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Poland-Belarus crisis sparks fears in Finland migrants could be sent to its border with Russia

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By David Mac Dougall
The government of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin faces a vote of no confidence amid security concerns on its border with Russia
The government of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin faces a vote of no confidence amid security concerns on its border with Russia   -   Copyright  Credit: Fanni Uusitalo, VNK

The Finnish government will face a vote of no confidence in parliament, called by opposition parties over security concerns on the eastern border with Russia.

Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s opponents -- led by the right-wing Finns Party, and centre-right parties Kokoomus, Christian Democrats and Movement Now -- claim that her red-green coalition has done little to secure the border from potential "hybrid tactics" that they fear Russia might use against the Nordic nation.

Specifically, they want new legislation passed to allow crossings on the 1,340-kilometre border to be closed temporarily, even to asylum seekers.

It comes amid tensions on the Polish-Belarus border. Warsaw says Minsk has shipped in migrants from the Middle East and then sent them to the EU's eastern border. Poland claims Russian President Vladimir Putin has had a hand in the controversy.

“Finland must prevent foreign countries from experimenting with hybrid influence by exploiting asylum seekers.” Kai Mykkänen, the leader of Kokoomus’ parliamentary group said on Tuesday.

“It is the only way to prevent a situation that will be a human catastrophe for tens of thousands of people caught up in the process and a threat to the national security and sovereignty of the host country,” he added.

Although the opposition doesn’t have a majority in parliament to bring down the government on their own over this issue, raising national security concerns about Russia can be an emotive topic in Finland.

Mykkänen, himself a former interior minister in the last government, says he only wants to ensure that Finland’s neighbours “don’t have tools to spoil the asylum system by misusing it and making it a tool in their hybrid operation, motivated by their hostile foreign policy goals".

While Kokoomus are framing their concerns clearly around national security, the immigration-critical Finns Party have long called for the power to close borders to stop what they see as an unchecked flow of asylum applicants from outside the EU.

Why the Finnish fears are not without reason

Finland’s political leaders have good reason to be concerned about border security, especially when they look at the situation on the Belarus-Poland frontier and see a familiar situation.

In January and February 2016 almost 1,000 migrants arrived at an Arctic border post between Finland and Russia. Finnish officials believe they were facilitated by Russian authorities with bus transport and hotel accommodation on their journey north, and given instructions to claim asylum once they got over the border.

It is widely considered to be Russia’s first, and most successful, hybrid attack of this type on an EU member state to date - although Finnish officials and politicians baulked at labelling it as such at the time.

Charly Salonius-Pasternak from the Finnish Institute for International Affairs calls it a “proof of concept” operation.

“Russia needed to show without super clear fingerprints to the public, that they could initiate this flow of migrants, and close it again.”

Credit: Kokoomus
Finnish opposition parties hold a press conference to announce vote of no confidence in the governmentCredit: Kokoomus

“The northern border is the end of the line. You don’t just happen to be there. So they selected this group that was also very clearly not organic, they proved they can send them in drips, in dozens, and then when Finland raises it at a political level the Russians showed they can make it stop immediately.”

Finnish authorities quickly cottoned on to the Russian tactic and discovered more than half the migrants who claimed asylum had lived legally in Russia for five to 10 years, and came from nearly 40 countries. It wasn’t the same pattern of asylum seekers arriving in other parts of Europe at that time who came mostly from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.

The Finnish government, faced with the spectre of potentially tens or hundreds of thousands more migrants arriving from Russia, quickly bowed to Russian demands and signed a six-month agreement that would allow two popular border posts to be reserved just for Finnish, Russian and Belarusian citizens and their families.

The Russians had flexed their muscles, showed what they could potentially do, and got an agreement.

Once the deal was signed, migrants stopped coming and the incident was over.

Can Finland build a border fence with Russia?

While Sanna Marin’s government will most likely survive a vote of no-confidence -- which has not yet been scheduled -- they still need to figure out what to do with the border.

After Russia’s 2016 migrant strategy Helsinki became the site of the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats

And although there was a lot of work done to highlight progress on issues like media literacy and countering misinformation, little work was done politically by this Finnish government or previous ones to be able to react effectively to future hybrid threats on the border.

Matters weren’t helped last week when both the interior minister and foreign minister first suggested Finland’s borders would always be open to people claiming asylum, in line with international obligations, and then backtracked a day later.

The issue, long stagnating, has suddenly become a handy political tool for the opposition to attack the government with.

So what more can be done in practical terms? Kokoomus’ Kai Mykkänen has also called for a border fence to be built although in practice that would be extremely difficult through dense forest terrain along much of the borderline, not just in terms of construction costs but also manpower to patrol and maintain it.

The head of Finland’s border guard force Pasi Kostamovaara dismissed the idea in a newspaper interview Tuesday, saying there are enough border surveillance measures already in place.

However some border guard officials have raised the possibility of extending or reinforcing physical barriers at key crossing points if needed on security grounds, and Kostamovaara says he would like to see some special provisions being drafted into new emergency preparedness laws that would allow them to close borders to asylum seekers under exceptional circumstances - exactly what the opposition is calling for.

“It is up to policymakers and legislators to assess this,” he told Helsingin Sanomat diplomatically.

“Our cooperation across the border is going well, and we have no reason to assume the situation there will change at the moment. But of course, we must always be prepared for the worst.”

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