Norway Deports Biking Refugees Back to Russia

Roughly 5,500 refugees have ridden the more than 10-mile road from the tiny Russian mining town of Nikel to the Norwegian border.PlayABC News
WATCH Refugees Bike into Norway From Russian Arctic Border

Norway has begun deporting migrants and refugees back to Russia across a border point in the Arctic Circle, despite criticism from the United Nations. The actions seemed intended to reverse a route that has attracted attention because many of the refugees using it were making the journey by bicycle.

Police confirmed to Norwegian public television that 13 single men had been taken by bus from a migrant detention center in the town of Kirkenes and delivered to the Russian border on Tuesday night. All 13 have now arrived in the Russian city of Murmansk, the broadcaster NRK reported.

Over 5,000 people seeking asylum have made their way across the border to the Arctic Circle since last January. It is illegal to cross the border on foot, meaning that those trying to pass have been buying bikes and cycling through the snow at temperatures well below freezing. Almost all, now face potential deportation back to Russia.

The deportation action follows a change to Norway’s asylum laws, that means authorities will now return any prospective refugees it deems to have traveled from a “safe-country” before arriving, meaning in this case Russia. In addition to that, Norway has said it will immediately deport asylum-seekers possessing valid Russian visas or residency.

A Norwegian police spokesman, Espen Haga, told NRK, that all 13 of those deported on Tuesday had current Russian visas or residency permits. But it was unclear whether Russia would allow others back through, raising the possibility some refugees might become trapped on the border, where temperatures have now dropped well below -20 degrees Fahrenheit.

The UN has criticized the deportations, saying Russia should not be considered safe for refugees and warned that Norway may be putting itself in breach of the 1951 UN refugee convention, a "key legal document in defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states. The 1967 Protocol removed geographical and temporal restrictions from the Convention," the UN Refugee Agency Website said.

“We believe Norway is wrong to regard Russia as a safe country for people who need protection,” Vincent Cochetel, the Director of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’(UNHCR) Bureau for Europe said last week. “There are large cracks in the Russian asylum system. They can end up in a no man’s land where they risk freezing to death.”

Director of UNHCR's Bureau for Europe

Norway has rejected the UN criticism, with its Minister of Immigration and Integration, Sylvi Listhaug telling parliament the country was entitled to return those who did not meet criteria for refugee status. The parliament passed the new rules with a large majority, apparently responding to fears of a sharp increase in arrivals. 30,000 people applied for asylum in Norway this year.

Those using the so-called “Arctic Route” from Russia are a mixture of nationalities, including Syrians and Iraqis fleeing violence, but also people escaping poverty or just looking for a better life in Europe. Many of those crossing are from Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Last fall, ABC News’ "Nightline" followed Kinan,a young Syria man, who had fled Damascus to Moscow, before travelling to the Arctic Circle border. After paying $400 to a "people smuggler" for a kids bicycle and a bus-ride, Kinan reached Norway and was put in a refugee camp.

Almost three months after crossing, Kinan-- who asked not to give his last name-- is still in the camp, with little idea of when his case will be settled. Like others living there, he is not allowed to leave the location made up of port-a-cabins on a snowy plain.

The camp provides food and warm clothing, but surrounded by the empty white landscape, Kinan said, describing the location, as making him feel trapped and like “hell”.

Even before crossing, he had told ABC he had deep misgivings about becoming a refugee.

“It’s not a great feeling being a refugee,” Kinan told ABC then. “To be a refugee. To live I don’t know where and they give you I don’t know how much every month to buy food and cook for yourself….I don’t want life like that. Because in the end, I have my dignity.”