Flow of migrants into Finland from Russia dries up - Helsinki

HELSINKI, March 17 (Reuters) - The flow of migrants from Russia into Finland has halted this month, the Finnish government said on Thursday, following an agreement between the two countries to improve cooperation on their shared border.

Earlier this year Finland criticised its giant eastern neighbour and tsarist-era ruler for allowing increasing numbers of asylum seekers with no Finnish visas to cross their Arctic border, and held high-level meetings with Moscow.

Finland’s 833-mile (1,340 km) border with Russia marks an external limit of the European Union’s passport-free Schengen area. Helsinki has been worried it could become a more popular route into the EU for migrants as the weather improves and the main Balkan route via Turkey and Greece gets harder to access.

“No asylum seekers have crossed the (Russian) border since Feb. 29,” the Finnish interior ministry said in a statement.

Close to 1,000 asylum seekers entered Finland from Russia in the first two months of 2016, up from about 700 in the whole of 2015. The government said many of them were Afghans or Indians and were not escaping war or persecution. Some had lived in Russia a long time, it added.

“Russia is a safe country which can offer international protection,” the ministry added.

According to a Kremlin transcript, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Russian security officials to tighten monitoring of refugee flows across the border into Finland.

“I see this as a proof of concept, aimed at Finland and at the European Union,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, Senior Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

“Russia has now showed that they can transfer people to a place like its northern border with Finland, and fully control the flow of migrants across its borders.”

Interior minister Petteri Orpo told Reuters in January that the government feared whether the eastern border could become a new entry point for refugees as routes through the Balkans become harder.

“The numbers are small, but the phenomenon is very worrying,” he said.

Finland’s Baltic neighbours Estonia and Latvia have begun to fence off their border with Russia partly due to fears that their region may become a new entry point for migrants trying to reach the EU via Russia. (Reporting by Tuomas Forsell and Jussi Rosendahl; Editing by Gareth Jones)