Finland is kicking off the month of December by closing its Russian border to all land travelers. As of December 1st, the Nordic nation closed its last border crossing point at Raja-Jooseppi in Lapland. This is one of nine crossing points along the 830-mile border between countries, all of which closed over the course of November in the face of increased asylum seekers. One rail crossing remains open between the countries, but only for cargo trains. The border will be closed until mid-to-late December, at which point one crossing point may reopen in the northernmost part of the country. In the meantime, asylum seekers are purportedly being redirected to ports and airports. However, there is currently no air or boat traffic carrying passengers between Russia and Finland, so the options they are redirected to simply don’t exist.
The border closed as a reaction to an unusual number of asylum seekers flooding into Finland from Russia. In the month of November, 900 asylum seekers entered the country—a vast increase from the typical influx of 1 asylum seeker per day. Notably, most incomers are not from Russia, but rather from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Above all else, the closure was a political move. As a new member of NATO, Finland’s new status has allegedly threatened Russian authorities. With this in mind, Finnish authorities believe the migrants are being sent by Russia in order to destabilize the country. These sentiments are not isolated—recently, the European Union (EU) backed Finland in its efforts to “send a clear message” to Russia that “this [influx of migrants] is not acceptable.” In particular, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said that the Finnish border was a “shared responsibility” that Sweden would defend if necessary. The Finnish government hopes that the influx of refugees will slow significantly as a result of these measures, thus allowing them to begin reopening the border by the end of December.
Using asylum seekers as pawns in political warfare is not a unique concept. This is an example of so-called “hybrid warfare,” a battle strategy that utilizes conventional and unconventional war tactics to manipulate enemies. Russia’s neighbor, Belarus, has been accused in the past of using asylum seekers as ammunition to destabilize Western European countries. Moscow denies any involvement in the movement of asylum seekers, but that has made little difference to Finnish politicians.
It is difficult to pin down the truth in complex global-political interactions, especially considering how many factors are at play. However, there is no denying that Finland is facing a refugee crisis that it refuses to deal with. The closure of the borders means that hundreds of asylum seekers—most wearing thin clothing and riding bicycles—are stranded in extreme, arctic-like weather. Temperatures have plummeted to as low as -13℉ (-25°C) in recent weeks, and are expected to continue dropping alongside increased wind speeds and snowfall.
Regardless of whether or not they were sent by Russia, does Finland have an obligation to help freezing asylum seekers at their border? This is not the first instance of Western and Nordic European countries denying POC refugees asylum. Asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East—especially Syria—have struggled in recent years to find acceptance from European governments and societies in the face of racial and religious prejudice. Is this another instance of POC asylum seekers being cast aside? If Russia is treating refugees like pawns by sending them to Finnish borders, is Finland’s refusal to take them any different?
Of utmost importance is the fact that Finland’s decision to close the border is legally unsound. International law dictates that all countries must be accessible to asylum seekers. Finnish borders can only close to migrants in very rare circumstances. Article 9 of the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 establishes that border closure to migrants can generally only be done as a response to “grave and exceptional circumstances” that put national security at risk. Does the situation in Finland meet these requirements? Given that there is a lack of concrete evidence backing the idea that these refugees are being sent to destabilize the country, as of right now, it looks like it does not.
Hybrid warfare weaponizes the moral dilemmas presented by unconventional war tactics. If Russia is indeed sending these refugees, then there is little doubt that the play on human empathy is intentional. Finnish authorities have to ask themselves, then, is taking a stand against Russia more important than the lives of several hundred asylum seekers? Russia’s guilt is not their guilt. Innocent people from war-torn countries are being stranded on bicycles in sub-zero temperatures without any hope of crossing the border by land, air, or sea. The EU refuses to aid them because of alleged Russian motives that cannot be verified. Finland is facing a humanitarian crisis that will not resolve itself on its own; the border closure is a temporary measure that may only worsen the situation as it unfolds.
This article was edited by Abigail D’Angelo.