— -- The frozen, barren landscape of the Russian Arctic Circle is blanketed with snow and has temperatures that are well below freezing.
Cutting through the cold, refugees on bicycles pedal through the snow toward the Russia-Norway border and toward what they hope will be a better life.
Russia doesn’t allow people to cross this border on foot and drivers aren’t allowed to enter Norway carrying people without documents, which is why the refugees cross with bicycles. Even those that manage to reach the border by car must have a bike to make the final crossing.
Many of the bikes are a cheap Russian brand, some so new that they still have plastic wrapping on them. Once the refugees cross into Norway, they dump the bikes into containers and climb aboard buses waiting for them.
One migrant waiting to cross, was Kinan, who had fled the war in Syria to the tiny Russian mining town of Nikel near the border. Sitting in his room in a dingy hotel, he was wearing every piece of clothing he owned because it was -5 degrees Fahrenheit outside and the hotel where he was staying had no heat.
When asked why he chose to come all the way up to the Arctic, he said, “to be honest it’s much cheaper than going to Turkey and from Turkey getting on a small, a small boat to cross to Greece, then from Greece to Europe itself.”
Kinan and about 5,500 others have ridden the more than 10-mile road from Nikel to the Norwegian border, according to the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration. Kinan was waiting for a smuggler to show up with the bike he bought to make the frigid crossing into Norway.
“It’s going to be more like a kid’s bicycle but I will pay a lot of money for it, more than I should. A lot more than I should,” Kinan said. “The whole journey from Nikel to the Norway border with a bicycle will cost $400. It seems ridiculously high because the bicycle won’t cost more than $100.”
A business has sprung up in Nikel around ferrying the refugees to the border, as well as in bicycle sales. Kinan’s is the only hotel in Nikel and its owner oversees all the buses that are permitted close to the crossing, allowing him to charge each refugee between $250-$500 for the 30 mile drive to the border and a bike. A room at the back of the hotel is packed full of new and rusty bicycles; those people arriving too poor to pay the initial price sit despondently on the floor, waiting until the fee is brought down later in the day.
As the year ends, the International Organization for Migration reports that over one million migrants and refugees flooded into Europe in 2015. They crossed the Mediterranean in flimsy boats, they climbed over razor wire and under fences and walked through Europe into Turkey, Hungry, Germany and elsewhere. Almost 4,000 have died in the process or were declared missing this year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Some chose to take one of the most extreme routes -- going all the way up to the Russian Arctic to a tiny remote border-post shared with Norway to cross on bicycle.
As temperatures have fallen below -3 degrees Fahrenheit, Russian border authorities have started ordering local traffickers to bus the refugees closer to the actual crossing, leaving the refugees to ride the last 200 meters across the border. Some of the more desperate though still ride a dozen miles from Nikel through the ice to reach the buses.
On the Norwegian side, buses pick up the refugees side to take them to a camp. On one of those buses was the Yahya family, Hussein, his wife Sara and their 18-month-old son Yusuf from Baghdad, who paid $4,000 to travel from Iraq.
He and his wife are dentists, on the run after they say a patient accidentally died in his clinic, their lives threatened by one of Iraq’s many powerful militias who accused Hussein of murder.
Like so many other refugees, the Yahyas didn’t want to leave their families, their home, their country behind, but they felt they had no choice.
“I feel I am in a safer place,” Hussein said, climbing off the bus in Norway. “I’m away from fear.”
Once in Norway, the refugees arrive at a camp made up of rows of trailer bunkhouses, where they are processed and outfitted with cold weather gear. The lucky ones will be flown to Southern Norway. Others from countries that Norway considers safe enough will be forced to go back.
Camp director Henry Osima said his goal was to give the refugees as warm a welcome as possible.
“Some of them said the bicycles are so bad that they cannot really carry the luggage, so they have been walking 17 kilometers from the Russian border until the Norwegian-Russian … checkpoint, to the Norwegian border,” Osima said. “And I fear that we are going to lose some lives. Somebody’s going to freeze to death somewhere. This is the worst scenario for me.”
For those fleeing, the relief of arriving in safety is often tainted by a sense of guilt and sometimes shame at having to accept their new status of refugees, as well as the pain of leaving loved ones behind. Becoming a refugee is for many a choice they wish they didn’t have to make.
“It’s not a great feeling…to accept that you are a refugee. It’s really hard to swallow,” Kinan said. “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 live like that. I don’t know I’m regretting my decision to emigrate. Yeah, I’m seriously regretting my decision.”
For so many of the hundreds of thousands trying to make their way to Europe, it’s not a decision at all, but a question of surviving and building a new life, and they’ll do whatever it takes to get there.