Despite the geographical distance and inhospitable winter weather, Finland has emerged as an unlikely destination for refugees and migrants in recent months. More than 30,000 refugees seeking asylum have traveled to the country this year, a dramatic increase from the typical 3,000 or so.
As the year draws to a close, this sharp surge in arrivals has prompted an unusual move from Finnish authorities: a restriction on bicycle border crossings in Lapland.
According to the Finnish public broadcaster YLE, guards at Finland's eastern border with Russia began refusing entry to those on bicycles this weekend. "Riding bikes in winter conditions without prior experience is dangerous," Lapland border guard chief Tommi Tiilikainen told YLE. "We also don't want these people to be crossing the borders with bicycles because it's too cold. We hope to prevent people from putting themselves in harm's way."
The decision is a response to the extraordinary lengths that some refugees and migrants have gone to get into Finland and other Scandinavian countries. While many traveled along the Balkan route through Eastern Europe, others opted to make a journey through Russia, traversing its far-northern lands bordering on the Arctic. When these refugees and migrants reached Russia's borders with Finland and Norway, they were forced to take one step into absurdity. Russia doesn't allow people to cross via foot on these borders.
Given that almost all of those arriving had no access to a car, they were forced to ride bicycles over the border.
The situation created a booming mini-economy over the Russian side of the border, with smugglers setting up package deals that would provide migrants with a bike and a minivan trip to near the border. Although these bikes were often sold at inflated prices, many were not fully functional – in November, authorities in Norway destroyed about 3,500 bicycles that had been used by migrants to enter the country because they did not meet national safety standards.
While most of the bicycling border-crossers had been entering Norway from Russia, Oslo recently introduced tougher asylum laws that led many refugees to travel into Finland's northern Lapland region instead. Finland's latest anti-bike measure may thwart that option, as well — reports suggest that no asylum seekers traveled through the country's Raja-Jooseppi and Salla crossings on several days last week.
About 600 refugees had made the journey into Finland by crossing the border with Russia this year. Tiilikainen, the border guard chief, has told YLE that he is unsure of the numbers still waiting over the border in Russia, but he says there could be hundreds, if not thousands.
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