Finland closes entire border with Russia after tensions over asylum seekers

<span>Photograph: Lehtikuva/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Lehtikuva/Reuters

Finland has announced it is temporarily closing its entire border with Russia after weeks of tensions between the countries over asylum seekers that Helsinki has labelled a “hybrid operation” by Moscow.

With just 24 hours’ notice, the Finnish government said on Tuesday it would close Raja-Jooseppi in Lapland, its last remaining border crossing point with Russia, on Wednesday night.

The highly unusual move, which follows the closure of its eight other crossing points, means the entirety of the 830-mile land border between Finland and Russia will be closed until 13 December.

During the closure, asylum seekers will instead be directed to airports and ports.

Announcing the move, the Finnish prime minister, Petteri Orpo, said: “This is Russia’s influence operation and we do not accept it.” The interior minister, Mari Rantanen, said: “Finland is the target of a Russian hybrid operation. This is a matter of national security.”

Orpo said on Monday that Finland had gathered intelligence indicating Russian authorities were helping asylum seekers reach the border and that, despite the closures, more people were heading across Russia towards Finland.

“This is an organised activity, not a genuine emergency,” Orpo said.

Speaking in Brussels, the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said Russia was using migration as another tool to try to put pressure on its neighbours.

“I think this is another example of how Russia is using many different tools to put pressure on neighbours. We have seen them using energy, we have seen them using cyberattacks, we have seen them using different kinds of clandestine operations to try to undermine our democracies,” he said.

So far this month, more than 900 asylum seekers from countries including Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Syria have arrived in Finland from Russia, according to the Finnish border guard – a considerable increase on usual numbers.

Many are understood to have arrived by bicycle in the snow and ice. “You see them in just trainers and riding bikes in the snow. It’s clear whoever’s sending them isn’t thinking about their safety,” said a source.

As of Tuesday morning, 63 asylum seekers had made the journey to the remote border station of Raja-Jooseppi after four of the five remaining border crossings closed at midnight on Friday, the Finnish border guard said.

The decision to close the borders comes despite concerns over the legality of the closures and the impact on the welfare of asylum seekers amid snow and extreme sub-zero conditions in the Arctic region. Many do not arrive at the border sufficiently equipped for the conditions.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has called on “both sides to uphold state obligations under international law and guarantee the safety, dignity, and protection of migrants’ rights”. It also called for expanded and improved safe routes “that can provide an alternative to resorting to smugglers and irregular migration”.

On Tuesday, Annika Sandlund, the UN refugee agency’s representative to the Nordic and Baltic countries, said that closing all border crossing points would be “contrary to international law”.

But Orpo said legal advice had found that in the current circumstances, the closure of the border was proportionate and justified.

Rantanen said the full closure of the eastern border was necessary for national security.

From left: Maj Gen Matti Sarasmaa of the border guard, Prime Minister Petteri Orpo, and Finland’s interior minister Mari Rantanen
From left: Maj Gen Matti Sarasmaa of the border guard, Prime Minister Petteri Orpo, and Finland’s interior minister Mari Rantanen at a press conference in Helsinki on Tuesday. Photograph: Lehtikuva/Reuters

Asked how people could apply for asylum when the border was closed, Matti Sarasmaa, the head of the border guard’s border and maritime department, said they had been given “specific operating instructions” for what to do if asylum seekers came to the border. But he did not elaborate on how they would react to people waiting in freezing conditions, which have been as low as -25C (-13F) in recent weeks.

The tense situation on the border has developed rapidly in the last two weeks, with Finland accusing Russia of driving asylum seekers to its border as an act of revenge for its cooperation with the US. Relations between the two countries have worsened in recent months, particularly since Finland became a member of Nato in April.

The border guard agency said it started noticing a change in approach by Russian authorities at the beginning of August, when small numbers of people began arriving at the Finnish border without the required documents to enter the Schengen area. But in the last two weeks the numbers have soared.

The EU believes the latest incidents on the border could be part of a “hybrid” war being waged by Russia that uses non-military weapons including disinformation to destabilise Europe.

It believes Russia is deliberately bringing asylum seekers to the border.

On Monday, the Swedish prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, said in a joint press conference in Helsinki with Orpo that defending the Finnish border was a shared responsibility and that it would support its neighbour should Finland request it.

He accused Russia of orchestrating events “with the obvious aim to cause wider problems and create fragmentation in western countries”.

Last week, at a Nordic-Baltic summit in Stockholm, Estonia claimed Russia was weaponising immigration on Europe’s eastern borders amid a rise in the number of asylum seekers trying to enter its own territory and Finland.

Hanno Pevkur, Estonia’s defence minister, claimed the hundreds of people who had arrived at the borders of the two countries in recent weeks were part of a “fully state-orchestrated” operation by Moscow.