Syrians buy bikes because Russian law bars travel on foot
Oslo: Russian border guards broke out laughing when Syrian refugee Wassem Khatib wobbled on a child’s bicycle towards a remote Arctic frontier post — struggling with a guitar, a rucksack and a heavy suitcase — to seek asylum in neighbouring Norway.
In a rare light-hearted moment in Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, Khatib said he had bought the old, rickety bicycle to comply with a Russian law barring travel on foot in the border zone.
“The bicycle didn’t work very well. The border guards were laughing,” said Khatib, 25, who arrived in Norway last week with his friend, Nabeeh Samaan, 31. They said they had travelled from Beirut via Russia to avoid military service in Syria.
After taking a taxi close to the border, Khatib said he had slung his guitar and rucksack on his back and pedalled the last 100 metres to the frontier, pulling his big black suitcase on small wheels. He said he almost fell off.
“My bicycle was bigger and easier to ride,” Samaan said, at a refugee centre in Oslo.
Police say at least 400 Syrians have reached Norway this year via a long, roundabout route across the Arctic frontier, formerly a Cold War outpost between Nato and the Soviet Union.
“Numbers are rising steadily,” Hans Moellebakken, police chief in the Norwegian town of Kirkenes near the border, said on Friday. In all of 2014, only a dozen refugees crossed the border.
For some, the route seems less risky and cheaper than a trip across the Mediterranean. Refugees have to leave their bicycles at the Norwegian border — Moellebakken estimated there are now about 150 — and are flown to Oslo.
Khatib and Samaan reckoned their trip cost $1,600 (Dh5,876) each.
After getting a visa to visit Russia, they flew from Beirut to Moscow on September 16 and flew the next day to the Russian Arctic port of Murmansk, where they got the taxi.
Russian taxis do not cross the border, partly because Norwegian police have fined drivers carrying refugees 6,000 kroner (Dh2,578), accusing them of human trafficking.
The shared taxi cost $500 each for the 220km from Murmansk — a package deal from the driver, with two second-hand bicycles included in the back of the car.
Asked if he found the price high, Khatib shrugged: “It’s high season for Syrian refugees.”
CYCLING TO NORWAY
Russian laws bar anyone from going on foot to the frontier and it is illegal under Norwegian law to willingly give a lift to people without proper identity papers, prompting some refugees to cover the final stretch by bicycle.
“Cycling is permitted under the Russian rules,” said Hans Moellebakken, police chief in the nearby Norwegian town of Kirkenes. “Most (coming across) have been individuals but there have been some families.”
Refugees who seek asylum in Norway are flown to Oslo for registration before their applications are considered, meaning they have to leave behind their bicycles, often brand new.
Police have a store of about 40 bikes at the border, Moellebakken said, many of them bought in an unexpected sales boom for a shop in the nearby Russian mining town of Nikel.
“We don’t know what will happen to them – maybe we will give them away,” Moellebakken said. Norwegian police have imposed fines of up to 6,000 Norwegian crowns ($722), including on a Russian bus company ferrying asylum seekers to the frontier.
Meanwhile, Finland’s government condemned a racist protest in which demonstrators — including one dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit — attacked a bus transporting asylum seekers in the early hours of Friday.
Public broadcaster Yle showed images of around 40 protesters — some with burning torches — throwing fireworks at a bus which was transporting asylum seekers, mostly families with children, to a new reception centre in the southern city of Lahti.
One of the protesters could be seen dressed in a white hood, a symbol of the racist American Ku Klux Klan, with a Finnish flag in his hand.
They also threw stones at Red Cross volunteers, although no one was hurt at the incident.
Prime Minister Juha Sipila condemned the attack on Twitter, saying “threats and violence against asylum seekers and migrants are absolutely unacceptable.”
“Finland’s government condemns last night’s racist protests against the asylum seekers who have come to the country. Violence and threatening behaviour is always indefensible,” a government statement said.
sources: Gulf News / Reuters / The Local