Norway suspends return of migrants from Russia

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Refugees walk alongside a bike to the Norwegian border crossing station at Storskog. Photo: Cornelius Poppe / NTB scanpix
12:05 CET+01:00
Norway on Saturday announced it was temporarily suspending its controversial return of migrants from Arctic Russia, following a request from Moscow.

"The Russian foreign affairs minister was in contact yesterday (Friday) with the Norwegian authorities on the subject of the return of asylum seekers via Storskog," the foreign ministry said in a statement, referring to the Storskog border crossing, 400 kilometres (about 250 miles) north of the Arctic Circle.

"Until further notice, there will not be any more returns via Storskog. The Russian border authorities want more coordination over these returns," the statement added.

Speaking in Davos to Norwegian television channel NRK, Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister Borge Brende said the Russians had made the request citing "security reasons".

Some 5,500 migrants -- mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran -- crossed from Russia into Norway last year, on the last leg of an arduous journey through the Arctic to Europe.

Norway is not within the European Union, but is a member of the Schengen passport-free zone. 

Many migrants arrived by bicycle as Russian authorities do not let people cross the border on foot and Norway considers people driving migrants across the border in a car or truck to be traffickers.

In November 2015, its right-wing government decided that migrants who had been living legally in Russia, or had entered Russia legally, should be immediately returned there, on the basis that Russia is a safe country.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told AFP that Moscow had informed Norway on Friday that it was halting the return of migrants through the Borisoglebsk-Storskog crossing in line with a 2011 bilateral agreement.

Exceptions will, however, be made for any migrants who can be shown to meet the criteria of an earlier agreement that obliges Moscow to readmit them if they do not fulfil Norwegian immigration laws and have valid Russian visas or residence permits.

"The steps taken by Russia were dictated by security reasons and based on bilateral agreements with Norway," Zakharova said.

Police police returned 13 migrants by bus to Russia on Tuesday.

Two similar operations were scheduled for Thursday and Friday but were then cancelled, for what officials said were logistical reasons.

Several dozen migrants had been taken to the border town of Kirkenes ahead of their expulsion, but several fled and three were given shelter in a church.

Rights groups had expressed outrage at the migrants being forced to return by bike in winter, when temperatures in the far north regularly fall to minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus four Fahrenheit).

They also say that Russia has a poor record on dealing with requests for asylum. 

The process can take years, during which applicants run the risk of being arrested and expelled to their country of origin, said Marek Linha, head of the Norwegian Organisation for Asylum Seekers (NOAS).

"It's Russian roulette, because you have no guarantee of gaining asylum, you often have to pay bribes and you can have problems with the FSB," Russia's security service, Linha said.

Out of roughly 5,000 Syrians who have filed for refugee status in Russia over the last six years, only two have been granted recognition, according to the figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Around 2,900 Syrians have been granted temporary protection, which campaigners say is insufficient.

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