Letter from Norway — From the March 2018 issue

If These Walls Could Talk

The strange history of our futile border fortifications

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The Arctic town of Kirkenes, in Norway, is where land meets sea, where water meets ice, where taiga meets open tundra, where even the membrane between day and night is always shifting. There are days without darkness and other days when the sun barely glimmers at the horizon. The town sits on the border between Norway and Russia, a 121-mile line through rock, river, and permafrost. On a cold, clear day in late winter, I parked in a small lot near the Storskog border checkpoint, nine miles outside town on a well-paved road that cuts through the Arctic hinterlands. Across a frozen lake, I could see Russia, dappled with petite arctic birch and spruce. It looked just like Norway, except it had a sheen of magic simply for being an elsewhere.

In the summer of 2015, migrants — first mostly men from Afghanistan and Syria, then their families, and eventually people from other parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia, too — began arriving at this checkpoint. That June, to help lift the burden on Mediterranean countries on the front lines of the migration crisis, Norway had pledged that it would take in eight thousand refugees. (In total, more than a million people would seek asylum in Europe that year, double the numbers from previous years.) Granting asylum entails a lengthy screening and transfer process, but many migrants took Norway’s statement to mean that the border was open — and that they’d better cross before the eight thousand spaces were filled.

Migrants cross the border in Storskog © Cornelius Poppe/AFP/Getty Images

Seeking to circumnavigate the clogged routes of the Mediterranean, they chose an alternate way to the safety of Europe. Some migrants had come directly from war zones or refugee camps farther south; others had been living in Russia for months or even years, and feared being sent back to Syria or Afghanistan once their visas expired. Many made their way to the Russian city of Murmansk, where, racing the coming winter, they hid from immigration authorities in local hotels and hired smugglers to get them to the other side. Russia doesn’t allow individuals across the border on foot, so the smugglers provided bicycles, charging five hundred dollars to get people to Kirkenes. In The Bicycle Pile, a documentary about the arrivals, a Russian hotel owner recalls that smugglers covered the city with posters showing Norwegian women holding signs that said come to us. we will protect you and your family. Social media helped the images spread around the world.

Both countries are supposed to check paperwork and make sure crossers have proper visas for the other side, and yet when the asylum seekers showed up, Russia simply let them pass. Norwegian officials felt that by allowing people to cross without permission, Russia was exporting its problem to Norway. A few hundred came to Kirkenes the first month; by the fall, it was thousands, and the community scrambled to accommodate the new arrivals. By November, more than 5,500 migrants from some fifty countries had come to this town of 3,500.

Oslo asked Moscow to take the refugees back, but in the end only some three hundred people were returned to Russia. In one chilling scene in The Bicycle Pile, a Syrian woman with two children is taken across the border zone back into Russia. It’s dark and snowing. She sits down with her kids in the middle of the no-man’s-land between the Russian and Norwegian checkpoints, refusing to move.

After several months of debate, the governments agreed that any migrant trying to cross without the proper papers would be stopped by Russian authorities. The word got out on social media, and the flow stopped. “They disappeared,” said the mayor of Nikel, a town on the Russian side of the border. Then, four months after the last asylum seeker crossed, Norway’s government announced that the nonexistent problem required a bold solution.

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lives in Berkeley, California. Her first book, The Far Away Brothers, was published last year by Crown.

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