Norway deports refugees who biked across Russian border in sub-zero temperatures
Norway on Tuesday began a controversial new practice of sending migrants and refugees who battled freezing temperatures to cross the country's arctic border with Russia on bike, back across the border.
A bus with 13 people on board crossed the Russian border after departing from a reception center in the Norwegian town of Kirkenes on Tuesday night. It was -19 degrees Fahrenheit and snowing.
Norwegian authorities confirmed they began busing people back over the Russian border in a bid to crack down on asylum seekers entering the country. It is unclear where in Russia they were being brought or what would happen to them next but The Guardian reports they were initially taken to the Russian towns of Nikel and Murmansk.
In 2015, about 5,500 migrants and refugees, many of them Syrian, capitalized on a loophole that permits cyclists to pass through the northern Storskog crossing between Russia and Norway. The two countries prohibit people from crossing the border on foot or by car without proper documents, but cyclists were permitted to pass relatively freely at both ends for much of 2015.
But Sylvi Listhaug, the newly appointed Norwegian immigration minister promised in December to crack down on the flow of refugees into the country. She announced last week that all those who crossed at Storskog without an appropriate visa would risk being sent back to Russia.
Initially, local news outlets had reported those who crossed the border would be sent back exactly the way they came: by bike. But police later confirmed that the migrants and refugees would be transported by bus.
“If Norway is to have a fair asylum policy, we need to send back those who are not entitled to protection,” Listhaug told parliament on Tuesday evening, according to The Guardian.
Any refugee with a valid Russian visa would be deported, she said, defending the new policy. The deportations have been criticized in Norway and abroad, and activists and human rights groups worry that the deportations violate international law.
Norwegian migration lawyer Halvor Frihagen told Al Jazeera he believes the move violated European Union human rights laws.
"The asylum seekers are detained and have not been given the possibility to appeal the decisions. This is in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights, article 13," Frihagen told Al Jazeera. "Norway considers Russia a safe first country of asylum, despite several convictions in the European Court of Human Rights, including for detaining asylum seekers with a view of deporting them to Syria."
Refugees Welcome To The Arctic, a charity group that works to provide a warm reception for those entering Norway, posted a video of Tuesday's deportation and called it "a disgraceful day in Norwegian history."
" Norway is deporting refugees to Russia against UN recommendations to an asylum system that is near non-existent! Norway is deporting refugees to Russia against UN recommendations to an asylum system that is near non-existent!" read a Facebook post from the group.
The group posted that they feared what would become of those who were sent across the border back into Russia with limited resources.
Some of the asylum seekers still in Norway have reportedly begun a hunger strike.
Those who arrived in Norway last year were just a fraction of more than 1 million migrants and refugees who made their way to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa in the worst migration crisis the continent has seen since World War II. But Norway has been largely immune to the large influx of refugees because of its northerly location, despite the ongoing Syrian conflict that is driving much of the movement of people out of the region and into Europe.
Norway had pledged to resettle just 9,000 Syrian refugees as of the end of 2015.