Standort: / Meldung: "Refugees choose arctic route through Europe"

Charles Maynes Moscow

Journalist in Moscow

5. 11. 2015 - 14:26

Refugees choose arctic route through Europe

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 post-Arab Spring. Yet all are part a growing 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 are increasingly expressing alarm over the influx of migrants who see Russia's remote border with Norway as a safer and cheaper alternative to leaky boats on the Mediterranean.

But the Russain journey, too, has its unique quirks built-in along the way.


Charles Maynes

From Murmansk, migrants must first make their way some 218 km north - past barren tundra, Russian military bases, and heavily armed checkpoints to the small mining town of Nickel. This is the NATO-Russian border, after all. There, refugees face a new twist: Russian law bans foot traffic at the border and Norway fines drivers for carrying migrants across – meaning the only way to cross is by bicycle.

Yep, bicycle.


Charles Maynes


Charles Maynes

Smuggler and Bicycles

The legal twist has prompted a brisk trade in used bikes throughout Russia's Northwest - any size or condition accepted. Entrepreneurial Russian smugglers have even arranged 'package deals' of minivans and bicycles.

Humanitarian aid for a fee, you might say.

"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 the Russian town of Nickel has become a key stopover point before heading for the border. On a recent evening, migrants from Syrians, Afghans, Egyptians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and others pack into 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.


Charles Maynes

"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." Nabil’s plan is to shove off in the morning. "I’ll take my passport and tell 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.


Charles Maynes

Outside migrant housing

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 and it's sort of payback time," says Rafaelson.

Payback, in other words, for joining western condemnation over Russia's actions in Ukraine. Rafaelson is among those who note 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 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 Aleppo in 2013 for Russia – the only place in which he could get 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.

The journey here wasn't easy though. A Russian taxi driver took his money and then dropped him with his bike 60 km from the border – giving him no choice but to pedal through the cold.

Still, Samir says he made it. And compared to the alternatives of possibly drowning at sea, it was well worth the price of admission. "My sister's husband went from Turkey by boat across the sea and it cost him $1200. This was much cheaper", he adds. For a guy who'd spent several hours in cold weather riding a child's bike, he looked rather content.


Charles Maynes


Outside a bunker turned refugee shelter in Kirkenes, so too does Nabil, the Tunisian. "Winner!", he exclaims as he emerges proudly holding his 6 month temporary visa to Norway. 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 – the last final hiccup in the Arctic migrant journey.

No brakes? Too much rust? Sorry, but in Norway that means no bike. Two dumpsters along the border were overflowing with bicycles waiting to be hauled away from scrap. Still, Nabil's here – and, he says, he's happy: "Finally Norway. It's a very good country. Very quiet. Look at the houses... simple and beautiful."

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