By Essi Lehto
HELSINKI (Reuters) -Finland will close four of the nine crossing points on its border with Russia on Saturday to stem a flow of asylum seekers to the Nordic nation, Prime Minister Petteri Orpo said on Thursday.
Neighbouring Norway, which shares a border with Russia in the Arctic, is also ready to close its border at short notice if necessary, Norwegian Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl said.
Finland’s president said on Wednesday a rise in the number of asylum applicants arriving on the eastern border appeared to be Russian revenge for Finland’s defence cooperation with the United States, an assertion dismissed by Moscow.
Finland, a European Union country whose accession to the NATO alliance 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.
The four crossings, all in southeastern Finland, are normally the busiest points of travel between the two countries.
“The government has today decided that Finland will close some eastern border crossing points. The eastern border for that part will close on the night between Friday and Saturday,” Orpo told a press conference.
DUTY TO ALLOW ASYLUM APPLICATIONS
Finland’s non-discrimination ombudsman, Kristina Stenman, said Helsinki still had a duty under international treaties and EU law to allow asylum seekers to file applications.
“If a person comes to a border station and says they are seeking international protection, the application needs to be received,” Stenman told Reuters.
Dozens of asylum seekers from countries such as Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Syria have arrived each day this week via Russia, Finland’s border guards have said, after fewer than one per day on average earlier in the autumn.
The accumulated number of arrivals since September stands at 280 asylum seekers, the Border Guard Authority said on Thursday.
Asylum seekers arriving via Russia will from Saturday be allowed to hand in their applications only at two northern border crossings, the government said.
Some 3,000 people use Finland’s southeastern border crossings on a daily basis. Orpo said he understood the closures would make everyday life more difficult for people allowed to travel between Finland and Russia.
Making clear Finland would reverse course if the asylum arrivals ended, Orpo said: “Our message is strong, we want this phenomenon to end so we can continue the border traffic like we have until now.”
Over 1,200 asylum seekers, mostly Syrians, arrived in Norway from Russia during a sudden influx in 2015.
“We’re following the situation closely and we may shut the border at short notice if needed,” Mehl told NTB new agency.
At the Storskog border crossing between Norway and Russia, it was a “quiet” day, Tarjei Sirma-Tellefsen, chief-of-staff at the local Finnmark police district, told Reuters.
“The number of travellers to Norway (from Russia) is low but we are monitoring traffic closely and are prepared should the number of arrivals increase,” he said, declining to give specifics of what measures police could take.
(Reporting by Essi Lehto in Helsinki, additional reporting by Gwladys Fouche in Oslo, Editing by Terje Solsvik, Mark Potter and Timothy Heritage)