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Border Guard suspects bid to open new entry route into Finland

Authorities believe that ringleaders used a mobile app to guide would-be border crossers.

Rajapyykit Suomen ja Venjän rajalla
The Finnish-Russian border stretches more than 1,300 km. Image: Kari Saastamoinen / Yle

Finnish border officials say they have foiled an apparent attempt to set up a new route for illegal entry into Finland, aided by a mobile phone app.

The Southeast Finland Border Guard said on Tuesday that three Iranians were detained while trying to walk over the Russian border last June. They were caught in the forest between Vyborg, Russia, and Lappeenranta, Finland.

Authorities suspect that this was a test run of a new, organised method of sneaking into the country from Russia.

"There were members of a criminal group in Finland who were supposed to meet the Iranians illegally arriving from Russia," says Captain Ville Mihl of the Southeast Finland Border Guard, who is leading the investigation.

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Ville Mihl, kapteeni, tutkinnanjohtaja Kaakkois-Suomen rajavartiosto seisoo rajalla.
Captain Ville Mihl Image: Kari Saastamoinen / Yle

Border Guard officials say the criminal organisation's operations are run by an Afghan living in Central Europe, who has illegally brought Iranians and Afghans into the EU via Turkey and Greece.

Finland's 1,340 km border with Russia is one of the longest external borders of both the EU and the passport-free Schengen area. There is a border zone of up to three kilometres wide between Finland and Russia.

Tracked by smartphone

Law enforcement officials believe that members of the group living outside Finland went last spring to scout out the frontier area in Miehikkälä, a municipality in Kymenlaakso, some 20km northwest of the Vaalimaa border crossing point.

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Piikkilankaa Suomen ja Venäjän rajalla
Barbed wire in the frontier zone. Image: Kari Saastamoinen / Yle

According to the preliminary investigation, suspects living in Finland also went to check conditions in the area a few days before the planned arrival.

"The suspects knew about the conditions in the border area to the extent that they could find nearby roads and the border zone. The rest of the terrain conditions remained unknown," says Mihl.

The three people making the attempted entry were driven to a point in Russia 15 km from the Finnish border. From there, they continued on foot.

Meanwhile they were being tracked and advised in real time by organisers in Central Europe using a mobile location app.

"They were given instructions as needed if they got lost or deviated from the planned route," he explains.

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Rajavartiolaitoksen käsivarsilogo.
The Finnish Border Guard believes this could have become a regular route. Image: Risto Degerman / Yle

Mihl says that this is the first time such a method has been used, as far as Finnish officials know.

"Normal text messages have been sent before telling where the individuals were, for instance," he says, "but this is the first case in which location data was fed in real time to members of a criminal group."

This enabled to those seeking to cross the border to do so without being escorted, he adds.

2 caught in Finland, 1 in Russia

The Russian Border Guard caught one of the Iranians in the Russian border zone. The other two were detained on the Finnish side, in the Ylämaa area of Lappeenranta, some 10km from the border and about 30km from Miehikkälä.

Two residents of the Helsinki area were later found in a car a few kilometres from where the two Iranians were taken into custody. They were allegedly there to meet the arrivals.

Mihl says that if the attempt had been successful, the gang planned to bring more Iranians in the same way within a few days.

"I believe that the there would have been 3-6 people crossing illegally at a time. Then they would have fitted into a car on either side of the border," says Mihl.

Just one border into Schengen area

The Finnish-Russian frontier is of interest to Iranians because it offers a chance to enter the 26-nation Schengen area by crossing just one border.

"At the moment Iranians can easily get legal visas to enter Russia and travel to near the Finnish border," Mihl says.

Over the past two years, Iranians have been the largest national group of people prevented from entering southeastern Finland illegally. Last year there were about 100 such attempts, and so far this year around 90.

South Karelia District Court is now considering a case in which an Iranian tried to come into the country illegally aboard the Allegro train from St Petersburg.

"In that case there was an attempt to use a forged passport, whereas in the other case they tried to come into Finland without documents," Mihl says.

The preliminary investigation into the June incident has been completed and the case is now being handed over to a prosecutor for consideration of charges.

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