Nor­we­gians laugh at new fence on Rus­sian bor­der

Malta Independent - - WORLD -

“We don’t want this fence,” says taxi driver Syvonne Tucker. “We want to have this re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia in the same way we’ve been hav­ing for all these years.” Head­ing on the E105 high­way to­wards the Nor­we­gian bor­der, she says she many other res­i­dents in her town of Kirkenes in the far north of Nor­way feel the same. “It’s like if some­one in your back gar­den put up a two-me­tre fence, you would won­der why your neigh­bour is do­ing this.” The Nor­we­gian govern­ment says the steel fence is needed to tighten se­cu­rity at the road cross­ing into Europe’s pass­port-free Schen­gen zone. It is around 200m long and four me­tres high. Last year around 5,500 asy­lum seek­ers, many from Syria, crossed into Nor­way at the bor­der post af­ter tak­ing the so-called Arc­tic route into Europe. Kirkenes res­i­dents joke that in­trud­ers could eas­ily walk or swim around the 200m con­struc­tion, but on closer in­spec­tion it is con­nected to an older, thin­ner fence that runs the length of the bor­der. Even with­out the fence this story had an el­e­ment of farce. Thou­sands of migrants crossed Nor­way’s Arc­tic bor­der by bike last year, be­cause by law they could not go over by foot. Two con­trac­tors are toil­ing away in the spongy un­der­growth on a con­struc­tion site close to the Storskog bor­der post. They’re con­nect­ing cables to link up a CCTV network that will run along the fence. At the bor­der post it­self, a group of el­derly Rus­sian ladies is cross­ing into Nor­way, on their weekly trip to Kirkenes to sell Rus­sian goods to Nor­we­gians and tourists. Since the fall of the Iron Cur­tain, the au­thor­i­ties on both sides of the bor­der have worked to strengthen ties, with visa-free travel for lo­cal res­i­dents. Many lo­cal Nor­we­gians travel into Rus­sia to buy cheaper petrol and al­co­hol, while Rus­sians travel into Nor­way to buy con­sumer goods like nap­pies and cof­fee. “If the Nor­we­gian au­thor­i­ties are build­ing fences, then they must need it,” says Rus­sian mar­ket trader Zoya Mashkova. “And it’s right, too, be­cause it’s not just the Syr­ian refugees who come here. Some peo­ple we ran into are not nec­es­sar­ily from Syria or Africa, but pos­si­bly from parts of south­ern Rus­sia.” How­ever, the head of the Nor­we­gian As­so­ci­a­tion for Asy­lum Seek­ers fears the fence sends out the wrong mes­sage to peo­ple gen­uinely in need of help. “We think it’s hope­less, it’s only a sym­bolic ges­ture, but we think it’s a re­ally wrong sym­bolic ges­ture,” says Ann-Magrit Austena. In April the Nor­we­gian par­lia­ment pre­sented a new asy­lum and im­mi­gra­tion bill that en­ables of­fi­cials to refuse en­try to any­one who did not come di­rectly from a con­flict zone. In the cap­i­tal Oslo, some 2,000km away, the govern­ment re­jects claims that the new fence is “anti-mi­grant”. The whole de­bate sur­round­ing the fence is, for Deputy Jus­tice Min­is­ter Ove Vanebo, a “storm in a tea-cup” and he in­sists Rus­sia has been con­sulted about the fence all along. “We have a very good work­ing di­a­logue with the Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties, and we also have to re­mem­ber that the fence on the Rus­sian side is much longer, if I re­mem­ber cor­rectly 200km, which means [the fence] is noth­ing com­pared with what we al­ready have.” Con­struc­tion of the fence was due to be com­pleted within weeks, but there is a prob­lem. A sec­tion of the fence will have to be dug up and re­built be­cause it was erected too close to Rus­sia’s bor­der line. “It’s now go­ing to cost even more money than be­fore,” says Syvonne in Kirkenes. “The whole fence is a joke.”

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