By Denis Pinchuk
MOSCOW (Reuters) - The flow of Middle Eastern migrants trying to reach Europe via the Russian Arctic slowed dramatically on Thursday, partly due to a shortage of bicycles to cross the border, a source who deals with them told Reuters.
People seeking asylum in Norway have taken to using bicycles to cross the border from Russia because pedestrian traffic is banned and drivers of vehicles are fined if they carry passengers across without the proper documents.
The numbers making that journey, many of them Syrians fleeing civil war, had increased dramatically in the last few weeks after governments in southern Europe cracked down on people trying to enter by that route.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said would-be asylum seekers were collecting in the Russian town of Nickel, the nearest big settlement to the border post, now they cannot cross into Norway.
“There are more than 500 of the Syrians here. They are continuing to flow into Nickel," said the source.
"The local shops are empty of bicycles. No bus or taxi would take the Syrians to Norway because they do not have valid visas and the drivers would be fined by the Norwegians and stripped of their permits to work on international routes."
Migrants were staying in hotels and dormitories in Nickel, where the temperature was around zero degrees Celsius and a snowstorm has moved in, the source said.
Some tried to cross illegally at some distance from the crossing point, but were caught and fined.
The Arctic route is a more roundabout way of reaching Europe than crossing the Mediterranean, but the migrants taking the route think it is safer.
About 1,200 people made the journey this year, up from a dozen in 2014, Norway's government said earlier this month.
According to officials, many Syrians obtain business or study visas to enter Russia and then travel through Moscow and Murmansk to Nickel, a town of some 12,000 population named after the metal mined there.
They then buy bicycles, bring them in taxis to the frontier and hop on the two-wheelers to travel the short distance between the Russian and Norwegian border posts. Stacks of discarded bicycles have accumulated on the Norwegian side.
At Norway's Storskog border post, an official said asylum seekers had crossed the border today but gave no number.
A Norwegian foreign ministry spokeswoman said Russian authorities had not informed Oslo of any change in activity at the border.
(Additional reporting by Gwladys Fouche in Oslo; Editing by Christian Lowe and Tom Heneghan)