Russia's FSB Reportedly Screens Refugees Entering Finland

One can debate the degree to which Russia’s pro-Assad bombing campaign has ramped up Europe’s refugee crisis. But several days ago, a Russian border guard at the Finnish border lifted the veil on an ominous kind of involvement: the FSB, he said, decides which refugees are allowed to approach the Finnish border.

While most asylum seekers reach northern Europe, a preferred destination, via Greece and Italy or the Balkans and Austria, some make the journey north through Russia, entering Norway and Finland and their border crossings with Russia. (Last year the number of refugees seeking asylum at Norway’s border with Russia skyrocketed.) When Finnish news photographer Jussi Nukari was documenting the surge last week he picked up a Russian border guard whose car had become stuck in the snow, he was rewarded with a scoop. The border guard revealed that the FSB selects the refugees allowed to approach the Finnish border. According to the border guard, the agency prioritizes families.

However, at Alakurtti, a Russian town near the Finnish border in Lapland, Nukari counted some ten cars waiting to cross, the majority Russian-made Ladas though there was also a new Mercedes. Among the passengers were several single men from Afghanistan and Pakistan, one of whom told Nukari in fluent Russian that he was from Kabul and had been travelling for three weeks. He reported needing urgent medical attention in Finland following stomach surgery.

If the FSB – Russia’s domestic security service – is indeed intervening in asylum queues at the Finnish border to make sure families with young children are given priority it could be viewed as a humanitarian gesture. But why, one wonders, is the FSB involved at all? The Border Service, which belongs to the FSB, could easily organize the queues. As for the queues, they have grown disproportionately: according to Raja, Finland’s border guard agency, last year 726 people applied for asylum at Finland’s border crossings with Russia, up from 35 the year before. During the same period, the total number of asylum claims filed in neighboring Sweden doubled. 

To be sure, the number of refugees entering Sweden was far higher – 162,877 last year – but the increase at the Finnish-Russian border stands out. As the route to Finland via Russia didn’t become easier or faster during 2015, the growth raises the question of whether other forces were involved. Is somebody with an interest in harming Finland directing certain asylum seekers to its borders? “The comments by the border guard are not a surprise,” Alpo Rusi told me. “Without the FSB, this type of organized flow of immigrants wouldn’t be able to come to the Finnish-Russian border.” Rusi, a career diplomat, also served as former President Martti Ahtisaari’s foreign policy adviser. Another veteran Kremlin watcher argued that the FSB is clearly involved, and not with the goal of assisting young children waiting in the cold but of destabilizing the EU. Foreign Minister Timo Soini, for his part, blames organized crime.

Thanks to its four decades of Cold War diplomacy from its highly vulnerable geographical location, Finland has plenty of experience in defusing crises with its large neighbor to the East. Its diplomats excel in the practice of the quiet word. Yet Russian-speaking Afghan men materializing in Lapland pose a new challenge to their considerable skills.



Photo Credit: "Nuijamaa border crossing" by longmandancer@btopenworld.com 

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