The Russia-Finland border was once the focus of Cold War hostility. Now the Finns and Russians are working together to stop people and drug traffickers opening up new smuggling routes. Monocle goes on patrol with the Finnish border guards.
During the night a fresh fall of snow has covered the ground. Now, with the sun barely up, the forest is quiet – apart from the enthusiastic sniffing of the German shepherd dog Kasper, who seems to search for something under every stone and behind every tree. For him, this may be play, but the two men walking behind him are hard at work.
Virgin snow that reveals fresh tracks is a dream come true for the Finnish guards patrolling their country’s border with Russia – an attractive crossing for illegal migrants and their traffickers. “We wish we had new snow every night,” says Vesa Partanen, chief of the border guard of the Lappeenranta area in the south-east of the country, a three-hour train-ride from Helsinki, as he gazes over the barbed-wire fence towards Russia.
Finland is living in interesting times. In December 2007, nearby Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined the so-called Schengen area along with the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia. Finland joined in 2001. Now with 28 European members, the territory covered by the Schengen Agreement stretches from Arctic Norway in the north to Greece in the south.
Created by measures agreed in 1985 and 1990 by European states (all but three members are also part of the eu) the agreement abolishes border controls between all participants. So an illegal immigrant who gets into Finland is then free to roam. Similarly, get into Estonia and nobody will check your passport when you take the short ferry-ride from capital Tallinn across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki. That’s why Finland is increasingly being used as a route for everyone from legitimate refugees to drug smugglers eager to find ways into the EU.
That’s also why Finland’s border with Russia is under 24-hour surveillance by both patrols and CCTV cameras. The area around Nuijamaa – one of just 10 legal crossing points on the 1,340km-long Russian-Finnish border – is one of the busiest in the country for attempted illegal crossings.
Last year, 19 people were caught here trying to enter the country by walking through the forest. Another 900 were turned back at the passport control because they had insufficient or falsified documents. More than 1,000 fake documents were detected at the border, including passports, visas and invitation letters to attend business meetings in Finland.
“When the Soviet Union still existed, we had virtually no illegal crossing attempts,” Partanen says. “Some people said that the situation would change dramatically after the Soviet Union collapsed. It didn’t change dramatically then, but it’s changing gradually now.”
The Finnish-Russian border has long been a dividing line not just between two countries but two ideologies. In the Soviet-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40, the largely western-minded Finns fought for their independence against the Soviet Union and won. Stalin’s Red Army attacked Finland after the government declined to cede key parts of the country to the USSR, their aim being to occupy the entire country.
In August that year, Stalin and Hitler had divided eastern Europe between them in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, leaving Finland isolated in the Soviet sphere of influence. Finland lost some territory in its southeastern part, notably the region of Karelia, but managed to avoid the fate that met the Baltic countries, which would only regain their independence in the 1990s. Unlike most other states on the European continent Finland was never occupied by foreign forces during the Second World War.
In the decades following the Second World War Finland became a world leader in IT and forest-based industries, surpassing its neighbour in economic prosperity and moving politically further away from its influence. In the 1990s when Finland joined the EU the border became an even clearer divide between the East and the West.
Today, few of the people seeking to cross the Finnish border illegally are Russian nationals. More often they are citizens of other countries, often having paid a hefty sum to a trafficker to get them across Russia and ultimately wishing to work in southern Europe, Germany or the UK. Finland is just the window through which they can climb into the Schengen area.
At Vainikkala, the crossing point for passenger trains between Finland and Russia, as many as 125 nationalities get their passports checked each year. Some of them come in for special attention. “They are countries of which we have prior knowledge, for instance regarding forged passports,” says Partanen. One of these countries is Moldova.
“We had lots of Moldovan citizens trying to cross the border illegally, both through the forest and the border crossing points. In November, we exposed a human trafficking case involving 10 people. They’d been put inside a box in the back of a caravan,” Partanen recalls. In January this year, three Greek nationals were jailed for their part in organising the failed operation.
Partanen points out, however, that the Finns deal with small numbers compared with some EU borders in central or southern Europe – Romania or Greece for instance – where there are thousands of illegal border crossing attempts every year. So how does Finland manage to keep the numbers so low? “We aim to uncover all the cases and publicise them openly, both to the Russians and the media here. We want to send out a message: Finland guards its borders so well that it’s not even worth trying,” says Partanen. At the Nuijamaa checkpoint, a steady stream of trucks and cars snails towards the customs and passport checks. Lately, the truck queues have been stretching kilometres, and the border guard has been forced to start building a huge carpark to ease the lines.
Truck drivers jump out of their vehicles and declare their cargo – mainly wood being transported from Russia to Finland and cars, consumer electronics, clothing and building material in the other direction – and then get their documents checked by the border officials. Tourists, shoppers and businessmen stand in the crowded passport control booth, while the black Labrador dog Romu searches their cars outside.
Traffic across Finland’s eastern border is growing constantly: last year a record number of more than one million trucks and five million people crossed the border. Russian tourists have become a common sight in Finnish towns, arriving for weekend trips to shop, ski or just relax. Some have built holiday homes on the highly priced shores of the nearby lake Saimaa – a fact that has led to protests from some landowners in Finland. For historical reasons, many people are opposed to even an inch of Finnish soil being sold to the Russians. But there are as many that appreciate the money the Russians bring in. Currently, there are more speakers of Russian living in Finland than in the beginning of the 20th century when Finland still belonged to Russia’s Tsars.
“The standard of living has traditionally been far higher in Finland,” explains Partanen, but adds: “That is not necessarily the case anymore. Ten years ago we would see 10 Ladas coming in for each Mercedes, while today, it’s the opposite. But the availability of different goods is still better in Finland in some cases: cars, food and clothing.”
Along with the tourists and legally transported goods, there are also drugs, and illegal movements of cigarettes, alcohol, medicine and computer software that make their way to the Schengen area. Cocaine, heroin and amphetamines are the main problems. “It works like any business. If there is a demand for it, there is a supply,” says Petri Kukkonen, head of the Finnish customs in Nuijamaa.
Although the drugs seized here are usually intended for personal use, organised smugglers also keep an eye on the Finnish-Russian route and the authorities are worried about a possible increase in drug trafficking and illegal immigration because of the Schengen enlargement. How will Finland deal with the increased security threats?
“The customs are naturally worried about the border guards leaving the harbours,” admits Kukkonen. “That enables freer movement from the Baltics to Finland, from where we’ve traditionally seen an inflow of drugs.” The authorities continually tighten their means for exposing both drug and people smugglers – x-raying trucks and using dogs, heartbeat detectors and carbon-dioxide detectors, for instance – but Kukkonen makes no secret of the fact that he thinks smugglers are often one step ahead of the customs and the police.
“It’s a race. As soon as we find a way to get them, they change their routes. The most efficient way to prevent smuggling is cooperation between authorities, especially the border guard and the customs. The places are the same: where you can fit 50 cartons of cigarettes, you can also fit a person,” he says.
The smuggling of drugs and goods falls under the authority of the Finnish customs and the smuggling of people under the border guard. In practice, however, either can uncover crimes on the other one’s turf. Cross-border contacts with the Russian authorities are also vital. The Finns meet their Russian colleagues regularly, and the Russians often catch illegal border crossers on their own side or tip off the Finns about suspicious activities.
Back in the forest, young border guards Aaro Brännare and Antti Myllykangas continue their cold shift. Listening to Finnish pop-music, they race their dark-blue van along the snowy roads. Arriving at a clearing, they put on their skis and head for the woods.
Moving here isn’t easy. The snow lies on top of a hard blanket of ice. Distances are long. Sometimes, the temperature drops to -30C, and the snow can get as much as 60cm deep. Snow shoes, snow mobiles and all-terrain vehicles are necessary to navigate the forests. It’s difficult for the illegal border crossers as well. Usually they attempt to cross via the checkpoint or very close to it. If they choose the forest, they may run into the border patrol, but also into wolves or bears. Their chances improve if they make it into a city and manage to organise further transport. The villages around the border are, however, very small. “Most often the villagers notice a newcomer and alert us,” says Partanen. If someone is caught and taken into custody, a few options remain. If no crime is suspected, most illegal crossers are simply turned back. Otherwise, they are free to seek asylum. Finland now has 11 reception centres where asylum seekers receive such basics as accommodation, social welfare and health services while they wait for a decision.
Last year, around 828 of the 1,929 applicants were granted asylum. So for a minority, the dream of a better life in the EU became more tangible.
For each kilometre of Swiss border there is, on average, one armed guard. Although 40 per cent of them are constantly moving, migrants still get in – an estimated 6,000 illegal immigrants managed to enter in 2006.
Switzerland will have a harder time controlling immigration after November this year when it joins the Schengen area (see main copy) but the country will no longer allow asylum seekers rejected by other European states to apply for entry.
In 2007, 121,000 migrants were allowed entry but laws were enacted in January 2008 that tighten asylum access. They replace the system that allowed low-skilled workers with annual permits to settle permanently after 36 months. Now, unqualified labour migrants from outside the European Economic Area can’t enter. “Switzerland does not restrict immigration if the economy needs manpower,” says George Sheldon, professor of economics at the University of Basel, and a member of the commission that developed the law against unqualified labour. He says the law is simply responding to market forces.
But Gianni D’Amato, professor of migration and citizenship studies at the University of Neuchâtel, believes racism is behind this stance. Balkan and African immigrants are especially vulnerable, he says. “Second generation migrants have no social mobility either as they are not welcomed into the labour force,” he states. D’Amanto predicts these policies will dominate the agenda now the rightwing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) is the country’s strongest political party.
Border guard stations: 35
Coast guard stations: 26
Patrol ships: 6
Russian border length: 1,340 km