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Bicycles used to travel from Russia were piled in Storskog, Norway, north of the Arctic Circle.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times
STORSKOG, Norway — Pelted by hailstones and buffeted by an icy wind, Yasir Arslanuk, a 55-year-old Syrian engineer, his wife and two young sons wobbled across the border from Russia into Norway astride bicycles last week, the latest migrants to complete an improbable new route to Europe.
This Norwegian outpost, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is hardlyLampedusa, an Italian island where migrants coming on rickety boats across the Mediterranean from Libya often land, or Lesbos, a Greek island that has become the primary transit point for refugees coming by rubber raft from Turkey.
But in recent months, refugees from places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have started to flow in growing numbers through Russia into the northernmost reaches of Europe, making this remote crossing an increasingly popular back door for people fleeing war and persecution, or simply looking for a better life. Speaking to center-right members of the European Parliament on Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany cited the Arctic crossing into Norway as evidence of how refugees will carve out “the most mind-boggling” alternatives if governments try to close off the traditional paths through southern and central Europe.
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200 Miles
Storskog
RUSSIA
Norwegian
Sea
Arctic Circle
SWEDEN
FINLAND
Gulf of
Bothnia
NORWAY
Helsinki
Oslo
ESTONIA
Stockholm
LATVIA
LITHUANIA
DENMARK
Baltic Sea
POLAND
GERMANY
The trip, Mr. Arslanuk said after dismounting his bike and seeking shelter in a heated orange tent on the Norwegian side of the border, “is better than going by sea,” the hazardous option chosen by most of the more than half a million migrants who have made it to Europe so far this year.
After just a handful of migrant crossings here in the first half of this year, the number “exploded” in September, with 420 asylum seekers pedaling into northern Norway at Storskog, said Stein Kristian Hansen, the police superintendent in charge of the Norwegian border post. So far this week, 263 arrived via the Arctic route — a tiny number compared to the thousands arriving daily in Greece and Italy, but a record here.
Many of the arrivals, Mr. Hansen said, seemed to have little idea where they were exactly and had bought no warm clothes. But, encouraged by a flurry of reports on social media about how well Norway treats refugees, they rushed through Russia to reach Europe’s northernmost frontier. It is not snowing here yet, but temperatures have already dipped close to freezing.
“The next stop is the North Pole,” Mr. Hansen said of the outpost’s remoteness.
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A group of refugees outside the transit center last week in Kirkenes, Norway. The 150 beds available at the center, a man-made cave burrowed into a mountain, are now all full.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times
Some of them, including Mr. Arslanuk, are Russian-speaking Syrians who were already living in Russia and see the border with Norway as a path to a better life at a time when Syrian citizenship generally confers refugee status in Europe. Others, having heard of the new route into Europe, are traveling through Russia to the border rather than taking the more established but riskier paths.
A 21-year-old Syrian woman who gave only her first name, Dana, said her father, mother and brother had made it to Germany this summer through the Balkans and had sent horrific reports of their journey to Greece from Turkey. The Arctic, she decided, was easier.
Word of the Norwegian route has spread so far and fast via social media that some Syrian refugees in Lebanon are now trying to get visas to Russia in hopes of getting to this Arctic border post, according to migrants with friends and family in Lebanon.
For those who make it, the oddity of the route continues to the very end. A Russian ban on pedestrian traffic across the border at Storskog, and Norwegian threats to prosecute motorists who give rides to people without visas, mean that migrants, even young children and the infirm, have to use bicycles to complete the last few dozen yards of an exodus that in some cases began thousands of miles away.
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EUROPEAN REFUGEE AND MIGRANT CRISIS

Once in Russia, it costs migrants only a few hundred dollars to secure transportation to the border and a bicycle, far less than the more than $1,500 that Turkish smugglers often charge to ferry migrants across the Aegean Sea to Greece.
The bicycle-borne flow into Norway underscores not only the dogged determination of migrants but also Russia’s curious role in helping to drain the population from Syria, a country that President Vladimir V. Putin views as a vital ally and whose leader, Bashar al-Assad, he is now helping with bombing raids against the opposition.
“Putin loves Assad and Assad loves Putin, but neither of them like Syrians,” Mr. Arslanuk said, adding that he had nothing but disgust for both the government in Damascus and its armed opponents. Refugees say guards on the Russian side of the border sometimes ask Syrians why they do not return home and support Mr. Assad, but they then wave them on down a narrow road toward Norway and inform their Norwegian colleagues by telephone that another group without visas is about to arrive.
“They call us ‘blacks’ and just want us to leave,” said Valid Jumaleizu, 35, a Syrian who worked for a time in Russia sewing clothes but could not earn enough to support his family in Aleppo and decided Europe offered better prospects.
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Closing the Back Door to Europe

In recent months European nations have worked to block the main route taken by migrants fleeing war and upheaval.
In 2014, only five people crossed the frontier here from Russia seeking asylum, said Mr. Hansen, the border police chief. So far this year, more than 600 — 78 percent of them from Syria, or at least claiming to be from there — have done so.
A booming business has now grown on the Russian side of the border to help and profit from the flow. Taxis and minibuses ferry migrants from Murmansk, the northern Russian city to which most migrants heading north travel by plane or train, to Nikel, a Russian town near the border with Norway where many migrants buy their bicycles.
Nikel, according to a Norwegian police officer who asked not to be identified, now has hundreds of Syrians and others waiting to make a final push into Norway here at Storskog.
When the first Syrians, a group of six, arrived from Russia in February to claim asylum, they were all taken to the nearby town of Kirkenes and, after a night at government expense in an upscale hotel with sea-view rooms, flown to Oslo, Norway’s capital, to have their applications processed. Reports of how well Norway treated asylum seekers spread rapidly on social media and by word of mouth.
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Yasir Arslanuk, a 55-year-old Syrian engineer, and one of his sons last week in Storskog. Mr. Arslanuk, his wife and two young sons crossed into Norway from Russia on bicycles.CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times
Last week’s arrivals included a pair from Gambia, a poor but peaceful country in West Africa.
“Maybe we gave the wrong picture in the beginning,” Mr. Hansen said, adding that some migrants with weak claims to asylum “are taking advantage of the situation” to enter Norway, which is not a member of the European Union but does belong to the 26-nation Schengen area allowing visa-free travel. “We are not a travel agency,” he said.
After the surge of migrants in September, the authorities stopped trying to move everyone to Oslo and turned a bomb shelter and sports hall in Kirkenes into a transit center.
“We are talking about maybe 50 people coming across every day into one of the richest countries in the world. We should be able to handle this,” said Cecilie Hansen, the mayor of Kirkenes. She noted that her town, which housed refugees from the Balkans in the same bomb shelter during war in Kosovo in the late 1990s, has a history of welcoming foreigners.
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But the welcome mat is already fraying as the flow of migrants across the border keeps increasing. On Friday, 100 asylum seekers crossed into Norway from Russia at Storskog, a record for a single day that added to a growing pile of seized bikes behind the office of the Norwegian customs service. Norwegian police confiscate the migrants’ bicycles, which are mostly Russian-made, because they do not meet local safety standards. Migrants are then taken into Kirkenes by bus.
The 150 beds available at the Kirkenes transit center, a man-made cave burrowed into a mountain, are now all full, straining a reception system that gets financial support from Oslo but still puts a burden on the remote port and mining town of 10,200.
“Logistics have been much tougher than we expected,” Ms. Hansen said.
Apparently worried that news media reports of the influx will only encourage more migrants to trek to the Arctic, Norwegian authorities are now trying to curb journalists’ access to the border zone, with police officers announcing abruptly last week that interviews and photographs were forbidden.
Jamil Mahlezadba, a young Afghan who said he was not sure of his exact age, cycled across the border soon after Mr. Arslanuk and his family. Shivering outside the Norwegian border post while waiting for the police to take his fingerprints and photograph, he said he did not mind the cold.
“I don’t need the sun, I just need a normal life,” he said, explaining that he had left his home in Kabul “to live somewhere normal without bomb explosions.”
Staal Nilsen, the local leader of the right-wing Progress Party, known for its strong anti-immigration views, said the best hope for stopping the flow of migrants was now the weather.
“In a month or two, winter will really settle in,” he said. “When that happens, they will all want to leave here, I promise you.”