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Why did Finland close its 1340 km long border with Russia? Controversy over asylum seekers explained

Finland has decided to temporarily close its 1,340-km border with Russia for the next two weeks as it accused Moscow of helping large numbers of migrants enter the country. Media reports said a surge in crossings has been seen at border posts this month, with seven of the total eight closed earlier this month. The last crossing, the northernmost crossing in the Arctic Circle, was closed on Wednesday, the BBC reports.

Media reports quoting the Finnish government said that about 900 people entered Finland from Russia in November seeking asylum. Earlier the average number per day was less than one.

Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo was quoted in a statement as saying that Finland is “determined to end the crossing”.

The two-week border closure will end on December 13. The report says that now only cargo trains will be able to run between the two countries.

There has been tension between Finland and Russia for several weeks over asylum seekers. Helsinki has said Moscow is sending people to the border in retaliation for Finland’s decision to increase its defense cooperation with the United States, calling it an “influence campaign” and a “hybrid attack.” News agency Reuters reported that the Kremlin has denied the allegation. The BBC report cited above said Russia called Finland’s move to close the borders an “absolutely unnecessary measure.”

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Who are asylum seekers in Finland?

The government has said the asylum seekers are from countries such as Morocco, Syria and Pakistan. Quoting Matti Pitkanitti of the Finnish Border Guard, the BBC previously reported that the migrants also included people from Iraq and Yemen who arrived in Russia legally but were not authorized to enter the EU nation.

The Nordic country shares an 833-mile border with Russia, the longest in Europe.

Pitkanitti told the BBC that Russian guards usually do not allow people to reach the Finnish border without proper documents, but it appears that authorities have now “definitely” changed their policy.

According to reports, many of these asylum seekers were initially entering Finland by bicycle, due to an agreement that allows bicycling across the border. Finland banned crossing the border by bike last week.

Most of the border crossing activity has been observed around Nuijamaa and Valimaa in south-eastern Finland.

Although the influx of migrants is nothing new to Europe, it is the continent that has always seen a steady flow of asylum seekers.

In 2021, hordes of migrants entered Poland and Lithuania after flying from Middle Eastern and African countries to Russian ally Belarus. At the time, the EU made similar allegations against Belarus’s leader, Alexander Lukashenko, that he was using migration as a “hybrid warfare” tool to destabilize the EU.

Meanwhile, another BBC report said the non-discrimination ombudsman in Finland has expressed concerns that Helsinki could jeopardize people’s right to seek asylum under international law by closing the borders. However, the government has stated that sea and air routes are still open and people arriving via these routes can still seek asylum in Finland.

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What is the dispute between Finland and Russia?

Earlier this year, Finland joined the intergovernmental military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, after maintaining non-alignment for decades. The Nordic state changed its stance following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 – the war has continued since then.

After the attack on Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin said that he sees NATO expansion as a direct threat to Russia’s security and that is why he has launched a war of 2022. But the war ended only in expanding NATO’s reach.

Therefore, Russia did not like Finland’s decision to join the military alliance in April this year. Its Foreign Ministry said Finland had been “warned” about the consequences. Russia also said it would have to take “retaliatory measures”.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Monday that migration was being used by Russia as a tool to put pressure on Finland. “NATO stands in solidarity with our ally Finland,” he was quoted as saying in a Politico report.

Quoting a Finnish newspaper, the report said that Russian embassies, with the help of Russian security services, have started issuing visas to people from the Horn of Africa to come to Russia and then cross to the Finnish border.

While Moscow has denied the allegations, PM Orpo has said that this is “Russia’s influence operation and we do not accept it”.

“Finland is the target of Russian hybrid operations. This is a matter of national security,” Interior Minister Marie Rantanen said, as quoted by The Guardian.

Orpo said on Monday Finland had intelligence that Russian authorities were helping asylum seekers reach the border. “This is an organized activity, not a real emergency.”

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