SALLA — On the door of the tourism bureau in Salla, Finland, there's a poster proudly informing visitors that they are "in the middle of nowhere." That much is indisputable: Salla is a dark, remote place, lost in the middle of hundreds of miles of Laponian pine forests and covered in a thick mantle of white snow.
"Many tourists like to come and ski in this isolated natural setting," says Heli Karjalainen, the young blond woman who runs the bureau.
But over the past few weeks, there has been an influx of new travelers along the path that leads "nowhere." Their journey, however, ends a few miles from the tourist office, just after crossing over from the Russian border. In front of this icicled building, a makeshift car park has formed, with about 15 old, abandoned Lada cars, relics of the Brezhnev era.
Migrants, mostly from the Middle East, have been using these obsolete cars to reach European territory in Finland. The car doors don't close properly, and the vehicles barely protect the passengers from the frigid early February temperatures, which can hit -30 °C (-22 °F). But nothing, not even the cold, can stop this influx, the size of which is starting to worry the Finnish authorities.
First by bike
When this northern passage began to become a route-of-choice, in the fall of 2015, border guards first saw clusters of people coming in on old bikes sold to them by smugglers. Crossing the border by bike was thus forbidden. In response, criminal networks made do with old Communist-era cars, and the number of border crossings increased. "Now, we see at least 15 to 20 people arrive every day," says the husky-voiced Ari Magtila, the Salla border post's impassive supervisor.
In January alone, 570 people arrived via Russia this way, compared to 694 for the whole of 2015, he explains, and the government fears that as many as 7,000 to 10,000 migrants might arrive in 2016, if current trends continue. Magtila delivers these figures with little emotion. It's just a new routine.
Asylum seekers in Porvoo, Finland — Finnish Red Cross
Salla's border guards had to respond, so they've just converted a small part of their building to a rest area where migrants can have something to eat while the administrative process is underway. A few hours later, in the middle of the night, two Syrian families, an Iranian man and another from Cameroon will be enjoying warm drinks and fruit, before they are sent to a registration camp in western Finland.
Fear, Courage and Boredom
From Baghdad to Erbil, Finland has become known as a very popular destination. When she left Mosul, where ISIS had killed her husband, Hadeel Ali did not hesitate: she set sail with her daughter, parents, brother and sister towards the Far North, which many on social media describe as an icy Eldorado.
Their story is unfortunately common. Ali and her family paid $1,100 per person to cross the Mediterranean in an old boat to Greece, before taking the Balkan route toward northern Europe. "In Sweden, even the police told us it was better for Iraqis to go to Finland," the young woman explains with a sad smile. She's wearing a sweatshirt praising the beauty of Paris, a city she dreams of visiting one day as a tourist. France's horrendous reputation among asylum seekers means she never even considered trying to settle there.
Instead, for five months now, she's been waiting with her family in a refugee center in Kemijärvi, 40 miles west of Salla, for their asylum applications to be processed. It may be the middle of nowhere, but it's a cozy environment compared to her war-torn Iraq. Some 350 migrants are grouped in small residential buildings provided by the municipality. Outside, you really have to listen closely to notice the squeaking sound of footsteps on snow. "I'd never known such calm. It's a relief after Iraq. Our only problem is the anguish of waiting," Ali explains.
The days are long, even with the Finnish winter's scant daylight. To defeat boredom, and the fear of not being granted the coveted asylum status, migrants can walk two miles through the frozen pine trees to the local markets. Shopkeepers have adapted to their new clientele and now sell halal meat.
There are also language classes offered by the Red Cross. Ali is sitting in front of her Finnish folder and her many notes. Next to her, her six-year-old daughter – Barbie doll in hand – timidly formulates "Minä olen Shams" (I am Shams).
"What's important is to structure the days and to force [the migrants] to get up with these language classes," says Hannaliisa Sutinen, one of the center's teachers. "But it's true that motivation isn't always in high supply. Their future here is still very uncertain." Sutinen notes that some migrants spend their nights on the phone and online, connecting with relatives who stayed in their home countries.
Contemplating the future is a difficult thing to do when reality is harder than you'd imagined. By leaving Baghdad, Omar Abdulkaveem was hoping to settle down in Helsinki or another urban center. "Somewhere with people and buildings," he says. The 20-something is energetic as he talks about his "28 days," a grueling journey from Iraq to Finland, and about his hope to quickly find a job in the Finnish legal system.
But he shares all this from inside a one-bedroom Lapland flat that he's been sharing with five other Iraqis for six months; this is his daily life. "Here, when you walk outside, you don't meet anybody," he says. "I'm starting to get used to it, but the night and the cold, it's difficult." Two bars and the town's 8,000 inhabitants are the only source of distraction in Kemijärvi. "And [the bars] are too small for me to have a drink my friends," Abdulkaveem says with a smile.
The end of Europe
The Finnish authorities wouldn't mind hearing this note of disenchantment. As in other Scandinavian countries, in Finland, the initial open-armed welcome to migrants is giving way to withdrawal.
When Jorma Vuorio receives a foreign press correspondent in his Interior Ministry offices in Helsinki, he's not setting out to encourage a repeat visit. Vuorio, the director of the migration department, is like a clever tourist guide, only he makes a point of portraying his country in a bleak light. How's life over here? It's a "difficult" time for the Finnish, who are "less tolerant after four years of recession." And, Vuorio adds, the "food is peculiar," a reminder of former French President Jacques Chirac's 2005 declaration that Finnish food was the worst in Europe (with British fare in second place).
"There's been a misunderstanding that appears to have led some migrants to believe it would be easy to obtain a residency permit here," Vuorio says. "I hope that people in Iraq will now have accurate information on what the situation over here is." To quash any lingering doubts, he adds, "You know, back in September, our Prime Minister had offered up one of his homes to welcome refugees, but he recently went back on his word."
That last statement perfectly captures the country's chilling attitude. At the beginning of the year, some cities saw the formation of new anti-migrant militias that call themselves "Soldiers of Odin." They walk around the streets in black bomber jackets, with Finnish flags and representations of Odin, a revered god of Norse mythology, on their backs.
Meanwhile, the government has drastically toughened asylum and family reunification requirements. And the authorities have warned that about two-thirds of the 32,000 applications filed last year should be refused, no matter what.
Some migrants have preempted that decision: about 4,000 Iraqis have left Finland over the past few weeks, before obtaining responses to their asylum applications. Abdinasir Osman watches them leave. The first ones who wanted to go home, at the end of 2015, came to his Helsinki-based agency, Hajj & Umra. "I now receive new candidates every day," he says. Some of them mention issues with their families who remained in Iraq. Others regret having left.
"Many also realize that life isn't easy over here and that it's not what they had imagined. Not to mention those who tell me that the country's culture is not for them," Osman says.
In Kemijärvi, other migrants cling to their European dream. Hannaliisa Sutinen, the language teacher, shows a small group of Iraqi students what awaits them in the summer, after the snow has melted. The board is covered with pictures of Lapland's lakes and forests, illuminated by a sun that doesn't set. That will be in June, during Ramadan. The Iraqis shudder when they hear this. Then they smile: they can decide how to deal with that later.