Syrians try unusual, but safer, route to Europe: Bicycling into Norway
Immigration law prevents crossing of the border between Russia and Norway without a visa by car or on foot, but desperate refugees are avoiding the dangerous sea crossing by using bicycles to enter Norway.
Refugees fleeing Middle East violence for safety in Europe have used any means necessary, employing inflatable rafts, criminal smuggling gangs and, now, bicycles.
The direct border crossing between Norway and Russia at Storskog, in the Arctic Circle, opened only within the last three years, the Barents Observer reported. Russia does not allow foot traffic at the border, and in an effort to deter human trafficking, Norway is clamping down on drivers who bring travelers across. Many are now cycling across the border.
"No bus or taxi will take the Syrians to Norway because they do not have valid visas and the drivers would be fined by the Norwegians and stripped of their permits to work on international routes," an unnamed source told Reuters. "The local shops are empty of bicycles."
Some 1,200 refugees have crossed into Norway this year, but by Oct. 29, the Russian town of Nickel had become a bottleneck for 500 refugees after the town ran out of bicycles, Reuters reported. Meanwhile, the bikes pile up on the Norwegian side, and police don't want to send them elsewhere because the cheap bicycles don't meet Norway's safety standards, Norway's national news agency NRK reported.
An Arabic-language Facebook page started in October with maps and guidance about the route from Syria to Norway, and Syrians who have made the trip say it was slower but safer than southern routes.
"By sea, it's dangerous," Ahmad Taleb, a 25-year-old Syrian Kurd who had biked across the border and been flown to Oslo, told Agence France-Presse. "But if you buy the visa (for Russia), you just pay and you go. That way is faster and safer."
The Norwegian government, while issuing a stern warning to Syrians living safely in Russia not to misuse the program, is trying to handle the situation with grace.
"Given the situation in other parts of Europe, the number of refugees in the north is very low and can easily be handled," Pål Nesse of the Norwegian Refugee Council told the Barents Observer in early September. "This is still not a problem."
The local Norwegians are also trying to offer a warm reception into their chilly country.
"Some (of the locals) express their concern in social media that there are too many foreigners arriving, but I think they are a minority," Trude Pettersen, a Norwegian reporter told TakePart. "Many people are working as volunteers at the reception centers, and people are collecting winter clothes, winter shoes, and toys to give to the refugees."