'Too much sadness': asylum seekers in Finland caught in geopolitical drama

<span>Photograph: Juho Kuva/Guardian</span>
Photograph: Juho Kuva/Guardian

Moayad Salami left his destroyed home city of Homs a month ago for Russia. Despite having heard horror stories of beatings en route – a friend had had his leg broken – and failed attempts to cross the border, the 36-year-old Syrian’s plan was to go to Poland via Belarus to seek safety for himself and his family in the EU.

But when Salami got to Moscow, a smuggler on Telegram informed him that a safer and easier route had opened up. For $3,000 (£2,400), he was told, he could get straight to Finland. No boats or beatings by border guards. All he had to do was get to St Petersburg and the rest would be taken care of. The smuggler even claimed to have an agreement with the Russian military.

“He said: ‘We will make a group and I will give you step-by-step [instructions on] what you want to do,’” said Salami. Although he believes the claims of a specific deal between the smuggler and the Russian military were untrue, Salami says the promise otherwise held up: a couple of days after flying to St Petersburg last month, he was crossing the border into Finland in Arctic conditions on a bicycle.

Salami, a qualified lawyer who was working in Homs as a phone sales manager, is among more than 900 people from conflict-ridden and impoverished countries including Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Iraq who, having crossed the 830-mile (1,300km) frontier between Russia and Finland last month, have found themselves in the middle of an intensifying geopolitical drama.

The sudden influx of arrivals has resulted in Helsinki closing its entire land border with its neighbour 29 November for at least two weeks, accusing Moscow of using migrants in a “hybrid operation”.

But for many of those inadvertently caught in the centre of it all, the route, until it closed, was simply the safest means to a life-saving end: reaching a safe place to seek asylum.

Helsinki’s decision has prompted deep concern among NGOs working with asylum seekers and refugees, including the United Nations. The UNHCR warned that the complete closure of the land border, effectively preventing people from seeking asylum, would be “contrary to international law”. Amnesty Finland said it “undermines the rights of asylum seekers and increases the risk of serious human rights violations at the border”.

A spokesperson for the Finnish ministry of the interior said Helsinki remained “committed to international humanitarian law and the right to seek asylum”, adding that asylum seekers could still apply for international protection at open border points for air and water traffic. The closure was “a necessary measure to stabilise the situation and ensure internal security in Finland”, they added.

The people caught up in this transnational acrimony are being kept far from the public eye. The Finnish immigration service said it was unable to connect journalists with asylum seekers. The Finnish Red Cross, which until its closure last week was assisting migrants and refugees at the last remaining crossing, Raja-Jooseppi, was unable to provide access to its reception centres.

At a reception centre in a residential area of Rovaniemi, a city in Lapland where some asylum seekers who have crossed from Russia are understood to be being housed, the Guardian was ordered to leave the parking area by two men who threatened to call the police.

Salami, who having crossed at the southern crossing point of Vaalimaa on the morning of 16 November – two days before it closed – is now in a reception centre in south-eastern Finland. He is hopeful of a new life. Once his asylum application is processed, he wants to bring his wife and daughter over from Syria, where their home was destroyed.

“We hope to be stable here, normal,” he added. “We don’t want anything. We need to be normal in a safe place.” Syria, he said, is “not safe for anyone”.

Although smoother than other options, his journey from St Petersburg to the Finnish border was not easy. After spending a night in a hostel, he and five others took taxis close to the border. At a military checkpoint they were told to hand over their passports and phones – from which they had already deleted their conversations with the smuggler, as ordered by him – and waited outside for seven hours in temperatures of -10C.

They were then put in a vehicle and taken to what Salami thought was a police station with military representatives inside, to whom he said they paid $300 each for a bicycle. Next, he said, a civilian car collected them and drove them close to the Russian border exit. Finally, they were questioned, fingerprinted, photographed and their phones and passports returned. Then, they cycled about 5km into Finland.

Once there, after having their bikes confiscated by Finnish border guards, Salami waited for a few hours inside and was taken to a temporary place to sleep. The following day he arrived at the reception centre where he is now.

Although he is happy to have reached safety, he feels cheated by the smugglers, for whose payment he had to sell his wife’s gold and his motorcycle. His friends, including his now roommate, made the journey without smugglers.

Moscow, he said, was using asylum seekers, but people in his situation had few options and, until last week, this was the best available. “They [Russia] don’t have the right to do it like this but for us we are happy to get the chance. Better than Belarus.”

The Kremlin has denied encouraging migrants to enter Finland and said it regrets the border closures. The Russian foreign ministry has said Helsinki should instead have tried “to work out a mutually acceptable solution”.

Saleh al-Meri, Salami’s roommate, crossed into Finland from Russia at around the same time. The 25-year-old graduate from Yemen was studying in Russia when he made several unsuccessful attempts to enter Poland via Belarus. He returned to Russia after having problems with his leg, which contains a bullet from a gunshot wound sustained in Yemen in 2019.

After paying a taxi driver $400 and being charged another $250 for a bicycle, he crossed the border on 17 November.

After the border closure, four of his friends tried to follow the same route but were killed in a taxi crash in Russia after they were refused entry to the border. “There’s too much sadness about this story,” he said.

In Finland, he wants to do a master’s, and to bring the rest of his family over from Yemen. He is especially concerned for his father, who is wanted by Houthi rebels.

“I want all my friends to come here,” he said, adding that many have been forced to stay in Russia after the closure of the Finnish border. “One of my friends is already in jail because his visa expired and they said they will send him back to Yemen.”

The Finnish border guard said that since the border’s closure there had been no attempts to cross the border at crossing points or other parts of the border and that “the overall situation is stable”. However, they added that negotiations between Finnish and Russian border guards “have not so far found the common ground with the current issues in hand”.