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Refugee problem for EU and Russia: Bosnian Arctic and Ukrainian corridors

Photo: murmansk.kp.ru

Ahead of the new EU Summit on migrant crisis Europe has to admit that the solution to be suggested at the summit is not comprehensive as it addresses the problem in one direction only – the Central and Eastern Balkans with participation of a non-EU country – Turkey. Neither this solution seems reliable to the EU countries that have closed their borders to migrants last month in a chain reaction. Last Thursday the EU ministers of internal affairs met in Brussels to discuss details of the general plan to be adopted at the upcoming EU summit. The key point of the plan is about an agreement with Turkey. Along with the major problems of illegal migrations the ministers discussed alternative routes of the influx of migrants into the EU.

As early as this summer the main influx of migrants may be redirected to other countries for instance to the Western Balkans through Kosovo Albania and Bosnia. During the last quarter century these countries have remembered (not without external help) about their historical Islamic identity. EU has serious concerns that migrants and refugees will be trying to reach it from Greece and Libya via the ‘migration routes’ established in Albania and Bosnia during the war-caused influx of the Alban and Bosnian migrants to Europe. Migrants may reach Europe crossing the Adriatic Sea. Albania may turn into gates to Italy. In Kosovo and Albania there are criminal groups that are specializing in illegal transportation of migrants to the EU. It is a well-developed “business.” According to Frontex in 2015 nearly 9,000 people crossed the Greek-Albanian border illegally and headed to Europe. The Albanian authorities are preparing for such inflow of migrants beforehand and have already developed plans to open centers to receive Syrian refugees – by 10,000 people in the towns of Korça and Gjirokastra on the border with Greece.

Along with discussion of alternative migration routes to the EU last week they began speaking about Russia’s problem and its transit capacities too. On the one hand there is general anti-Russian propaganda as the current migration crisis in Europe is linked to Russia’s military operation in Syria. This has turned into one of the most discussed issues in Brussels. The migration crisis in Europe emerged in early summer of 2015 i.e. four months before Russia launched its anti-terrorist operation in Syria President Vladimir Putin said. However the EU has made specific allegations against Russia for instance Brussels said Russia has been contributing to development of the migration crisis in recent months as it has softened the frontier safety control measures and people have crowded at the checkpoints in Finland on the border with Russia trying to reach EU without visas.

Brussels says the number of migrants arriving in the EU from the territory of Russia has increased drastically recently. In this light the European Commission adopted a decision yet in February 2016 to launch talks with the Russian government immediately over how to reduce the “migration pressure” Finland is experiencing from Russia. The news that the EU seeks talks with President Putin aroused concerns in Europe over what the Russian president may demand in exchange considering the Turkish precedent. Brussels knows that the negotiations with the Russian government will look ambiguously after the EU has extended the sanctions on Russia twice since December.

In 2015 only 700 refugees crossed the Russian border to Finland. In 2016 this number was exceeded within the first two months. Helsinki says that since January 1 2016 788 asylum seekers arrived in Finland from Russia via Raja-Jooseppi and Salla northern border crossing points in Lapland.  Russia’s Kandalaksha has turned into an unofficial center for migrants that seek to reach Europe via Finland. Migrants arrive in Kandalaksha from the Murmansk Airport.  According to the Russian authorities a man was detained in Murmansk on suspicion of organizing an illegal group to transport migrants from Russia to Europe. 

In February, the border control in Finland permitted that a limited number of migrants - two cars with 8 people per day - enter the country.  This prompted an informal queue of migrants in Kandalaksha. Most of the asylum seekers arriving in Finland from Russia are Iraqis who have no intention to stay in Finland. They will seek asylum in Sweden – a country more “hospitable” to migrants.  This is actually not a pressing problem yet. Otherwise Sweden would impose frontier control on its border with Finland like the one it did on the border with Denmark.  So far even Finnish officials say that a million of refugees may eventually arrive in Europe from Russia or via the territory of Russia in the nearest future. These concerns made the Estonian and Latvian governments weigh construction of fences on the border with Russia like the one Hungary did to stop influx of illegal migrants to the EU via the territory of Russia.  Estonia Latvia and Lithuania try to prevent the Baltic region from turning into a transit corridor for migrants on the example of Finland.

On February 26 2016 President Vladimir Putin charged the Federal Security Service Board responsible for the border patrol “to increase the control over the refugee flows to Russia and to Europe via the territory of Russia.” The Russian president has actually confirmed the fact of the transit of illegal migrants to the EU via Russia. However Russia suggests settling the problem with particular EU countries in the bilateral format. There is an example of Norway – a non-EU member but a Schengen state – that closed the “Arctic route” of migration to Schengen Area last November. However the bilateral decision on Norway immediately redirected the illegal migration to Finland through the Arctic migration corridor.

The official stand of the Russian authorities is known: the major problem for the EU remains the same i.e. the EU strictly arranges its Schengen visa procedures but did not quit the asylum procedures as part of the national competences. This creates fundamental contradictions in all the directions of illegal migration to the EU not just the Russian one. The decision on the refugee problem requires a two-sided approach. Therefore Moscow said it would seek solutions as part of a bilateral agreement with Finland dating back to 1994 on the procedures of border crossing points.  Before the Munich conference in February 2016 President of Finland Sauli Väinämö Niinistö met with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev over the illegal migration to Finland via ‘the Arctic route’.  The Russian authorities think the Russian-Finnish intergovernmental memorandum to boost cooperation in the field of migration should be replenished with an agreement to exchange information on migration. The talks on it are successfully held with Finland. Helsinki has already said it closed the Arctic corridor to migrants. The final decision here may become a precedent for the Baltic States. 

Simultaneously Russia draws Europe’s attention to the fact that more than one million asylum seekers from the Southeast of Ukraine has been registered in its territory since April 2014. Consequently the number of asylum seekers in Russia has increased almost 60-fold. Comparing the capacities of the EU and Russia in ratio to their economies and population size it turns out that Russia has faced even bigger migration problems than the EU.  With its revolutionary promotion of the “Eastern Partnership,” the EU has created a migration problem for Russia in Ukraine. The problem of the transit migration via Russia to the EU through the arctic route is simply incomparable with that. This circumstance has certainly determined Moscow’s “two-sided” approach to the problem of the migration transit to Europe. However Moscow will not refuse from the talks with Brussels on the issue.  The solution may come in a package of general settlement of the problems in the relations with the European Union.

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