Finland will re-open parts of its border with Russia after two weeks of closure that sparked concerns over the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. Latvia and Lithuania are considering tightening their borders after Finland decided to close its border with Russia, and Estonia aims to complete its Eastern border by 2027 if funds are available.
Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo announced on 12 December that Finland would reopen parts of its border with Russia. The announcement came two weeks after Finland closed the border amid accusations that Moscow was driving migrants and asylum seekers to the frontier to sow discord as payback for the Nordic country joining the NATO military alliance. Although most closures will remain, the Vaalimaa and Niirala border crossing points are due to be reopened from 14 December and remain so until 14 January. Prime Minister Orpo also issued the following warning: “If the phenomenon [of an increased number of undocumented migrants attempting to cross the border] continues, we will close these border crossing points.”
Prior to the decision to reopen the border, several organisations including the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) had expressed concerns about the rights of the affected migrants. In a press statement, the UNHCR stated: “It is possible to manage borders and address security concerns, while implementing fair, humane and efficient policies towards asylum-seekers that are in line with States’ obligations under international human rights and refugee law, including the 1951 Convention as well as European law”, adding that it had reached out to the Russian and Finnish authorities to understand and monitor the situation. The UNHCR also urged both States to “cooperate and to responsibly manage their borders in a protection sensitive manner, ensuring meaningful protection for all those in need. This is particularly important considering the harsh winter conditions affecting the region”. The Finnish Non-Discrimination Ombudsman also noted that the decision to close all but one of the eastern land border crossing points “already seriously jeopardizes the right to seek asylum.” On 11 December, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, sent a letter to the Finnish Interior Minister, Mari Rantanen, in which she stated that: “it is crucial that Council of Europe member states, even when dealing with challenging situations at their borders, react in a manner that fully aligns with their human rights obligations”. She also asked for several clarifications on safeguards implemented and measures taken to ensure human rights protection, and to prevent a humanitarian crisis from unfolding in the context of worsening weather conditions at the border.
Furthermore, following Finland’s decision to close its border on 28 November, other Baltic countries may have been considering similar action, although none of them has taken any yet. According to POLITICO, a spokesperson for the Latvian Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that officials were “carefully monitoring the further development of the situation with illegal immigration flows” and that “if the situation changes radically and threatens the security of the country, it is not excluded that Latvia can also close its eastern border completely.” Similarly, a Lithuanian official stated that Lithuania was carefully monitoring its border with Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave and that it would “react if there are any changes.” Estonia’s foreign minister, Margus Tsahkna, stated that Estonia was “prepared to close its border with Russia” if the situation continued. However, a spokesperson for the Finnish interior ministry defended the latest decision on the grounds that Helsinki remains “committed to international humanitarian law and the right to seek asylum”, and adding that asylum seekers could still apply for international protection at open border points for air and water traffic. Meanwhile, the head of the border guard policy department in the Estonian Ministry of the Interior, Janek Mägi, told MPs that the land infrastructure such as roads, fences, access roads on Estonia’s eastern border should be completed by the end of 2025. He also told them that the entire eastern border, including monitoring positions, might be completed by the end of 2027 if sufficient funding was available. Mägi also added that, according to the vision currently being prepared, the eastern border could be completed by the end of 2027, and the government is aiming to finalise the construction of this project fearing “border attacks” similar to the recent one launched by the Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko.
Meanwhile, migrants are negatively affected by this “geopolitical drama”. InfoMigrants shared the tragic story of Nasser, a 43-year-old Syrian and former English teacher and translator in Damascus, who found himself stranded at the Russian-Finnish border for over two weeks. “I have been here for more than two weeks now, and deep down I am really desperate and just hoping for better days to come, as soon as possible. I feel like I am living in a hell made of ice, where my life got to a point where there is no way out, where it’s the end of the road, the end of MY long road since I left my country, Syria”, Nasser said. He added that all migrants crossing from Russia to Finland had to pay a smuggler and bribe many policemen along the way. “We all feel the same: we are being used by the Russian government to put pressure on the European Union, to put pressure on Finland”, Nasser said, adding: “We all feel that we are being used, as animals stuck in a place where we can’t escape”.
For further information:
- ECRE: EU Eastern Borders: Migrants Along Belarus-Polish Border Suffer as Winter Sets In Amid Extension of Internal Border Checks Along Poland-Slovakia Border, Hungary Launches Another Anti-EU National Consultation, Finland and Estonia Say Russia Using “Shameful” Approach of Migrant Instrumentalisation, November 2023
- ECRE: EU Eastern Borders: Member States Approve Extension of Temporary Protection for Ukrainians, Crisis Package Agreed by Council Despite Poland and Hungary Veto, Lithuania to Install Physical Barriers in Marshy Border Areas with Belarus and Russia, October 2023