In late November 2023, Finland temporary closed all its border crossing points with Russia in response to the perceived ‘instrumentalisation of migrants’ by that country. This has been made possible by the recent amendments to the Finnish Border Guard Act that allow for border closure in case of a large influx of migrants, deliberately caused by a foreign state.
By enacting such legislation and closing the border, Finland has followed in the footsteps of its neighbours – Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The three EU Member States have gone far in their efforts to exclude unwanted protection-seekers from their fundamental rights – on the sole basis that they attempted to enter the EU from Belarus.
‘Migrant instrumentalisation’ and ‘hybrid attack’
In the local discourses, the issue has been widely portrayed as a ‘hybrid attack’ and ‘instrumentalisation of migration’ by Belarus and, more recently, Russia. It is alleged that the two countries ‘artificially’ create migratory flows to ‘destabilise’ the EU. The origins of such narratives date back to summer 2021 when, following the EU’s decision to impose sanctions on Minsk, Belarus started actively issuing visas to nationals of Middle Eastern and African countries, allowing them safe passage through its territory and no longer preventing irregular border crossings into the EU.
In response, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland adopted long-term, far-reaching and blanket domestic legislative measures that severely restrict the right to seek asylum and authorise pushbacks – in direct breach of EU and international human rights law. This has led to grave violations of human rights that go far beyond the mere deprivation of the right to seek asylum. EU’s border with Belarus has de facto become an exclusion zone where protection seekers are being continuously exposed to various types of inhuman and degrading treatment (e.g., forced to remain in the forest for up to seven months) which, among other things, regularly results in deaths at the border.
The situation has been further exacerbated by the open embracement of the instrumentalisation narrative at EU-level. The European Commission – the guardian of the Treaties – has failed to initiate any infringement procedure against Poland, Lithuania or Latvia or even criticise their policies. Moreover, the last two years have also seen recurring efforts to introduce the migrant instrumentalisation concept into EU asylum law – currently as part of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum.
Who are the non-EU nationals affected?
There are numerous issues with the concept of the instrumentalisation of migration. For one, such wording not only implies that there is a distinction between ‘artificially created’ and ‘natural’ migratory flows, but also dehumanises the persons affected and deprives them of any agency. At the same time, it ignores that even where there might be a plausible case of using migration to exercise political pressure on the EU, this is only possible because of global passport inequality, the EU’s externalisation and containment policies, and the consequent absence of legal routes to seek protection. Thus, for those holding an Iraqi, Syrian or Afghan passport it is nearly impossible to obtain a visa for Europe, in most cases rendering the deadly Mediterranean route their only option.
Further, migrant instrumentalisation is an overly simplified and generalised term that does not accurately reflect the realities on the ground. As part of my socio-legal study into the EU-Belarus border crisis, I have conducted fieldwork in Poland and Lithuania where I interviewed NGO representatives, volunteers and lawyers who have been providing assistance to people crossing from Belarus. In addition, I have interviewed over 40 non-EU nationals who attempted to cross the Belarus border with Latvia during the winter of 2021/22.
The narrative about ‘artificial migratory flows’ consisting of economic migrants, not ‘real’ refugees is not adequately supported by empirical evidence. My research shows that the third-country nationals involved make up a highly heterogeneous group and frequently belong to categories with relatively high asylum-recognition rates. Examples include Afghans fleeing the Taliban, Syrians fleeing compulsory military service, Iranians fleeing political persecution, and Yazidis, an Iraq-based ethno-religious minority that was persecuted by ISIS and has been living in protracted displacement for nearly a decade. Many interviewees chose the Belarus route because it was perceived as safer, following previous, unsuccessful attempts to enter the EU via other routes.
Tarring everyone with the same brush
In addition to the arguments listed above, establishing the aim of destabilising the EU appears equally challenging. The overwhelming majority of the individuals arriving at the EU’s external border currently hold Russian, not Belarus, visas. The latter are officially issued for purposes such as tourism, study, work or private visits. An assumption that the real aim behind the third-country’s visa policy is to put pressure on the EU is inevitably subjective and will likely suffer from overinclusion. In this particular case, it wrongfully implies that every holder of a Belarus or Russian visa who later decides to irregularly cross into the EU has been instrumentalised.
My research shows that many people had previously resided in Russia or Belarus for prolonged periods of time (either regularly or irregularly, incl. with expired visas) before deciding to seek protection in the EU due to the lack of safety, human rights violations, risk of refoulement or deteriorating political and economic conditions in these countries. Media reports reveal that people in such situations were also among those who recently attempted to cross into Finland from Russia. A further problem is the difficulty of attributing accountability to a state party for the alleged instrumentalisation of migrants. Non-EU nationals are typically brought to the EU’s border with Belarus or Russia by intermediaries of diverse backgrounds who are non-state actors.
Moreover, by imposing blanket restrictions on the right to seek asylum, it is implied that every asylum-seeker crossing from Belarus or Russia has been instrumentalised, including those who had never acquired Belarusian or Russian visas. A number of people, including an Afghan family I interviewed, arrived at the Belarus border by land via Russia and Central Asian countries, had never procured Belarusian or Russian visas or had any other connection with the Belarusian or Russian authorities.
Thanks to a UACES microgrant, I was able to present my research at the international inter- and transdisciplinary conference The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 75: Rethinking and Constructing its Future Together, which took place at Ghent University on 6-8 December 2023. Marking the 75th anniversary of the UDHR, the event aimed to cross boundaries and build bridges between academic disciplines, theory and practice by bringing together scholars, practitioners, and policy makers. The conference offered me an excellent opportunity to disseminate my research findings to a diverse audience comprising of both scholars and practitioners. The feedback obtained will help me significantly in preparing publications based on my research.
The UACES Microgrant scheme is aimed at supporting research for our Early-Career and Individual Members.
The microgrants scheme will provide grants of between £100 and £500 to UACES members to assist them to cover the costs of undertaking their research. The grants are designed to recognise the challenges facing researchers at this time.