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Norway temporarily suspends return of migrants from Russia

Norway on Saturday announced that it was temporarily suspending its controversial return of migrants from Arctic Russia, following a request from Moscow.

“The Russian foreign affairs minister was in contact yesterday (Friday) with the Norwegian authorities on the subject of the return of asylum seekers via Storskog,” said the Norwegian foreign ministry in a statement, referring to the Storskog border crossing, 400 kilometres (about 250 miles) north of the Arctic Circle.

“Until a new order, there will not be any more returns via Storskog. The Russian border authorities want more coordination over these returns,” the statement added.

Speaking in Davos to Norwegian television channel NRK, Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister Borge Brende said the Russians had made the request citing “security reasons”.

Some 5,500 migrants — mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran — crossed last year from Russia into Norway, on the last leg of an arduous journey through the Arctic to Europe.

Norway is not within the European Union, but is a member of the Schengen passport-free zone.

Many of the migrants have been arriving on bicycles because Russian authorities do not let people cross the border on foot and Norway considers people driving migrants across the border in a car or truck as human traffickers.

Norwegian police returned 13 migrants by bus to Russia on Tuesday.

In November 2015, Norway’s right-wing government decided that migrants who had been living legally in Russia, or entered Russia legally, should be immediately returned there, on the basis that Russia is a safe country.

Since then, the police have been quietly putting migrants on bicycles back across the Storskog border crossing.

Rights groups had expressed outrage at the migrants being forced to retrace their steps on two wheels in winter, when temperatures in the region regularly fall to minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus four Fahrenheit).