HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finland on Friday auctioned off scores of vintage albeit ramshackle Soviet-era cars abandoned by asylum-seekers who used them to cross the country’s desolate Arctic border from Russia.
Last year Finland’s 1,340 km-long (833-mile) frontier with Russia - marking one of the external limits of the European Union’s passport-free Schengen travel zone - became the northernmost crossing point to the EU for migrants keen to avoid the perilous Mediterranean sea route to the continent.
At first, most of the migrants entered Finland from Russia on bicycles. But after Finland banned bicycle crossings in December, and the subzero winter freeze set in, asylum seekers bought old Soviet cars in Russia and drove them to the border.
On Friday, Soviet-era Volgas and a rusty 1970s Lada station wagon were the main attractions at a vintage car auction held in Salla, a northern town 20 km (12 miles) from the Russian border.
Finnish customs put more than 100 Soviet-era cars on the auction block after they were left behind by asylum seekers. The Volgas fetched prices up to 640 euros ($713.02) and the Lada estate car, with now-rare circular headlights, was picked up by a Finnish collector for 280 euros ($311.95).
“There’s rust and few dents on them, but mechanically they’ll last forever. And it’s very easy to find spare parts,” Rauno Halttunen, a retired mechanic and a Soviet car enthusiast, told Reuters by phone from Salla.
“Most of the cars were registered 30-40 years ago in Finland, and then sold to Russia in the 1990s. Now they’ve made their way back,” said auction organizer Asko Viitanen.
Prices for classic Soviet models began at 120 euros ($133.69) while “newer” Russian models from the 1990s, after the Soviet Union’s break-up, and a few German cars of the same vintage were snatched up for a few euros each.
Early this year Finland criticized its giant eastern neighbor and tsarist-era ruler for allowing increasing numbers of asylum seekers with no Finnish visas to cross their Arctic border, and held high-level meetings with Moscow.
Helsinki worried it could become an ever more popular route into the EU for migrants as the summer approached and the main Balkan route via Turkey and Greece became harder to access.
A further 1,000 asylum seekers entered Finland from Russia in the first two months of 2016 before the flow dried up as the countries agreed on tighter border zone security.
Reporting by Tuomas Forsell; editing by Mark Heinrich