On a visit to Finland, CRAIG CORMICK found local officials seriously concerned about a possible influx of emigrants from Russia.
Finland is strengthening its border with Russia to prevent any uncontrolled entry. As winter brings new, and perhaps more severe, food and fuel shortages, it increases the likelihood of large numbers of people crossing over to seek a better life.
The Finnish-Russian border, which stretches for about 1000 kilometres, is at its southernmost point only 100 km from St Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). And, according to Hanneli Virtanen of the Finnish Red Cross, there are approximately 8 million Russian people living near the border, from St Petersburg to the Kola Peninsula in the Arctic.
Finland, with a population of 5 million, would be hard pressed to cope with a large civilian assault on its territory.
Kristiina Kumpala, the bureau chief of the Finnish Red Cross, said, "If there were 20,000 we could cope. If more, we could not."
She said it was not known how many Russians could potentially seek refuge in Finland, and that figures as high as 5 million were sometimes quoted.
The Finnish Red Cross was actively assisting people in Russia with food and medical supplies, to prevent them from needing to leave their homes and enter Finland. About 30 million Finnish marks (A$10 million) worth of medical and food aid had already been distributed.
However, Hanneli Virtanen said that the situation in Russia was deteriorating. Although food was often available now, it was selling at such high prices that not everybody could afford to buy it.
To date only a few hundred people from the former Soviet Union have applied for asylum in Finland, and they have been predominantly from the Baltic states.
Virtanen said that in discussions she had had with Russians, they preferred to remain in their homes — if it was possible. Their culture, language and homes were very important to them.
"It is the last solution they have to cross the border", she said.
The biggest fear in Finland is of large numbers of people crossing the border, not because of food shortages, but because of a civil war or another, more successful, coup attempt.
Yugoslavia has presented an all too clear demonstration of what might occur in the former USSR, in terms of both civil disintegration and the numbers of civilian refugees.
There are currently discussions in the Nordic countries over how they would share a large influx, should the numbers seeking asylum dramatically increase.
Finland has been criticised for its current refugee policies on two counts: that of returning the majority of asylum seekers from Russia; and a new policy implemented in July, requiring people from the former Yugoslavia to have an entry visa.
Kristiina Kumpala said, "Of course it is a European country — and they have a right" to enter without a visa.
Dr Andrew Theophanous, chair of the Australian parliamentary committee for immigration and refugees, added his voice to the criticisms on a recent visit to Finland. He had just completed a visit to refugee camps in Hungary and was critical of Finland's policy towards refugees from the Balkans in particular.
The Finnish government has justified the visa requirement decision by saying that a refugee's place of refuge should be in the first country they reach.
Because of the higher standards of social welfare, many refugees would prefer to settle in Finland and other Scandinavian countries, rather than stay in the overcrowded settlement camps of countries such as Hungary. But Finland, deep in recession with unemployment hovering near 16%, is reluctant to increase the numbers of refugees it admits — currently about 2000 a year.
Theophanous said that in the case of a civil war in Russia, hundreds of thousands of refugees could enter Finland as their first country of asylum, and Finland under its current policy should receive and settle them.
The situation on the Russian side of the border is also complicated by the resettlement of large numbers of Russian troops, withdrawn from eastern Europe. Conditions in their camps are said to be poor.
The Finnish defence minister, Elisabeth Rehn, said, "Our Russian counterparts have promised that in future we will get detailed information about troop movements and where they will be located".
Kristiina Kumpala said that the Finnish Interior Ministry and the Foreign Ministry had developed programs and plans to deal with a large influx of Russians — although they were not made public — and that the Red Cross would be ready to assist if called on.
A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, confirming the contingency plans, said that while not wishing to discuss the details, they would be able to take large numbers of people.
However, Kumpala, asked if Finland could realistically cope with a large civilian assault on its border, said, "I doubt it."