Russia luring migrants from Finnish border for war in Ukraine

Migrants in a tent on the Russian side of the Salla crossing
Image caption,Many migrants who gathered on the Russian side of the Finnish border have been detained because of out-of-date visas

Russia is trying to recruit foreign migrants, detained in a recent sweep at its border with Finland, for its war in Ukraine.

The BBC has seen evidence of several cases in which foreigners were rushed into a military camp on the border with Ukraine, days after they were picked up for breaching immigration laws.

The practice of coercing people in pre-deportation detention centres to sign contracts for army service in Ukraine is not new, but the numbers swelled as foreign migrants arrived at Russia’s 1,340-km (833-mile) border with Finland.

Finland temporarily closed all eight of its Russian border crossings, accusing Moscow of channelling migrants and asylum seekers there as part of a destabilisation campaign after the government in Helsinki joined Nato earlier this year.

Analysis of court hearings in Karelia, one of three Russian regions bordering Finland, showed that in the past three weeks, 236 people were arrested for staying in Russia without valid visas, destined for deportation. The picture was similar in the other two border regions of Leningrad and Murmansk.

Among those appearing in court in Karelia was a Somali man in his 40s, who was arrested in mid-November, sentenced to a fine of 2,000 roubles (£17; €20) and detained pending deportation – a standard procedure for anyone without an appropriate visa.

Awad and at least a dozen other inmates held in the pre-deportation centre in Petrozavodsk, Karelia’s capital, were approached by military representatives soon after their arrest and were offered “a job for the state”. They were promised good pay, medical care and permission to stay in Russia on completing a one-year army contract.

Awad is not his real name, but the BBC has confirmed his identity.

He had arrived in Russia in mid-July and went to neighbouring Belarus, trying for months to enter Poland. By early November, he said internet chat groups popular with asylum seekers were abuzz with news that the Russian border with Finland had become more accessible.

A view of Finnish border guards and police at the Raja-Jooseppi international border crossing station
Image caption,The last of eight Finnish border crossings was temporarily shut last week

Unprecedented numbers of migrants began turning up at Finland’s border and applying for refugee status.

Finnish authorities accused Russia of encouraging the influx and abandoning their usual visa checks for travellers entering the border zone.

They highlighted the organised distribution of bicycles, most of them brand new, which migrants used to cover the last stretch of the Russian border zone, bypassing Russia’s ban on approaching its border posts on foot.

Finland’s last border crossing at Raja-Jooseppi shut on 29 November, although authorities in Helsinki were planning to reopen the border later this month. Those arriving by air or sea can still seek asylum.

Awad told the BBC that he hired a taxi on 14 November and, along with another Somali migrant, was driven for several hours from St Petersburg to Lakhdenpokhya, a town in Karelia 30km from the Finnish border.

They were acting on their own and no-one had helped them, he maintained.

Map of closed border posts

His case was typical. His month-long visa had run out in August and when the taxi was stopped by police for a check, he was arrested. Awad and a dozen other people were sentenced the next day and moved to the detention centre.

Human rights groups say that foreigners using Russia as a transit point in their journey to the West routinely overstay their short-term visas while trying to cross borders with EU countries.

So when police began arresting those who did not have valid Russian visas in mid-November, it marked a change in Russia’s approach to migrants at the Finnish border.

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