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Norway - Storskog Border Fence

By mid-2016 Norway began building a steel fence at a remote Arctic border post with Russia to halt the influx of migrants that over the past year had sparked an outcry from refugees' rights groups and fears of reigniting cross-border tensions with a former Cold War adversary. By prevailing community standards, this was not much of a fence, as it was little more than a perimeter fence at a border crossing, extending about 0.1% of the length of the border with Russia.

Russia still maintains a fence the length of the 196 km frontier with NATO member Norway, sometimes several kilometers back from the dividing line. It had not complained about the Norwegian plans to build a fence.

Norway's government said the a new gate and a fence about 200 meters long and 3.5 meters high, stretching from the Storskog border point was needed to tighten security at a northern outpost of Europe's passport-free Schengen zone. The fence was erected in the August and September, before winter frosts set in, to make it harder to slip into Norway via the forest. Workers had done some preparatory work, clearing away old wooden barriers put up to control reindeer herds.

The construction of the fence reflected a wider shift in public attitudes against refugees. This is seen too in Sweden, Norway's neighbor, which was once touted as a "humanitarian superpower", but is setting up border controls this year and had toughened asylum rules.

For decades, the Nordics have enjoyed the image of being a reliable haven for asylum seekers. In 2015 Norway saw a record of 31,000 migrants seek asylum, but following the introduction of border controls and new restrictive policies by the government the number of such applicants has dramatically decreased. During that year, a total of 5,500 migrants crossed the Norwegian-Russian border at Storskog with just 67 of those being accepted as legitimate asylum seekers by the authorities of the Scandinavian country.

The Directorate of Immigration (UDI) had by late June 2016 processed more than 4,300 Storskog applications. Of them got 2031 off, and these were 670 deported. A part of those who had been rejected came from countries that were difficult to be returned to. As many as 1352 Storskog asylum seekers had disappeared from reception. Norwegian authorities did not know where these are located, but it was likely that a proportion of these have left the country.

Refugee groups and some opposition politicians said Norway's fence will deter people fleeing persecution and is an unwelcome echo of the Cold War in a region where relations have generally flourished since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

"The gate and the fence are responsible measures," Deputy Justice Minister Ove Vanebo said, defending the move. So far in 2016, no one had sought asylum via the northern frontier, according to the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration. Both Moscow and Oslo have cracked down on the Arctic route, one that a few refugees found less risky than crossing the Mediterranean by boat, since last year's inflow of migrants.

"I can't see a need for a fence. There are too many fences going up in Europe today," said Rune Rafaelsen, the mayor of the Soer-Varanger region which includes the border, told Reuters, pointing to barbed wire in nations such as Hungary. "We've an obligation to be a country people can flee to," said Linn Landro, of the Refugees Welcome group in Norway. "The fence sends a very negative signal, including to Russia because it says that 'we don't trust you'."

"As a Mayor of Sr-Varanger it is very important to have a civil approach at the border. We have worked for more cross-border activity for more than 20 years. For me the fact that 5,000 (half of the population) in my town has got the local traffic agreement (visa-free travel) is what I mean is a civil approach," he said, without elaborating on how the fence would hamper these agreements.

Norwegians and Russians in the region can visit one another visa-free for short trips. About 250,000 people crossed the border in 2015, a decline from recent years but a large number in comparison with just 5,000 a year in the Cold War.

Fencing on the border between Russia and Norway, which is being built at the initiative of the Norwegian government, might be suspended. Due to the builders fault, it is being erected too close to the boundary line. As Verdens Gang newspaper reported 27 September 2016, the wire fence will have to be removed 50 meters aside, since the distance between the structure and the territory of Russia had been calculated incorrectly.

According to the agreement between two countries, construction of any barriers is prohibited at a distance less than four meters from the boundary line. Construction work costed Norway some 4 million krones, that is about US$500,000. Norwegian government made a decision to build a fence with the length of 200 meters and height of 3,5 meters on the border with Russia, in order to stop mass influx of migrants from Africa and Middle East.






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