OSLO KIRKENES (Norway) • An increasingly popular route for migrants across Russia and into Norway has Oslo angered and worried as winter approaches, while commentators suspect Moscow is deliberately creating problems for its neighbour.
Since the start of the year, around 4,000 asylum-seekers have made a long detour through the far north to cross the border between Russia and Norway, which is a member of the Schengen agreement on free movement even though it is not a member of the European Union.
By comparison, only 10 asylum- seekers made the crossing last year.
Foreign nationals (were) free to choose the border crossing and the country of their choice when they leave the Russian Federation.
RUSSIAN EMBASSY OFFICIAL
That Russia allows asylum-seekers to cross the highly-militarised region is sometimes seen by Norwegian commentators and media as a bid by Moscow to destabilise its smaller neighbour.
Mr Thomas Nilsen, editor-in- chief of online regional newspaper Independent Barents Observer, says it is "a provocation" decided "high up in Moscow", which he suggested could be aimed either at showing its muscle, punishing Oslo for adopting European sanctions against Moscow over Ukraine, or creating divisions in Norway.
With the Ukraine crisis as a backdrop, journalist Kjetil Stormak, a defence specialist, contends it is "a hybrid war", or a stealth aggression against Nato member Norway.
While the number of asylum- seekers remains small compared with the hundreds of thousands of migrants who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean, their number is steadily rising.
More than 1,100 asylum-seekers crossed the border last week .
"I came through Russia because it is the easiest way," Mr Rehman, a 34-year-old Pakistani said on Wednesday, shivering in the -8 deg C temperatures and asking for a hat.
Initially, news of migrants making a long detour through the Arctic had a whimsical quality to it: Migrants have to make the last section of their journey by bicycle because the Russian authorities do not let pedestrians cross the border, and Norway considers it human trafficking to transport migrants in a vehicle.
But the issue has since taken on a diplomatic dimension.
Noting that neighbouring Finland, a member of the EU but not of Nato, has received almost no migrants via Russia, Oslo asked Moscow for an explanation, but has not received a "satisfactory response", Norwegian authorities said.
On Tuesday, the Russian Embassy in Oslo said "foreign nationals (were) free to choose the border crossing and the country of their choice when they leave the Russian Federation".
Norway has so far ruled out closing its border, a move that would likely anger Moscow.
But Norway wants to quickly find a solution. Refugees "have seen this as a safe route to Europe now. That will change now when the winter is coming", said Mr Joran Kallmyr, state secretary in the Justice Ministry.