Blog post by Stephen Phillips, Project researcher, Mobile Futures, Åbo Akademi Institute for Human Rights *
Finland’s recent decision to progressively close all of its eastern border crossing points has sparked intense interest in Finland and abroad. The closures appeared sudden, however Finland’s response to the increase in asylum seekers at its border with Russia, driven by allegations of Russia pushing asylum seekers towards the border, is not unexpected, and is consistent with Finnish border policy across both the present and previous governments. The Finnish response is also consistent with efforts by other rich states to frustrate and deny access to territory and to asylum.
The situation on Finland’s eastern border progressed quickly. On 18 November 2023 Finland closed four southeastern crossing points, and restricted asylum applications to two crossing points further to the north. By 24 November only one crossing point on the eastern border, Raja-Jooseppi in Finnish Lapland, remained open. It was also announced that all of those arriving without required documents at the eastern border would be processed at registration centres, where they would be held until their registration was completed. These centres are likely to be in Oulu, in the northern part of Finland, and Joutseno in the southeast.
On 28 November the Finnish government announced that the final crossing point would be closed from 30 November, and that asylum applications would only be possible at air and maritime entry points. The first round of border closures was set in force for three months, the second round for one month, and the full closure is set to last an initial period of two weeks. Frontex, The European Border and Coast Guard Agency tasked with managing the EU’s external borders, has provided Finland with personnel and other equipment ‘to bolster Finland’s border control activities’. The role of Frontex in pushbacks at borders and in other human rights violations is well-documented.
The border closures and new asylum reception arrangements come in response to an increase in arrivals of migrants at Finland’s eastern border who lack the required travel and/or identity documents. In the first half of November the Finnish Border Guard reported 415 arrivals without the required documents, significantly more than the 32 recorded in October, 13 in September, 12 in August, and 15 in July. No other month in 2023 saw more than 10 such arrivals. These numbers appear low when compared to those at other EU external borders, however in the Finnish context even comparatively small numbers of undocumented arrivals are unusual. Even during the mass influx of forced migrants into Europe in 2015-2016, when Finland received 32,345 asylum seekers in 2015 alone, the numbers then dropped significantly in 2016 to 5,605 and have never returned to 2016 levels. Finland does, however, have recent experience receiving significant numbers of refugees from Ukraine, granting residence permits on the basis of temporary protection to approximately 45,000 Ukrainians in 2022.
Finland’s move towards a more restrictive border policy is a relatively recent development. After the hybrid attacks and humanitarian disaster on the Poland-Belarus border in summer 2021, Poland constructed a 186 kilometre border fence, among other restrictive measures. Finland’s Border Guard risk analysis unit was of the view in late 2021 that no similar measures were needed on the Finland-Russia border, citing cost considerations. In 2021 Finland’s Baltic neighbours Latvia and Lithuania expanded fence construction along their external borders, and Estonia announced similar plans. Finland’s decision to commence building its own border fence came later, following the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The proposed Finnish fence was announced in October 2022, based on a proposal from the Finnish Border Guard. The proposal received cross-party support in the Finnish parliament and outlined the construction of around 200 kilometres of fencing along parts of the Finland-Russia border, mostly in the southeast, approximately 15 percent of the total length of the border. Unlike other fences constructed in the region, which were erected rapidly in the context of large numbers of arrivals, Finland’s fence project is estimated to take three to four years to complete. A 2.8 kilometre pilot fence was completed in the summer of 2023, and the next stage of construction is scheduled for winter 2024. The estimated cost of the fence over the entire period of construction is 380 million euros, which includes the material and construction costs of the barrier fence, road and surveillance system. The Finnish Border Guard provides detailed information about the fence and the construction progress on its website.
The announcement of the fence plan was preceded by a key change in the Finnish Border Guard Act, which came into force in July 2022, and which has been instrumental in the ongoing Finnish response on the eastern border. The amended Border Guard Act now provides for the centralising of asylum applications at separately designated points on the Finnish border. It was accompanied by amendments to the Emergency Powers Act to prepare for various hybrid threats. The Border Guard Act now allows for asylum applications to be centralised when necessary to prevent a serious threat to public order, national security or public health, which may include situations where there is ‘an exceptionally high number of immigrants in a short period of time or instrumentalisation of migration by a state or some other party’.
The present right-wing government of Petteri Orpo, installed in June 2023, has been clear that it will follow its international legal obligations concerning refugees and human rights only to the very minimum level required. Its government program, issued in June 2023, included changes such as a move towards more temporary forms of protection for all refugees, the use of more accelerated asylum procedures, and a reduction in Finland’s humanitarian intake from 1,050 to 500 places. Notably, however, both the announcement of the fence plan and the changes to the Border Guard Act and the Emergency Powers Act came under the previous centre-left government, led by Sanna Marin. Finland’s present policy enjoys cross-party consensus, as well as strong public support.
Finnish policy across a succession of governments raises serious concerns for human rights and access to asylum. Following the path of many other EU states, and others such as Australia and the United States before them, Finland has chosen an approach grounded in the logic of deterrence through entry prevention and the frustration and denial of access to asylum. Finland has not yet engaged in the violent pushbacks and expansive use of other coercive measures used by other states, but the stage is now set so that there are few remaining options for Finland that fall within the letter, if not the spirit, of international human rights and refugee law. The Finnish policy creates a situation where any meaningful mechanism through which to seek asylum at any border is available to only a small number of people, and makes the asylum-seeking process increasingly difficult and dangerous. Experience elsewhere shows that the removal of safe and legal routes to asylum does not prevent people from attempting to enter, they instead pursue more perilous routes to potential safety that lead to injury and death.
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