Post by Haakon Lein
You might have seen the photo – a simple pile of bicycles that made it to the front page of the New York Times earlier this month. The photo was followed by an article about Syrian migrants reaching Europe through an ‘arctic bike race’. The story also reached Australian news, which explained how asylum seekers are using the northernmost (and for many a most unlikely) route, which requires that they pass the Russian–Norwegian border either by car or bike. As drivers who bring them directly to the border crossing risk being fined, the solution is to get on a bike when approaching the Russian border station.
Last week, 489 asylum seekers crossed the border on bike, the week before 501. Before ending up on a bike at the border, they have come through Moscow either by bus, train or plane to the city of Murmansk. On this last part of this journey they will pass through a little known but truly fascinating region. For the last seven years our department has taken masters students in geography on an annual fieldtrip to Kirkenes, Murmansk and other parts of the Kola Peninsula. The purpose has been to provide initial training in practical fieldwork as well as to get the students to know more about our powerful neighbour to the east. We have travelled the route the asylum seekers now take quite a number of times.
On the way to the border, asylum seekers will have to cross parts of the Kola Peninsula and the larger Murmansk Oblast (region) that covers an area of 149 000 km2 and which has a population of less than 800 000. The Kola Peninsula contains some of Europe’s largest remaining wilderness areas. Outside the mining and industrial towns that lay scattered around the main road network there is hardly any settlements or roads. At the centre of the region is the city of Murmansk, established in 1916. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the city lost about one third of its population. Today, however, despite its rather ‘grey’ appearance from a distance, it is quite a modern and friendly town. The city has one of Russia’s most important harbours as it is ice free, giving Russia year-round access to the Atlantic and now, with climate change, increasing access to the Northeast Passage to the Pacific.
The landscape any traveller to Norway will pass through is slightly undulating, with mountain ranges now and then appearing in the not so far distance. At the beginning of October, the land will still be coloured in orange and red autumn colours, crisscrossed by clear blue rivers and lakes and with bright, newly snow-capped mountains in the background. On a sunny day the air will be clean and crisp with temperatures creeping towards freezing. However, for many, Kola is not known for its beauty but for its pollution. Some areas have been turned into dumping grounds for nuclear waste in the form of abandoned nuclear submarines, missiles and ships around Murmansk and other more secret naval bases. Travellers may also pass cities like Monchegorsk and Nikel, surrounded by large tracts of wastelands where all vegetation has more or less gone due to pollution. These nickel processing plants, highly profitable and controlled by one of Russia’s oligarchs, apparently face few environmental restrictions.
Some towns also have their own brutal histories. The industrial and mining towns of Apatity and its neighbour Kirovsk (where ‘peaceful’ nuclear detonations were carried out during mining operations) were initially established by political prisoners deported from other regions of the Soviet Union under the regime of Stalin. Also the indigenous Sami population was forcedly collectivised and resettled in the 1930s and few traces of this culture remain, first of all in the rather worn-down little settlement of Lovozero.
Along the road there will be many signs of past and present military activities. In the valley of Litsa, migrants will pass a large memorial set up to honour the tens of thousands of young soldiers from the Soviet Union who, along with equally many young Germans, died here on the tundra during WWII in the battle over Murmansk.
Still today remains of soldiers are found in the terrain and buried at this site. Travellers will also pass military cities – once ‘invisible’ as they appeared on no maps – where nowadays modern military equipment seems to be stored on display so as to remind us that Russia is prepared to defend whatever they see as their legitimate interests. On the way there is also a more curious geographical attraction – the 12 262 metre deep Kola Superdeep Borehole outside Pechanga, considered to be the deepest borehole in the world.
During the Cold War the border between Norway and Russia was on the frontline of the Iron Curtain, and Murmansk Oblast probably had the highest densities of nuclear weapons found anywhere in the in the world. Most likely this is also the case today. The 196 km long border is also today heavily controlled, as it is both a NATO and a EU-Schengen outer border. On the Russian side, the border area is well fenced and patrolled and is generally a no-go zone for foreigners without a special permit.
On the way to the border there are two military checkpoints before the actual border post and here all passports are scrutinised. On the Norwegian side, the border control is less visible, with the exception of some surveillance towers and military border control units that pop up when approaching certain areas. The border zone appears extremely peaceful especially along the Pasvik River that runs along the border for about 112 km.
It is across this well guarded border that the asylum seekers come biking. This can hardly be possible without an organised network and approval by Russian authorities. Although it might appear to be a cumbersome and long journey, this arctic route has been characterised as a 1st class route into Europe, quite different from the Balkan route described in an earlier blog. According to migrants interviewed, you can get from Damaskus, Istanbul or Beirut to Kirkenes in 48 hours if you have the money and the connections. The route goes via Moscow to Murmansk and from Murmansk there is a regular bus route (about 3 ½ hour ride) several times per day to the border town of Nikel, which is well within biking distance. However, some may take a taxi all the way up to the border and just unload a bike to be used for the last few hundred metres to the Russian border station at Borisglobesk. After passing through this station there is a 200 metre biking tour over to the small Norwegian border station at Storskog where most bikes will be left behind as they, according to Norwegian Police, don’t fulfil Norwegian bike safety rules.
The asylum seekers are then transported a few kilometres to Kirkenes, a small border town that over the last few decades has become increasingly depended on cross border trade. Russians come to buy groceries, furniture and other household items; Norwegians go to Russia to fill up their cars with cheap petrol (and perhaps some beer and vodka). Kirkenes is partly also a mining town with a large iron mine just outside town now operated by an Australian registered company. It is also a town with its own dramatic war history. During WWII the city was bombed to pieces by more than 360 Russian airstrikes against what then was a headquarter for the German army. It was also the first Norwegian town to be liberated by the Red Army in 1944.
The asylum seekers seem to be a mixed group – some will be coming directly from Syria or neighbouring states; some are migrants who have lived in Russia for years. And some are not from Syria at all. So far people of 30 different nationalities have asked for asylum at Storskog. Upon arrival the migrants will be directed towards transit shelters and after a first interview they will be distributed to other asylum seeker centres. According to a list provided by a national newspaper, most will be housed in closed down hotels and schools located in small and remote rural communities around the country. Some will definitely get a thorough first-hand experience of what a snowy, cold and dark arctic winter is like. If given a refugee status a new wait for permanent settlement starts. And as permanent settlement depends on the willingness of local municipalities to receive refugees, and most are reluctant to accept many, this wait can take years if the present system continues. A life in limbo might not yet be over.
The human exodus from Syria and neighbouring counties have over the last few months proved to have consequences for even small communities in the Arctic. The speed and size of the migration flow into Europe has taken (almost) all by surprise and such is the case in Norway. This summer the political parties, after a long and intense debate, decided that Norway could settle in total 8 000 Syrian refugees over two years (2015 and 2016). At present the number of asylum seekers in 2015 alone is assumed to be more than 30 000, still a small number compared to Sweden that expects between 140 000 and 190 000 this year.
And what about this year’s field trip with geography students to Kirkenes and Kola? Last Autumn we decided not go this year, partly to save money, partly because we wanted to try another site we thought could provide more relevant fieldwork training. The best that could be said about that decision is that it is a good example of bad timing.
Haakon Lein is a professor of geography at the department of Geography, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). He is currently visiting the University of Wollongong. He has a background in development studies and has worked in Bangladesh, China (Xinjiang) and Tanzania. He has recently participated in a project on vulnerability mapping in Norway and is currently involved in research on community resilience and natural hazards in Norway and in the Nordic countries. Read more about Haakon’s work here.