Cycling to Asylum: Nearly 100 Refugees Are Pedaling to Norway’s Border Every Day
Nearly 2,000 miles north of Syria, above the Arctic Circle, an unlikely new route for migrants and refugees has opened into Norway. Terrified of the dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossing that more than 300,000 refugees have braved this year alone, refugees are opting for a safer but longer journey through Russia. Before reaching the border, though, they must bike their way to asylum.
On Wednesday, Norwegian newspaper NRK reported that 1,000 refugees are in the Russian city of Nikel waiting to cross the border. Many have exhausted their funds and are desperate for a place to stay; the only hotel in the town is allowing people to sleep in the hallways for free.
The Russian authorities, meanwhile, are demanding compensation from refugees hoping to cross into the border zone. It’s a short 150-meter bike ride from the Russian checkpoint outside the factory town of Nikel to the Norwegian border town of Kirkenes—the last stretch of a days-long trek for the nearly 100 refugees who have been pedaling there each day in recent weeks.
“I think the rumor has spread about the route,” Stein Hansen, a Norwegian police superintendent in charge of registering incoming refugees, told CNN. “Everyone coming to Norway are phoning home and saying OK, it went fine, you can come this way.”
The Arctic route into Western Europe is the longest route asylum seekers from Syria or Africa can take, and an option only to those with Russian visas or residency. It requires traveling up to the northern town of Murmansk, usually via air from Moscow, taking a taxi into Nikel, and then taking another taxi to the Russian checkpoint at the border.
In Nikel, refugees must purchase bikes for about $200 if they want to attempt reaching the border legally. It’s a clever workaround for a bizarre set of regulations on both sides of the border: Russian law prohibits pedestrian crossings (with the exception of small children and pregnant women), and Norway disallows drivers from transporting refugees. Weirder still, refugees can’t keep the bikes, as they don’t meet Norwegian safety standards. Instead, they are turned into compressed metal and recycled.
In the latest twist in the saga, some refugees are losing not only their bikes but also their ability to seek asylum in the Nordic nation. Concerned with the growing number of those arriving at the border, Minister of Justice Anders Anundsen recently instructed the Norwegian Immigration Service to turn away those who have lived for a long period of time in Russia and are therefore deemed as not needing protection in Norway.
“Many of them came to Russia long before the war in Syria started, “Anundsen told the local Barent Observer. “They are not in need, and can live safely in Russia. We have to spend our resources on those who really need protection.”
The priority is instead those at the mercy of Russian law, which is tougher on refugees than the laws in some nearby nations. Russia has started to expel refugees, banning them for five years.
Even with Norway’s influx of asylum seekers, most of the 4,000 locals living in Kirkenes and Norwegian officials have been receptive of the newcomers, according to local reporter Trude Pettersen.
“Locals here in Kirkenes are of course reacting in different ways,” she told TakePart via email. “Some express their concern in social media that there are too many foreigners arriving, but I think they are a minority. Many people are working as volunteers at the reception centers, and people are collecting winter clothes, winter shoes, and toys to give to the refugees.”
Aside from volunteer work, the state has made arrangements to ensure those crossing are sheltered, opening a refugee reception center, renting out rooms at two hotels, and converting an abandoned military compound into dormitories. Usually refugees only stay a few days in Kirkenes, but Pettersen says local authorities are preparing to settle 100 Syrian refugees there permanently—36 degrees of latitude, and quite a few more of temperature (in the negative direction), from Syria.