OSLO (Reuters) - Some Syrian refugees have found a cheaper, safer, though much more roundabout way of reaching Europe than crossing the Mediterranean — heading to the Arctic Circle and entering Norway from Russia, sometimes even by bicycle.
As world attention focuses on migrants cramming into trains in Hungary or onto flimsy boats headed for Greece or Italy, Norwegian police say about 170, mostly Syrian, refugees have used the Storskog border crossing in the far north of Norway so far this year, up from just a dozen in all of 2014.
Warm relations between Moscow and Damascus mean that it is relatively easy for Syrians to get visas for Russia. From there they move on to Norway, one of the world’s richest nations and a member of Europe’s passport-free ‘Schengen area’, though not of the European Union.
“I think it’s the only legal way to Europe,” said Elijah Hansen, 26, a Syrian student who arrived in Norway in March after paying $1,600 for his trip, which included a flight to Moscow from Beirut, a 36-hour train journey from Moscow to the Arctic port of Murmansk and then a ride in a car to the border.
Desperate to avoid military service in Syria’s civil war, Hansen said it would have been more expensive to travel through Turkey and then risk a boat trip across the Mediterranean to Greece, a route on which many refugees have drowned.
“Whatever happened, it was still better than dying at the hands of Islamic State or being killed in some war zone in Syria,” said Hansen, who adopted his Norwegian-sounding name after his arrival. He gave his original name as Ali Alsalim.
Islamic State militants have seized large swathes of Syria and Iraq over the past year, prompting many people to flee.
Hansen traveled in late winter, when temperatures in Storskog are far below zero and the snow deep, and he got a lift to the Norwegian border. But some other refugees arriving since then have bought bicycles in Russia to reach the border.
Russian laws bar anyone from going on foot to the frontier and it is illegal under Norwegian law to willingly give a lift to people without proper identity papers, prompting some refugees to cover the final stretch by bicycle.
“Cycling is permitted under the Russian rules,” said Hans Moellebakken, police chief in the nearby Norwegian town of Kirkenes. “Most (coming across) have been individuals but there have been some families.”
Refugees who seek asylum in Norway are flown to Oslo for registration before their applications are considered, meaning they have to leave behind their bicycles, often brand new.
Police have a store of about 40 bikes at the border, Moellebakken said, many of them bought in an unexpected sales boom for a shop in the nearby Russian mining town of Nikel.
“We don’t know what will happen to them - maybe we will give them away,” Moellebakken said. Norwegian police have imposed fines of up to 6,000 Norwegian crowns ($722), including on a Russian bus company ferrying asylum seekers to the frontier.
Paul Nesse, a senior adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the numbers using the Arctic route may well rise from the current extremely low levels. “There are so many Syrians on the move,” he said.
“With the old ties between Syria and Russia I expect there will be a few Syrian students in Russia who decide this is not a good time to go home,” he said.
Asked how many refugees Norwegian police expected in coming months, Moellebakken said: “We don’t know. It depends on the winter.”
More than 250,000 Syrians have been killed and more than 11 million — half of Syria’s entire population — have been driven from their homes during the country’s four-year civil war.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians and refugees from other conflicts are seeking sanctuary in Europe, many of them now arriving in Hungary — an eastern outpost of the ‘Schengen area’ from where they hope to travel on to Germany and other wealthier western European countries.
Norway, which has built up a sovereign wealth fund of $830 billion on the back of its offshore oil and gas reserves, plans to take in 8,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017.
The country of five million people is historically far less open to refugees than neighboring Sweden and the plan to let in 8,000 is bitterly opposed by the populist Progress Party, a junior partner in the two-party right-wing government.
The Conservative Party of Prime Minister Erna Solberg teamed up with opposition parties to agree to take in refugees, overruling the objections of the Progress Party headed by Finance Minister Siv Jensen.
($1 = 8.3140 Norwegian crowns)
Reporting By Alister Doyle; Editing by Gareth Jones