Tag Archives: Syria

Is Finnish foreign policy on Russia in for a change?

Yesterday I wrote a short blog on asylum seeker routes. The thing that piqued my interest was the statement by EASO director Robert Visser, who stated in Dutch newspaper Trouw, that “Since a few weeks, Finland gets remarkable amounts of asylum seekers [through Russia]”.

In Finland, reports are focused on Tornio, which is situated between Sweden and Finland at the end of the Gulf of Bothnia. So far, I have heard little about border crossings at the Salla or Raja-Jooseppi stations. This article states that this year, so far, only 12 asylum seekers have crossed the border in Raja-Jooseppi (in Northern Lapland) although the authors are wondering whether the situation would develop like in Norway (Storskog).

So this means that EASO has more information, or that they are simply wrong.

But suppose the informed estimate is correct and asylum seekers are travelling through Russia to Finland (or Norway), what questions does that raise for Finnish foreign policy? (I leave aside the question of probably extremely harsh winter circumstances in Russia).

Given that apparently the Finnish foreign ministry has a campaign in the near Middle East trying to discourage people from coming to Finland, I would think that the Finnish government would not be very happy if large groups of people start arriving in Northern Finland. The question then is: what kind of co-operation is there between Finland and Russia on information sharing regarding asylum seeker movements?

Personally I think current Finnish policy regarding asylum seekers is counter-productive and not just, but that is not relevant for now. Since my guess is that asylum seeker flows will seek the route of least resistance, I suppose that if significant amounts of people start turning up at the border with Russia, Finland may have to adapt its policy regarding Russia, since given the policy of keeping asylum seekers out it would need co-operation on the Russian side.

This would have quite big implications for the EU also. Finland’s economy was kind of sacrificed with the sanctions on Russia, and the conflict between the EU and Russia about Ukraine may have implications for this Syria asylum seeker issue as well. It is not written in stone that Russia will help in this (i.e. trying to stem the flow) unless it can get some kind of lessening of the sanctions.

Although I obviously have no data to back this scenario up, I am sketching a possibility. It may or may not come true, or in another way, but increasingly the crises that the EU faces become interconnected. And as in the past, Finland is again between Russia and the West. I hope and trust that the Foreign Minister and his civil servants have the knowledge and skills to successfully navigate this crisis.

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About asylum seekers and the route of least resistance in the face of the suspension of Schengen

This morning I read this article from Dutch newspaper Trouw, entitled (translated) “The new route to Europe leads to Finland through Russia.”

First digression – did you know there is an European Asylum Support Office, and that it was led by a Dutch person (Robert Visser), whose five-year term is just over? Well, neither did I.

The second paragraph of the article reads (my translation):

“They arrive at the very Northernmost tip of Finland. That was not foreseen in any scenario. They all come via Russia. This is yet another indication that these movements are largely organized. You do not invent by yourself, if you are in the Middle east: I’m going to northern Russia and cross the border there. ”
The latest figures from the EU statistics agency Eurostat indeed show a huge increase in the number of asylum seekers in Finland. In January the figure was 305. In August 2890 arrived, followed by no less than 10 815 in September. Most of them (9090) were Iraqis. According to Visser  there is a ‘reasoned expectation ” that this trend continues.”

I am not concerned here with what the Finnish government did or did not say about the expected numbers; that is a matter of domestic politics (and also the reasons why Iraqis are coming). Rather, I want to draw attention to that map of Europe.

Apparently the goal of many asylum seekers is to arrive eventually in Germany – probably regarding the economic situation there or the relatively welcoming stance of the country.

Remember that a while ago some countries “temporarily” suspended the Schengen agreement? Well, look at those borders again. How many borders do you have to cross supposing Schengen is in force still, if you arrive in e.g. Italy or Greece and you want to go to Germany? Right, only the first border. Now the situation is different with Austria building fences and Slovenia in and Hungary fenced off. Look at this graph from the NY Times, which is already out of date of course.

So in a short time the numbers of borders that have to be crossed increased, and at each border the asylum seekers experience hardship. So look at that map again – if you leave from Northern Iraq or Syria through Turkey and then cross the borders in Georgia and Russia (or by boat straight from Turkey to Russia), then the route through Russia to Europe is entirely logical to end in Finland, especially given the attitudes of Eastern European countries towards asylum seekers.

I guess my broader point is that (obviously) shutting the borders doesn’t make the problem go away. It just forces the streams to find a less interrupted route. The point Visser makes about the “organized” nature of asylum seeker flows is important, but in my opinion flawed – it just takes information about the state of the borders and what obstacles asylum seekers may face. They will find their way – the example of biking across the border is instructive in this sense. They use information about the rules to their advantage.

In the context of this all, I would like to add that bombing traffickers is not the solution. The asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq leave because it is not safe there. They can come entirely over land if they wish – for instance to Finland.

Regarding reactions: this is a potential foreign policy issue for Finland regarding Russia. And no, building a fence is unlikely to succeed.