Finland says Russian guards likely 'heavily involved' in migrant surge at border

A border guard vehicle moves bicycles used by asylum seekers to cross the border to Finland to an impound warehouse at the Nuijamaa border crossing station

By Essi Lehto and Anne Kauranen

HELSINKI (Reuters) - The Finnish Border Guard said on Tuesday Russian authorities were likely heavily involved in transporting migrants to two border crossings that remain open as Finland seeks to curb the flow of migrants from Russia.

More than 500 asylum seekers, mostly from Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Iraq, have arrived in Finland - an eastern outpost of the European Union - via Russia in a sudden surge over the past two weeks, prompting Helsinki to shut half its border crossings and accuse Moscow of funnelling migrants to its border. Moscow denies the charge.

As Helsinki considers closing the entire border, the migrants have been arriving from Russia bundled into cars and trucks and then dropped off and handed bicycles near the Finnish border for the final stretch, the head of the Finnish Border Guard's legal division, Tomi Kivenjuuri, said.

"It is very likely that the Russian authorities are heavily involved in the transport operation. Very probably the border guards are involved on their side," he told Reuters.

Finland and Russia have jointly banned crossing the border by foot. Last week, Finland's Border Guard unilaterally banned bicycles but Russia continues to allow migrants to cross by bike.

Only two remotely located northern border crossings in Vartius and Salla continue to receive asylum applications from migrants after Finland closed four border stations and erected barriers to prevent illegal crossings.

On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Finland's accusation that Russia was deliberately pushing illegal migrants towards the border and said Russian border guards were carrying out their duties in line with the rules.

At the Salla crossing, 41 migrants originating from countries including Afghanistan, Yemen and Morocco arrived on bikes on Tuesday, Lapland Border Guards said in a post.

At the Vartius crossing, 16 migrants from Syria and Somalia had arrived by the afternoon on Tuesday with more expected to come, Captain Jouko Kinnunen said, as temperature in the area dropped to minus 10 degrees Celsius (14F), with an icy wind blowing.

"A couple of women arrived frostbitten," he told Reuters, adding they were not adequately dressed.

Kivenjuuri said access to the border zone on the Russian side was controlled by Russian authorities.

"The border zone is wider on the Russian side and these people are not allowed freely into the border zone. They are transported from outside the zone almost directly to the crossing point," he added.

Finland's immigration authority Migri said all asylum applications received were being processed but that the agency was fast-tracking people out of the country who were clearly not entitled to asylum.

"One typical reason for the accelerated procedure is that a person has not presented grounds for international protection, having applied for asylum citing financial reasons, for example," Migri's Director of the Asylum Unit, Antti Lehtinen, told Reuters.

(Reporting by Essi Lehto and Anne Kauranen, writing by Anne Kauranen)