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Asylum seekers in the north claim threats and swindles by smugglers

Asylum seekers arriving in Finnish Lapland from Russia say they were swindled and threatened by human smugglers in Murmansk. More than 800 asylum seekers have entered the country at border crossing points with Russia in Finnish Lapland since the autumn.

Turvapaikanhakijoiden käyttämä auto Sallan rajanylityspaikalla 7.1.2016
A car used by asylum seekers for a crossing at Salla on the 7th of January. Image: Tapani Leisti / Yle

On Thursday, 21 Afghan asylum seekers crossed the border from Russia at the Salla crossing point. They drove to the border in two old cars they had purchased in Murmansk, about 400 km away. They told Yle that they paid thousands of euros for the cars.

They made the final leg of their journey to Finland on one of the coldest days of the winter. The previous night the thermometer had plunged to almost -40C and when they arrived at Salla, it was still -25C. The Afghan asylum seekers were wearing normal winter clothing that does not provide protection for long in such bitter cold. One woman feared that her child had suffered carbon monoxide poisoning from exhaust fumes in the crowded vehicle.

Anonymously and off-camera they told Yle that they had been cheated, swindled and threatened by human smugglers in Murmansk. Some of them said that they had been living for three years in Moscow and had arrived in Murmansk by plane a month ago. They said that they paid thousands of euros to human smugglers, or "the mafia" as they called them.

One of the asylum seekers related that human smugglers had set off with him and his family heading for Finland some ten times, but each time found an excuse to turn back and demand more money. The group said they stayed in a hostel in Murmansk where there were 50-70 people intending to seek asylum.

These asylum seekers explained that they left Afghanistan to flee terrorism by the Taliban and Isis. In Moscow their children were harassed and were refused vaccinations because of their origin. Why they chose to take a northern route to the West remained unclear.

Five and half thousand asylum seekers managed to cross from Russia into Norway before that country closed its northernmost border crossing point.

Ladas and Volgas

A few weeks ago Finland banned border crossings by bicycle. Now, asylum seekers are arriving in clapped-out old cars.

A couple of dozen rusty Ladas and Volgas now occupy spaces in a parking lot at the Salla border crossing point. They all have Russian plates, most of them with the "51" which shows that they were registered in the Murmansk district.

Some of the cars have summer tyres. One has its front smashed in from a collision. According to Matti Pekkala of the Finnish Border Guard, these vehicles have been impounded as part of a criminal investigation and also because they don't meet Finnish road safety standards.

An asylum seeker can potentially be charged with organizing illegal entries by driving a car across the border carrying anyone other than family members.

After questioning the arrivals, inspecting their cars and possessions, the first stage of filing for asylum begins. Then, a bus takes them through the winter darkness from Salla to a processing centre in Tornio.

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