Identity and well-being – Sweden

For Sámi communities, COVID-19 border controls could threaten a way of life

Oula-Antti Labba

Nils Vasara-Hammare, a Sámi reindeer herder, environmentalist and school principal, has spent all of his life in the traditional territory of Sámiland (Sápmi) on the Swedish side. Until recently, he rarely had to worry about the national borders that have divided Sápmi into four parts.

Before the pandemic, he did not even need to bring his passport when crossing the border from Finland or Norway: normally, citizens of one of the Nordic countries can cross into a neighbouring country freely. Therefore, it is only natural that Sámi living in this area say that they are going to ‘the Norwegian side’ or ‘the Finnish side’, not Norway or Finland. ‘We Sámi think that we are in Sámiland when we cross the border,’ explains Vasara-Hammare. ‘In a normal situation, when we drive on the road on the Finnish side, it doesn’t feel as if we are in another country.’

With the outbreak of COVID-19, however, everything changed. ‘This year we have also realized how dependent we are on the Finnish side in many ways.’ In the wake of the pandemic, border restrictions have been tightened across Sápmi, dividing Sámi families and communities residing across the state borders of Russia, Finland, Norway and Sweden. These have had a significant negative impact on traditional Sámi reindeer husbandry, especially the cross-border reindeer-herding work of the Sámi people.

For the Könkämä Sámi reindeer-herding community on the Swedish side of Sápmi, who are dependent on areas inside the borders of three nation states, the restrictions have brought major disruption to the everyday life of the community. While the community’s winter, autumn and spring pastures are on the Swedish side of Sápmi, their summer pastures are on the Norwegian side of the territory. At the same time, to reach their reindeer pastures and herding bases, they have to cross to the Finnish side in order to use the only south-to-north main road in the area.

‘The road on the Finnish side is very important to us. When Finland closed the borders, then the authorities insisted that we choose specific members of our Sámi community to cross the border. It was an unfortunate situation that I was forced to tell most of the members that you cannot cross the border in order to practise your traditional livelihood,’ says Vasara-Hammare. Border control by the Finnish authorities at the Gárasavvon check point, on the border with Sweden, became much stricter than before. Officials there generally did not appreciate the specific situation of the Könkämä Sámi community and lacked knowledge about the Sámi region more broadly.

As a result, community members were severely affected by this sudden securitization. Signs on the border of Sweden and Finland read: ‘Crossing the border outside the border checkpoint without a permit is a state crime.’ This distressed many Sámi and left them feeling almost like criminals when moving through their traditional lands, just as their ancestors have done since time immemorial. ‘There was a decision that we could cross the border only at five different locations,’ says Vasara-Hammare. ‘There was also a camera and border control on the bridge that we crossed on our way to our annual reindeer calf markings in Geaidnovuohpi, even if we had gone through border control in Gárasavvon. I thought that that was unnecessary – we were on our traditional lands.’

Borders came to Sápmi, which is located in the northern part of Scandinavia and across Russia’s Kola peninsula, in the eighteenth century when the division of Sámi territory was brokered between Denmark–Norway (the latter at that time was under Danish rule) and Sweden in 1751. This led to a border agreement which included a protocol (Lappekodisil) that recognized the rights of the Sámi people to move across the state borders with their reindeer. The Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century brought drastic changes to the map of Europe, as territories were swapped and borders were redrawn, including the separation of Finland from Sweden in 1809 and its absorption into the Russian empire – in the process transferring most of the Sámi reindeer herders from one sovereignty to another. Subsequent border closures between Finland (still under Russian control at that time) and first Norway and then Sweden had a profound impact on reindeer-herding Sámi. Nevertheless, the 1751 Lappekodisil protocol has never been formally repealed.

Now, in the midst of a pandemic, the legacy of these borders is concretely being felt by Sámi communities whose way of life has been thrown into upheaval. During normal summers, Vasara-Hammare’s Sámi community would cross to their summer pastures on the Norwegian side to herd their reindeer and mark their reindeer calves. During the summer of 2020, however, this was not possible for practical reasons. ‘We could have had access to the Norwegian side, but we would have needed to spend 10 days in quarantine and prove that we had been in quarantine,’ says Vasara-Hammare. In addition, the winter before (2019-20) was extremely harsh for the reindeer due to climate change, with earlier and heavier snowfall, several layers of ice and a later-than-normal melting of the snow. ‘It was a really stressful winter and spring in many ways,’ says Vasara-Hammare.

The border closures and restrictions during the pandemic will have a long-term effect on Sámi traditional livelihoods. Because Sámi traditional livelihoods are important conduits of Sámi language and culture, the restrictions could have far-reaching effects on the community’s way of life. As the Sámi Parliament of Sweden has reported to the United Nations, the pandemic could have potentially devastating impacts on the inter-generational transmission of traditional knowledge in Sámi society.

In December 2020, the Finnish government recognized the rights of the Sámi to cross its borders into Norway and Sweden. The government decided that residents of the border communities and Sámi may cross overland and across lakes and rivers at other places besides the authorized border crossings during the pandemic. However, these rights are based only on the decision of the government and not on a separate, binding act of law.

As a result, the situation is uncertain as to how state borders will in the future interfere with the daily lives and interactions of the Sámi people. ‘Of course,’ says Vasara-Hammare, ‘the fear exists. The pandemic has shown that states can close the borders – even if Nordic cross-border cooperation has been good before.’


Photo: The border between Sweden and Finland. Credit: Oula-Antti Labba.