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Refugees Choose Russia's Arctic as a Backdoor to Europe

  • Charles Maynes

A pile of bikes used by refugees to cross the Norway-Russia border at Storskog border station near Kirkenes in northern Norway, Oct. 13, 2015.

A pile of bikes used by refugees to cross the Norway-Russia border at Storskog border station near Kirkenes in northern Norway, Oct. 13, 2015.

At the airport in the Russian Arctic city of Murmansk, passengers file out from the morning flight from Moscow — many seemingly dazed by the surroundings and clearly underdressed for the coming polar winter.

"We are all from hell," says passenger Tomasi, an Iranian from Tehran, when asked where he and others had arrived from.

Some are fleeing the violence of Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Others — joblessness and oppression elsewhere. All are part a cresting wave of refugees from the Middle East who have obtained Russian visas as a transit path to Norway.

As word of "the Arctic Route to Europe" has spread on social media, Norwegian officials increasingly express alarm over the influx of migrants who see Russia's remote border with Norway as a safer and cheaper alternative to leaky boats of human traffickers on the Mediterranean.

But the Russian journey has challenges, if smaller, of its own.

From Murmansk, migrants must first make their way some 136 miles north — past barren tundra, Russian military bases, and heavily armed checkpoints — to the small mining town of Nickel.

A view of the Russian mining town of Nickel, near the border with Norway.

A view of the Russian mining town of Nickel, near the border with Norway.

There, refugees face a conundrum: Russian law bans foot traffic at the border and Norway fines drivers for carrying migrants across.

Enter the bicycle

The legal twist led to some creative thinking and has prompted a brisk trade in used bicycles throughout Russia's Northwest — any size or condition accepted. Entreprenurial Russian smugglers have even arranged "package deals" of minivans and bicycles.

"We can't just give the bicycles away for free, right?" says Kirill, a Russian who arranges transport from Murmansk to the border.

"We help them so they don't get lost. So someone doesn't take advantage of them," he adds.

As the trickle of refugees has grown, a lone hotel in Nickel has become a key stopover before heading to the border.

On a recent evening, Syrians, Afghans, Egyptians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and other migrants pack into the hotel's 30 rooms for the night. Others were left to seek refuge in a nearby student dormitory. Outside, vans loaded with biycles waited to drop migrants at the border crossing.

"People here work together... the bus, the hotel, the taxi...they all work together," says Nabil, a Tunisian national who moved to St. Petersburg last year after terrorist attacks destroyed the Tunisian tourism industry.

Nabil says he paid 200 dollars for his bicycle. "$200 dollars! It's just a little bicycle! There's nothing but pedals."

Because Russian law bans foot traffic at the border, and Norway fines drivers for carrying migrants across, smugglers sell bicycles to migrants who want to cross into Norway.

Because Russian law bans foot traffic at the border, and Norway fines drivers for carrying migrants across, smugglers sell bicycles to migrants who want to cross into Norway.

Nabil’s plan is to shove off in the morning. “I’ll take my passport and tell them the Norwegians the truth: I want to try new life here… if you don’t mind.”

So far, Norwegian authorities have been relatively welcoming. An estimated 2,000 migrants have entered into the country and received temporary refugee status.

But the growing migrant wave is testing the limits of Norwegian hospitality.

A girl enters a the temporary reception center for refugees at Storskog border station near Kirkenes in northern Norway at the Norway-Russia border, on Oct. 13, 2015.

A girl enters a the temporary reception center for refugees at Storskog border station near Kirkenes in northern Norway at the Norway-Russia border, on Oct. 13, 2015.

In Kirkenes, a small Norwegian town just across the border that prides itself on close relations with its Russian neighbors, town mayor Rune Rafaelson says local police estimate 10,800 migrants may arrive by year's end — in effect doubling the entire region's population.

Rafaelson is one of a growing number of Norwegian politicians who suspects the Kremlin is driving the current influx.

"I think it's part of the sanctions that Norway has been very active [in placing against Russia] and it's sort of payback time," says Rafaelson.

Rafaelson notes that neighboring Finland — a non-NATO member that has warmer relations with Russia — has a much longer border than Norway but faces no similar migrant surge.

"We need to have an understanding from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the government of Russia saying this cannot continue. We will have the right to use international law and send them back," says Rafaelson.

"But of course families from Aleppo will receive protection," he adds.

That's good news for Samir, a 28 year-old-Syrian who fled battle-scarred Aleppo in 2013 for Russia — the only place to which he could a visa.

Speaking in Russian, Samir says he didn't want to be involved in the fighting at home. "I didn't want to kill," he says. But after being denied asylumn and work papers in Russia, he jumped at the chance to get to Norway.

Challenging journey

The journey here wasn't easy though. A Russian taxi driver took his money and then dropped him with his bike 37 miles from the border — giving him no choice but to pedal through the cold.

Still, Samir says, on his second try, he made it. And compared to the alternatives of possibly drowning at sea, it was well worth the price.

"My sister's husband went from Turkey by boat across the sea and it cost him $1,200. This was much cheaper," he adds.

Nabil, a Tunisian who moved to St. Petersburg after terrorist attacks destroyed the Tunisian tourism industry, holds his 6 month temporary visa to Norway.

Nabil, a Tunisian who moved to St. Petersburg after terrorist attacks destroyed the Tunisian tourism industry, holds his 6 month temporary visa to Norway.

Outside a bunker-turned-refugee shelter in Kirkenes, Nabil, the Tunisian, emerges proudly holding his 6 month temporary visa to Norway. "Winner!" he exclaims.

After a few days delay, he says he'd finally gotten his taxi to the border and biked the last half mile into Norway. Officials there promptly confiscated his wheels for failing to meet local safety standards. No brakes? No bike.

"Finally Norway. It's a very good country. Very quiet. Look at the houses... simple and beautiful," says Nabil.

And if he can stay here past the winter, Nabil says he might even buy a Norwegian bike to cruise the city and take in the view.

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