Following The Path Of Refugees

The Chairman of Civic Assistance Committee Svetlana Gannushkina has followed a north route of refugees, to the border with Norway. And she came back with a story about bicycles, Norway’s migration novelties and why even those, who can stay in Russia, leave our country.

Following The Path Of Refugees

Last week I was able to visit the border three times, where Syrians, Afghans, Africans, desperate to get asylum in Russia, are moving to Norway. The mass exodus from Russia to Norway began in August this year. Over 200 people were crossing the border daily. In total, more than 5 thousand people arrived within a short period in a small country with a population of 5 million people.

Norwegian authorities were not ready for this. So, at first local community of the border town of Kirkenes assumed the burden, assisting refugees with food, clothes and transport. Norwegian Red Cross joined the work. A project called “Friend”, drafted specifically to help refugees, has received funding from International Committee of the Red Cross. Only in October the authorities entered into an agreement with a commercial organisation for construction of a camp in Kirkenes.

I’ve heard that the locals were somewhat affected by the fact that “southerners”, people, sent from Oslo, had been employed for the work in the camp.

Now the flow of refugees has diminished, but anyway about 20 people cross the border daily.

Our colleagues from Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) invited me to visit refugee camp in Kirkenes, to see how refugees are accomodated there, to learn about the newest changes in Norwegian legislation, which makes it difficult for fugitives to apply for asylum in Norway. And to see how refugees cross the border between two countries.

New Procedure

I arrived in Murmansk, where I was met by local activists, who brought me to Kirkenes. They had a seminar for local residents there, who were for some reason interested to know about the problems of our NGOs related to the “foreign agents” law.

On the way, in the village of Titovka, we met a group of refugees, about ten people, who were waiting for transport to be brought to the border.

The first border crossing was not of particular interest. We all had visas. We got out of the car, Russian border guards stamped our passports. We got back into the car and crossed the border, got out of the car again, got the stamps on the Norwegian part of the border and drove on.

At 4 p.m. it was already quite dark, the polar night began. Only one refugee family with three children was waiting for documents’ control.

They speak Russian fluently, lived in Russia for 5 years, in Krasnodar region, but failed to legalize their status. They answer questions with caution, a boy of 12 only translates what his grandmother says. A 4-year-old baby was born in Russia.

In Kirkenes we met with members of NHC led by their permanent chairman Bjorn Engesland and went to the refugee camp.

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There we met Norwegian organisaton for protection of asylum seekers’ rights, which offers consultation on legal and other issues to refugees. They speak individually with every refugee in their native language.

In this photo I’m together with the members of the non-governmental organisation. All of them are Norwegian citizens, except one, who is still waiting for his passport. The organisation has concluded an agreement with the state. Its members have already questioned more than 1000 refugees from different countries. Many of these refugees lived in Russia  for more than 10 years. Some of them were granted temprorary asylum. Refugees say that they got it for money, but there were not enough for all family members, so they’ve decided to leave Russia.

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Our colleagues from NHC and activists, working in the camp, are deeply concerned with just adopted changes in Norwegian legislation, which provide accelerated procedure. They are afraid of not having enough time to work with refugees and explain them the legislation before first interview. Norwegian authorities claim that 90% of newcomers are economic migrants. Activists believe that people start to talk about themselves, mentioning economic reasons. But they don’t have time to clarify that the source of their problems are poltics and military actions.

Activists don’t comprehend the adopted changes on a full scale. They have received an instruction, which is not clear enough. They note several problems:

— it is not always clear how the responsibilities are distributed in the camp, camp employees have to search for a man, who are responsible for social and other issues. There are beds, but a woman with a child sleeps on the floor;

— if the asylum is denied, a person should leave the country within three days, but people don’t have money, they don’t know about the existence of IOM (International Organisation of Migration), which should help them to leave;

— there is no clear information, to whom the accelerated procedure  — interview within three hours and the response from Oslo within 48 hours — will be applied;

— migration service, which charges to the activists counseling of asylum seekers, don’t give them full information;

— probably, the migration service itself doesn’t possess this information, but should already work in a new way;

— the changes have been introduced without a transitional period;

Summing up all what we were told about the novelties in the legislation, they are as follows:

Refugees, arriving in Norway from Russia, will be interviewed right at the border. A decision will be taken in Oslo on the basis of first interview. Those, who have right to stay legally in Russia, will be brought back to Russia. Citizens of the countries, not being in a state of war, will be sent back home. This applies to сitizens of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and inhabitants of peaceful regions of Afganistan.

Others will stay in the camp for some time and then will be sent to other cities and towns in Norway.

New camp in 20 days

Next morning we went back to the refugee camp. There were 285 people at that moment. We were met by camp’s head Henry Osima.

The camp was set up in just three weeks before our visit. Previously people used to live in a sports complex. The camp is designed for 285 places, but more than one thousand people have already passed through it. It took only 20 days to construct a camp from scratch.  Mr.Osima is very proud of the camp and its stuff.

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In the camp refugees first enter the room of initial admission, where they are offered fruits, so they can immediately feel the hospitality of the host country. They are completely disguised, their clothes get packed and sent to be frozen out for 48 hours. They also get tested for tuberculosis.

There is information for newcomers, written in Arab, English and Russian.

After the changing people are sent to an interview and then accomodate in the camp’s prefabricated houses.

We gave a look on how refugees live there, shamelessly violating their sleep.

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Few of them let us to take pictures or wanted to talk to us. However, I found there some old acquaintances.

It was really said to listen to their answer at my question: what was the difference between their situation in Norway and their experience in Russia? “Here we are treated like human beings!”, they all said.

In the camp I met a Syrian Omar, he wanted to take a picture with me. He had met Anya, a young woman from Ukraine, in our organisation. They have been together for an year, Anya is pregnant. They both want to be together again. Omar gave me the money, remaining after the travel, to pass it to Anya.

He also did this photo for her. I’d like this story to have a happy ending.

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On the bike

Together with NHC member Lene Vetteland we went across the border to Murmansk. There were no refugees this time. Only one of them was fixing his bike.

Why a bicycle? Because we, humans, are amazing creatures. Generally speaking, we are not great at logic. But sometimes, when we don’t really need it, it suddenly appears. The point of border crossing, through which we entered Norway, is the point of border crossing for vehicles. We passed it by car.  But carriers take refugees only up to the border. It’s impossible to cross it on foot. Because it’s only for vehicles. And so this vehicle became a bike, from three wheeler to the largest. People buy a bike and bring it to the border. There they fix it and cross the border on it. And what about me if I can’t ride a bike? I was told that it’s simple: I should hold the handlebars and carry the bike nearby. That is I’m not on the bike, but with the bike. I suppose no one would understand what’s the point of all this. But the fact is that bicycles demand is huge to delight of manufacturers.

Moreover, a bike is of one-time action. It should be discarded after border crossing. It’s impossible to return bikes back to Russia. Norwegians can’t accept it. And not because they want to use these bikes, but because it entered the territory of Norway not like a commodity, but like a vehicle. So, it can be brought back only with a passenger, who doesn’t want to get back. And Norwegians can’t ride our bikes, because our bikes don’t satisfy Norwegian requirements; they aren’t equipped with some kind of second brake. So bikes are being sent right to scrap. This is their sad destiny. And human rights aren’t applied to them.

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Next day I drove back to the border with a carrier and two refugees. One of them was from Syria, he had spent in Russia only two days.  His parents used their saving to make his trip possible, wishing to save him from the war. The second one was from Iraq, he lived in Russia for 8 years.

On the way we met a little fox, who went out from the woods, she stood for a long, waiting us to  offer her some food. Unfortunately, we  had no any food. She may be fed usually by some  refugees.

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This time refugees were taken to the border in several vans. In one of these vans there was an Afghan family with many children.

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Our Iraqi was not permitted to cross the border. Border guards didn’t like his passport for some reason. A week later he came to us in Civic Assistance Committee. He needed urgent assitance in appealing a decision on his expulsion. He had istigated this decision himself, because Russian border guards don’t let foreign citizens leave Russia, if they don’t have valid visa or any other ground for a legal stay. This is a direct violation of the Article 27 Part 2 of the Russian Constitution: “Everyone may freely leave the Russian Federation.” Our  lawyer wrote a complaint, but who knows what Moscow City Court will decide.

In Murmansk we met the Consul of Norway with his stuff. And everybody, journalists, first of all, asked me the same question: who had organised this refugee flow from Russia to Norway?

The answer is simple — nobody! The information on a possibility to get to the place, where you’ll be treated like a human being,  passes from mouth to mouth. And, of course, people are trying not to miss their chance to get to this place.

They asked me another question, a little bit quieter though: why don’t they go to Finland? So, there is a reliable information that they are going. So, soon I’ll have to go to see how refugees are being hosted by Finns.

Moreover, journalists and human rights activists have asked me how I feel abot the fact, that Norway has toughened its laws and seek to stem the refugee flow. What can I answer them? Certainly, the right to seek for asylum, if there are grounds for it, must be protected. But how can I, a citizen of Russia, say what Norway should do, if this right is simply ignored in Russia? The case of Ukranian refugees is only an exception which proves the rule. It is sad to recognize this, and I have nothing to answer journalists’ questions. I think that Norwegian colleagues invited me to hear my strong condemnation of their authorities. Well, I’m afraid that I’ve disappointed them.

By Svetlana Gannushkina, Chairman of Civic Assistance Committee

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