Amer and Ashraf were looking lost, outside the city of Murmansk’s no-thrills airport when Sky News’ Moscow team first spotted them, agencies report. They were also shivering, as bursts of early October snow whipped around the one and only terminal. Their obvious discomfort made more sense when we found out where they had come from.
The young men hailed from the port city of Latakia in Syria and together they symbolised the divisions that have torn their homeland apart – one an Alawite, the other a Sunni Muslim. But their friendship was underlined by a common desire to get out, to leave the bloodshed of their native land behind. That did not explain why they had travelled north to Murmansk, a tired-looking Russian city situated above the dotted line that designates the Arctic Circle.
Still, Amer and Ashraf soon told us why they had boarded the Aeroflot red-eye from Moscow. “Norway,” said Amer. “Can you tell us how to get to Norway?” The pair of woolly-hat wearing Syrians were about to embark on a journey across the tundra to a place called Storskog – a tiny border post on the Norwegian side of the border where they planned to claim asylum.
They told us that they had seen posts on Facebook about it – how hundreds of Syrians have been travelling “the northern route” for a new life in the European Union. The two men found themselves a friendly taxi-driver called Sasha at the airport but he warned them he could not take them the entire way. Taxis cannot do the final 20km (12.4 miles) to the border. Nor could Amer and Ashraf walk it – pedestrians are strictly not allowed.
Instead, the two Syrians bought themselves some bicycles – our team watched as they negotiated for a couple of second-hand contraptions in a badly depleted cycle-shop in Murmansk. Then, it was into the taxi for the four-hour trip north. Eventually, they hauled their bikes out of the boot and set-off down the highway.
“We’ve got to go now,” said a luggage-laden Amer, as he grimaced in the cold. The Norwegian authorities told Sky News that 1,500 Syrians have now cycled into Norway – the vast majority in the last two months. Police Chief Stein Hansen said: “I think word has got around and it’s all about word of mouth.
“People know this country is accepting refugees.” When asked about the influx, he added: “We are now getting about 50 to 70 Syrians a day although we received 113 last Sunday.” Ample evidence of their mass-arrival can be found around the back of the border post – we watched as a digger scooped up piles of brand-new bikes and chucked them in a dumpster.
The arrival of Syrian refugees has put a strain on those communities lying closest to the border – like the small village of Kirkenes. “We are now talking about whether we can send some of them back (to Russia),” said Mayor Cecilie Hansen. “Syrians holding Russian visas can still live there. The situation here (in Norway) is almost out of control.”
Norwegian immigration authorities have commandeered an old military base near Kirkenes and plan to hold up to 1,000 asylum seekers there – although they concede that they will probably run out of space. The long winter nights – or “the dark blue time” in the words of Mayor Hansen, will not stop Syrian refugees from making their icy ride to freedom.