Above the Arctic Circle, Middle East refugees bike their way to salvation

Story highlights

  • Kirkenes is a town in the far north of Norway, where it borders with Russia above the Arctic Circle
  • Word has spread in the refugee community that this is a safe route, if people can first get to Russia

Kirkenes, Norway (CNN)The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, streak the skies in spectacular shades of green, red and purple in this far northern Norwegian town of Kirkenes. Tourists flock to this bit of the Arctic Circle to chase the mesmerizing lights. But an entirely different reason drives the curious figures on bikes arriving here from Russia.

All bundled up and struggling through the first snow of the season, the cyclists are not nature enthusiasts but rather refugees.
    Russia does not allow pedestrian crossings here, and Norway penalizes drivers who transport asylum-seekers. This confluence of Norwegian law and Russian regulation has meant that refugees hoping to come through the Storskog border crossing between the two countries must make the last leg of their journey on bikes.
    The first refugees to use this border crossing came in February, according to police Superintendent Stein Hansen. He said they were Syrian.
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    "I think the rumor has spread about the route," said Hansen, who is in charge of registering the asylum-seekers crossing the border. "Everyone coming to Norway are phoning home and saying OK it went fine you can come this way," he said.
    For those lucky enough to get a Russian visa or residency, it is a matter of flying into Moscow. From there they make their way up to the northern Russian town of Murmansk. Overnighting in a hotel, they are then driven by taxis to the factory town of Nikel. Once there, the refugees buy bikes and pedal the remaining roughly half kilometer (three-tenths of a mile) to Norway.
    The discarded bikes with their plastic packaging still attached fill a large garbage container and half the back of a truck on the Norwegian side of the border crossing. Bought for roughly $200 on the Russian side, they will be taken to garbage dump then compressed for recycling. The bikes are so cheap they don't stand up to Norwegian regulation that require front and back brakes as well a serial number on the frame.
    In August, 420 people made the crossing here. Now there are about 500 coming a week.
    The appeal is easy to understand. The Arctic route is a safer option than attempting the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean Sea, which has claimed the lives of many refugees.
    The image of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi's body washed up on Turkeys shores this past summer is etched into so many minds.
    "I saw my own son in him, I had nightmares," said Ahmed, from Syria, his own toddler perched on his shoulders. He could never risk the Mediterranean crossing with his son, Ahmed said, knowing he was lucky the Arctic route was a possibility for him.
    "It is not available to all people; it makes you feel bad."
    Overcome with emotion, he sobs and turns away fearing his son, now safe, will never see Syria or meet his grandmother, who is still there.