By Essi Lehto

HELSINKI (Reuters) – Further groups of asylum seekers arrived on Wednesday at Finland’s southeastern border via Russia, officials said, adding to a sudden surge that might spur the Nordic country to restrict access.

Finland, a European Union country whose accession to the NATO alliance earlier this year after decades of non-alignment angered Moscow, shares a 1,340-km (833-mile) border with Russia that also serves as the EU’s external border.

Finland’s government on Tuesday accused Russia of funnelling asylum seekers to crossing points along the frontier and said it might limit access unless Russian authorities reverse course.

“I don’t see the border traffic ending in any other way than with very clear Finnish action,” President Sauli Niinisto told a news conference on Wednesday.

“We aim to effectively inform people … that Finland is not a land of milk and honey that can be entered so easily, and hopefully this will hold back entrants,” he said.

Russia said on Wednesday it lamented Finland’s move to potentially shut the border. “We deeply regret that the Finnish leadership has chosen the path of deliberately distancing itself from the previous good level and nature of our bilateral relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Last year, Finland adopted legislation allowing its border authority to stop receiving asylum applications in exceptional circumstances at certain crossing points in case it became a target of mass immigration orchestrated by another country.

While overall numbers have remained small, dozens of asylum seekers have arrived this week after Russian authorities began allowing people into the border zone without required documents to enter the EU, Finnish authorities said.

On Tuesday, 55 asylum seekers were recorded by officials, while Wednesday afternoon’s figure stood at 66 and rising, Finnish Border Guard Lieutenant Colonel Jukka Lukkari said.

“I assume many more will come today,” he said, adding that most arrivals were from Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Syria.

Jukka Laine, a border studies professor at the University of Eastern Finland, said Helsinki’s consideration of restrictions seemed harsh when looking at the numbers.

“This is hybrid-influencing machined by Russia and a key element in it is to create havoc and panic,” using a term referring to unconventional methods of exerting hostile pressure.

“If this is what they are aiming at, I would say they got it with very little effort,” Laine said.

The Finnish Refugee Council said the right to seek refuge should be respected, regardless of where applicants came from or how they accessed the border.

(Reporting by Essi Lehto and Moscow newsroom; editing by Anne Kauranen and Mark Heinrich)