While the rest of Europe is taking in refugees fleeing the war-zones in Middle East and Syria, Norway is preparing to send thousands of migrants back across its border into Russia. The reason: These people used a legal loophole to gain entry into the country.
Apparently, Russia has laws prohibiting people from crossing its border on foot while Norway does not let in drivers carrying people without documents. One thing that neither of the countries prohibits is crossing the border on bicycles — a loophole that was exploited by around 5,500 intrepid migrants and refugees in 2015.
As The Guardian reports, Norway’s newly appointed Immigration Minister Sylvi Listhaug who promised to crack down on the refugee flow, said this week that all those who crossed at Storskog without a transit visa would be sent back to Russia.
Initially, the National Police Directorate asked districts to dig out and refurbish the bicycles that were discarded at the border so that the thousands who left them can ride them back across.
“We asked that the bikes which were left behind or claimed by the police to be gathered up for use by the foreigners who will be returned to Russia,” said Jan Erik Thomassen, a section head from Norway’s National Police Directorate. “I can understand that it feels a bit awkward and odd.”
The cross-border trip in mid-winter would not have been easy, so it was a fortunate turn of event when Russia, on Thursday, agreed to send buses for their return.
“Russian authorities recently confirmed that foreign citizens with permanent residency or a multiple-entry visa can be sent back by bus,” Norwegian police said in a statement.
While hundreds of thousands reached European shores last year by crossing the Mediterranean, a small number took the long way around traveling to Norway — a member of the visa-free Schengen area — via the Russian Arctic.
Although it took them longer and refugees had to pay Russian business owners several hundred U.S. dollars for a bicycle, the route is still cheaper and safer than being smuggled across the sea on a boat.
Meanwhile, the Syrians who are being sent back to Russia are unlikely to receive any legal status. However, they would also not be deported, according to Svetlana Gannushkina, an immigration activist. Apparently, there are about 12,000 Syrians in Russia, 2,000 of whom have already been granted one-year temporary asylum while 2,000 have been given another legal status.
“They’ll illegally travel around Russia, as they did before. Many refugees here are in a suspended state with no status,” she explained, adding that refugees without legal status face being held in detention centers.