The Loophole With Two Wheels

A few weeks ago, the world marked a harrowing anniversary — the Syrian Civil War turned ten. This on-going power struggle has claimed the lives of approximately half a million people while also causing 20 times that to flee their homes; per UNHCR, the UN refugee authority, “more than 6.6 million Syrians have been forced to flee their country since 2011 and another 6.7 million people remain internally displaced.” And while most of those 6.6 million who have left Syria have found new (temporary) homes in neighboring nations, many are still searching for a better life elsewhere. While many nations accept a limited number of refugees, in general, there are more people looking for new homes than there are spots being offered. As a result, many of the refugees find other, unauthorized ways to get into new nations.

Norway is one of those nations. Without getting deep into the geopolitical issues, let’s acknowledge that if you want to get from Syria to Norway, and you’re desperate enough, you can just walk or hitchhike your way there — that is, you don’t need to cross the Mediterranean or North Seas. And unlike the more direct route, you don’t need to cross all that many national borders. All you need to do is get into Russia and then keep going north-northeast until you hit this tiny border crossing between Russia and Norway. And then, you have to cross that border.

But as of 2015, doing so in a legal way wasn’t so straightforward. Norway didn’t allow migrants to drive across the border without prior authorization; if you wanted to claim asylum, they wanted you to cross the border by foot. Russia, however, didn’t allow pedestrians on the roads coming into the border crossing. This led to what seemed to be an impossible situation — you have to walk across the border, but you can’t walk to the border to do that. And then, someone realized there was a third way: you could ride a bicycle.

Norway’s rule, at the time, didn’t require you to walk across the border; it just gave hefty fines to anyone who drove across (or, more accurately, who drove migrants across). And Russia didn’t say you had to be in a car; you just couldn’t walk. Traveling by bicycle met both rules. As a result, ABC News reported in late 2015, “about 5,500 [migrants] have ridden the more than 10-mile road from Nikel to the Norwegian border, according to the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration.” And almost all of them were granted entry into Norway.

The immediate result — beyond the increase in migration — was a boom industry in northwestern Russia; bicycles, even really bad ones, became a hot commodity. Prices easily reached about $200 for what on migrant called “a frame with pedals” and some entrepreneurial Russians offered a package deal — a bike and a ride to just a mile or two before the border — for about twice that. 

Unfortunately for the migrants (and the bicycle sellers),┬áthe bicycle exception was short-lived. In early 2016, Norway updated its laws to close the loophole and ordered those who crossed without papers back to Russia. It’s unlikely most decided to go back to Russia; while there’s no path to citizenship for them in Norway, the Norweigan government isn’t aggressively deporting them, either. The good news (I guess) is that if any of the migrants do end up returning to Russia, they don’t have to take a bike. While originally, Russia was insisting that any migrants who left on a bicycle make the return trip on the same mode of transportation, the Russians ultimately capitulated, letting the migrants take buses.


Bonus fact: In the video for the 1978 Queen song “Bicycle Race,” the producers hired 65 professional models to ride stationary bikes in the nude. (Here’s the video if you want to see, although it’s probably not a work-safe viewing experience.) The result: the band owned a lot of bicycle seats afterward. While the production company rented the bikes, the rental company apparently refused to take the seats back after learning how they’d been used, and instead, required that they be purchased.

From the Archives: Pedaling to Freedom: Not borders, but prisons. And not Norway, but Brazil.