HELSINKI (Reuters) – Finland will set up barriers at four crossings on its border with Russia from midnight in an effort to stop a surge in migrants that Helsinki says is being coordinated by Moscow, officials said on Friday.
Finland accused Russian authorities of directing migrants to the crossings in response to its decision to increase defense cooperation with the United States, which the Kremlin rejected.
The Finnish Border Guard said that barriers will be set up at four of the nine crossings with Russia, in Valima, Noigama, Imatra and Nirala in the southeast of the country, and the stations will remain closed to all traffic until February 18.
Finnish public broadcaster YLE reported that the first physical confrontation between border guards and migrants occurred at the Nirala border station before 1900 local time (1700 GMT), more than an hour before the station was scheduled to close.
The YLE station saw one migrant stopped due to a chemical irritant while others were pushed back by border guards after a group of about 30 migrants arrived at the Nirala station from Russia on foot and bicycles and attempted to storm the entry point.
“Our goal is to use barriers to prevent entry,” Matti Pitcanetti, head of international affairs for the Border Patrol, told reporters. He added that these measures came in response to changes in Russian border policy.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that Finland is making a “big mistake” by choosing the path of confrontation with Russia, TASS news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying on Friday.
“(One can) only express deep regret that the Finnish authorities have taken the path of destroying bilateral relations,” TASS quoted Peskov as saying.
About 300 asylum seekers, mostly from Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Syria, arrived in Finland this week, according to the border guard.
Nearly 100 people had entered Finland from Russia by midday on Friday alone, officials said.
Finland shares a 1,340 km (833 mi) border with Russia which also serves as the external border of the European Union.
Helsinki angered Moscow when it joined NATO last April after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, after decades of non-alignment.
Pitcaniti said that as of Saturday, asylum seekers arriving via Russia would only be allowed to hand in their applications at two northern border crossings, at Sala and Vartius.
Finland’s non-discrimination ombudsman said on Thursday that Helsinki remains obligated under international treaties and EU law to allow asylum seekers to seek protection.
The European Union’s border agency Frontex told Reuters it would send officers to Finland to help protect the border.
“We… are preparing to provide immediate assistance through the additional deployment of our permanent officers,” a Frontex spokesperson said in an email.
On Thursday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen thanked the Finnish authorities for protecting the bloc’s external borders. “Russia’s exploitation of migrants is shameful,” she added.
(Reporting by Issy Lehto and Anne Kuranen; Reporting by Mohammed for the Arabic Bulletin; Preparing by Mohammed for the Arabic Bulletin) Additional reporting by Jan Strubczewski in the Brussels and Moscow bureaus; Editing by Terje Solsvik, Gareth Jones, Andrew Heavens, and Jonathan Oatis
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