They tried the shores of Libya, the islands of Greece, and the plains of the Balkans. Now it has emerged that Syrians fleeing civil war have found another route to the safety of Europe: the Arctic Circle.
Dozens of Syrian refugees have trekked to the far north of Russia this year in an unlikely bid to reach a little-known Arctic border crossing with Norway.
Up to 20 Syrians a month are then crossing into the tiny Norwegian town of Kirkenes, which lies around 2,500 miles north of Damascus, and where the average daily temperature hovers just below freezing.
The town is the northernmost point of the Iron Curtain Trail, a cycle path that traces the boundary between western and eastern Europe during the cold war.
“It’s a relatively new thing – it started maybe half a year ago,” said superintendent Thomas Pettersen, the only policeman on duty in Kirkenes police station on Saturday.
“You can say that maybe about five to twenty people try it a month. There have been a couple of people who have tried by bicycle. The rest are being driven over in Russian cars. It’s very easy for them to cross – they can just sit in a Russian car, and come into Norway. And it’s legal.”
According to Sør-Varanger Avis, a local newspaper, 133 asylum-seekers have used this method in 2015, and most of them are Syrians.
How this obscure border crossing came to be a magnet for Syrians is not yet clear. Pettersen said his colleagues perform only the most perfunctory interviews with refugees, before putting them on one of the twice-daily planes to the immigration police in Oslo.
Sometimes the flights are full, so a refugee might spend the night at the local Thon hotel. A receptionist at the hotel said staff were not allowed to reveal any more details to the media, while Pettersen’s colleagues at the immigration police in Oslo said no one was available to comment.
Intriguingly, in 2013 a Facebook group which advises Syrians about how to reach Europe suggested that Norway’s border with Russia was impenetrable. Instead, it suggested that Syrians in Russia should buy a hot-air balloon, and fly it to Norway, instead of attempting to cross by land.
The sea route to Europe remains the most popular passage for most refugees, with a record 300,000 reaching European shores so far in 2015, according to the UN.