Nearly 1m cross Finland-Russia border this year despite restrictions

Two border guards watch traffic on Finland’s eastern border with Russia, June 2023. (Kare Lehtonen / Yle)

Finland closed its border to Russian tourists last year, but many Russian citizens are availing of still-valid Schenhen visas to continue crossing into Finland.

Finland closed its border to Russian tourists last year in response to the changing geopolitical situation following the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The decision was considered historic at the time — as it meant that Russian nationals would need special reasons to enter Finland — such as for work or to visit family members, and was expected to dramatically decrease the number of border crossings between the two nations.

However, the statistics tell a different story.

By the end of July, the Finnish Border Guard had recorded a total of 973,337 — or nearly one million — crossings of the eastern border, with roughly half arriving into Finland from Russia and the other half going in the opposite direction.

Since the widely-reported decision to restrict the right of Russian tourists to enter Finland, the issue of the eastern border has received scant media attention. Focus has instead switched to Norway’s northern border with Russia, as Norwegian authorities have allowed Russians on tourist visas to enter the country despite the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Up to the end of July, however, the number of crossings from Russia into Norway totalled just under 40,000 — a fraction of the nearly one million crossings on Finland’s eastern frontier.

This disparity is further highlighted by the difference in the number of Schengen visas issued by the two Nordic countries. Norway currently has 3,900 Schengen visas in force, while Finland has 120,000.

“The large number is due to the fact that Schengen visas can be issued as multiple-entry visas and are valid for a maximum of five years,” according to Katja Luopajärvi, Head of the Immigration Unit at the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“We still have valid visas that were issued before the 2019 deadline. The number is decreasing all the time, but the high number of valid visas is due to this.”

Finland and Norway adopt different policies

In addition to Finland, other Schengen area countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the Czech Republic have placed restrictions on Russian citizens crossing their borders.

Norway has adopted a different policy, however, allowing Russians to enter via holiday visas, a move which is seen as problematic by the Finnish Foreign Ministry.

“There have been media reports recently that Russians are arriving into Finland via Norway. This is difficult to prevent, because if they enter Norway legally, then this is treated as internal border traffic [meaning within the Schengen area]. This is a difficult phenomenon from our point of view, and we are having a discussion with Norway about it,” Luopajärvi said, adding that she understands why people find this “irritating”.

Eivind Vad Petersson, a State Secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Yle that Norway’s current visa policy is as strict as Finland’s.

“We have only one border crossing point with Russia in Norway. The threshold for new visas is as high as in Finland and most other European countries. We haven’t made any major changes so far, but we have a good dialogue with Finland and the issue is being assessed all the time,” Petersson said.

Russians entering Finland legally

According to figures obtained by Yle from the Finnish Border Guard, almost a quarter of a million Russian citizens were permitted to enter Finland between January and July this year while about 1,300 were refused entry.

The majority of Russians who have entered Finland have done so using Schengen or other types of visas, but the authority declined to give more specific details on which special categories of visas are permitted.

A Russian-registered vehicle arriving into Norway from Russia at the Storskog border crossing on 25 July 2023. (Tapani Leisti / Yle)

“The reasons for allowing entry in each case are not separately recorded,” Colonel Mikko Lehmus, Head of the Border Guard’s Situation and Risk Analysis Centre, told Yle in an email.

Lehmus added that the Border Guard also does not keep a track on whether Russians permitted to enter Finland then continue their journey to other Schengen countries.

The number of crossings on the Finland-Russia border peaked in 2013, when more than 12 million crossings were recorded. In the years before the Covid pandemic, this figure averaged around 8.5 million.

The figure for this year, so far, is therefore comparatively small — but not negligible given the wider geopolitical context.

Last November, the Finnish Border Guard announced that it would stop providing information on the number of people crossing the eastern border.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Northern premiers say Canada can’t have Arctic security without infrastructure, The Canadian Press

China: Satellite imagery reveals construction progress on new Chinese Antarctic base, Eye on the Arctic

Denmark: Danish policy prioritizes low-conflict Arctic amidst Russian tensions, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Trial fence on Finland-Russia border nears completion, Lapland phase next, Yle News

Iceland: Icelandic embassy suspends operations in Moscow, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Svalbard’s travails in a changing Arctic, Blog by Marc Lanteigne

United States: Russian, Chinese vessels near Alaska reminder of ‘new era of aggression’: Senators, Eye on the Arctic

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