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Article Finland: Government Closes Most Border Crossings to Russia

On November 22, 2023, the Finnish government announced the temporary closure of an additional three border crossing stations between Finland and Russia. The November 22 closure comes on the heels of the closure of four other border crossings effective November 18. The closures follow a recent rise in the number of Russian asylum seekers that the government calls a hybrid (i.e., nonmilitary) attack by Russia. With the latest closures, effective November 24, only the northernmost border crossing, Raja-Jooseppi, remains open.

Background to the Government’s Decisions

A 2022 amendment to the Finnish Border Guard Act provides that the Finnish government may temporarily close and restrict travel across specific border crossings when “necessary to avert a serious threat to public order, national security or public health.” (16 § Finnish Border Guard Act.) The same provision provides that the government may concentrate asylum applications at one or more border crossings when “necessary to avert a serious threat to public order, national security or public health and it is a question of 1) an exceptionally large number of arrivals in a short period, or 2) information or reasonable suspicion that the entry is due to the influence of a foreign state.” The amendment was adopted citing the change in Finland’s security policy environment following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In particular, the Finnish government and the parliament were concerned about the risk of hybrid influence. Specifically, the legislative history explains:

Hybrid influence is considered planned activity where a state or nonstate actor extensively uses nonmilitary methods with the aim of trying to [take advantage of] a state’s weaknesses and achieve its own goals. The aim is to create pressure, damage, uncertainty and instability in the country that is subject to the measures. Hybrid impact can also be part of a military operation, especially in the initial phase. Hybrid impact can occur simultaneously with other operations, such as information influence operations and other activities of varying content. According to [one] foreign and security policy report, state actors in their hybrid influence often hire external actors, such as extremist groups and organized criminal groups. Hybrid impact can also be implemented with the help of migration flows, refugees, or citizens residing in other countries. The impact can also occur during epidemics and pandemics. The methods can be used simultaneously or consecutively. The impact can start quickly even under normal conditions, and it can be difficult to detect and confirm, especially in the initial phase. (Hallituksen esitys eduskunnalle laiksi rajavartiolain muuttamisesta, HE 94/2022 vp, translation by author.)

2023 Decision to Close Border Stations

According to the Finnish government’s November 16 decision to close four border stations, the number of undocumented asylum seekers arriving at the Finnish border via Russia increased rapidly during the last week of October and the first weeks of November. A Finnish Border Crossing Guard press release of November 18 states that during the first 17 days of November, 415 persons arrived without travel documents to seek asylum at the southeastern border stations, which had previously seen an average of less than 10 applications per month for 2023 until the end of October.

The November 16 decision led to the closure of the border crossings in Vaalimaa, Nuijamaa, Imatra, and Niirala, effective November 18. Previously, on November 8, the local border crossing authority had decided to close the border crossing at Vaalima, Nuijamaa, and Imatra to bicyclists starting November 9, 2023. Before this, the border had been open to bicyclists per agreement between the Finnish and Russian border commissioners to allow local border residents to travel across the border to shop using bicycles. Pedestrian crossings continue to be prohibited at these border crossings.

The use of bicycles to cross the Finnish border from Russia with the purpose of applying for international protection had previously risen sharply, resulting in reports of large numbers of discarded bicycles on the Finnish and Norwegian sides of the Russian border in 2015 and 2016.

As part of the decision of October 16, 2023, the Finnish government decided that asylum applications may be accepted only at the Vartius and Salla International border crossing points. Finnish media reports suggest that asylum seekers are transported to the Finnish-Russian border with the specific purpose of causing a hybrid attack.

The only border station remaining open as of November 24, Raja-Jooseppi, will be accepting applications for international protection. The three border crossing stations that will be closed for a shorter time, until December 23, 2023, include Kuusamo, Salla, and Vartius.

Reportedly, the Finnish government considered closing all of its borders with Russia, but such a measure was considered unlawful by the Finnish Chancellor of Justice because this would have interfered with the right to seek asylum. Under Finnish law, it is the role of the Chancellor of Justice to ensure that the Finnish government and government agencies comply with Finnish law in their actions. (2-3 §§ Laki valtioneuvoston oikeuskanslerista 193/2000.)

The closed border crossings are all Schengen external borders, meaning borders between a Schengen member country and a non-Schengen member country. The border crossings at Vaalimaa, Nuijamaa, Imatra, and Niirala will remain closed until February 18, 2024, or until the closures are no longer necessary, whichever occurs sooner, conforming to the rules of article 6(1)(e) of the Schengen Borders Code.

Elin Hofverberg, Law Library of Congress
November 28, 2023

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