“It was precisely the total absence of reports on the situation on the ground that attracted my attention” – 5in10 with Aleksandra Jolkina
Aleksandra Jolkina is a researcher in European and comparative migration and asylum law. She received her PhD in law from Queen Mary University of London (2021) and has previously taught EU law at London School of Economics (LSE). Her academic interests currently concentrate on two broad areas: family migration and access to international protection.
Aleksandra is currently a visiting researcher at the Amsterdam Centre for Migration and Refugee Law. Her research project aims to provide a comparative analysis of Latvian, Lithuanian and Polish responses to the situation at the EU’s border with Belarus, focusing on access to the asylum procedure and compliance with the Rule of Law. Aleksandra has a multidisciplinary background and has transferred to academia after a nearly 15-year career in journalism. She completed her PhD part-time whilst being based in Bonn where she worked for Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (Russian Service).
What were academic or personal inspirations that led to your current research?
My current research project was neither planned in advance, nor expected to evolve into a long-term comparative study. Early 2021 marked a new milestone for me, as I ultimately defended my PhD in law at Queen Mary University of London which I had been pursuing part-time for nine years whilst simultaneously working in journalism in Germany. A few months later I left my job at Deutsche Welle aiming to transfer to academia.
This came at the time when the crisis on the EU border with Belarus began and images of people freezing in Polish forests appeared in the media. Since my research interests lie within the area of EU migration and asylum law and I am well versed in the region, I was following the developments there very closely. What I found somewhat unusual, however, was that European public attention only focused on the events in Poland and, to a lesser extent, in Lithuania, while the situation in Latvia was almost entirely neglected – although the Latvian government had explicitly suspended the right to seek asylum and authorised pushbacks.
It was precisely the total absence of reports on the situation on the ground that attracted my attention. In November 2021, I contacted Latvian NGOs who were able to put me in touch with two non-EU nationals who were previously stranded at the Latvian border. They, in turn, helped me contact other people who were with them in the forest. Over the time period from December 2021 to April 2022, I managed to interview over 40 individuals involved. Their testimonies revealed that the pattern of pushbacks, exercised by the Latvian authorities, was very different from that in Poland or Lithuania. In Latvia, these affected a relatively small group of largely the same people who were pushed back and forth on a daily basis and typically remained trapped in the forest for several months (in most extreme cases up to seven) – an unprecedented situation even for countries where pushbacks are common practice. Most of my interviewees were then gradually transferred to the closed detention centre for foreigners in the Latvian city of Daugavpils and returned to their home countries via the IOM assisted voluntary return programme – without their asylum applications being registered.
What was particularly striking about this situation was the absolute silence surrounding it. Unlike in Poland, Latvian media adopted the government perspective and exclusively framed the issue as a security threat and ‘hybrid attack’ without publishing in-depth interviews with those affected – even despite being informed that there are people stranded in the forest for months in life-threatening conditions. As a foreign-based researcher, I effectively became the only person documenting the events at the Latvian-Belarus border (later Amnesty International came up with similar findings). After I published the preliminary findings of my research I was subjected to hostile attacks on social media and Latvian right-wing press who claimed the testimonies were deliberately falsified and described people crossing from Belarus in most derogatory and even openly racist terms.
After seeing how the events unfolded in Latvia, I decided to expand my research into a comparative study of Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian responses to the events at the Belarus border. I compare both the domestic legislation introduced and the practical implications of such measures for the non-EU nationals affected.
How would you explain your research to someone who is not an expert?
In all the three EU member states involved, the issue has been widely portrayed as a ‘hybrid attack’ and ‘instrumentalisation of migration’ by the Belarusian regime that ‘artificially’ creates migratory flows to destabilise the EU. The relevant governments rely on this paradigm to severely restrict the right to seek asylum and formalise pushbacks. This is, however, contrary to their obligations under EU and international human rights law. Every asylum claim therefore must be registered and individually examined, and pushbacks are prohibited – even if the person has crossed the border irregularly, i.e., outside official border crossing points. In my study I look if and to what extent Polish, Latvian and Lithuanian approaches to the perceived problem are compatible with EU law, and assess the EU-level response to the events at the border.
I further argue that the ‘instrumentalisation’ paradigm is used to obscure EU policies, designed to deter asylum-seekers from entering Europe, and the absence of legal routes to seek protection. For someone holding an Iraqi, Syrian or Afghan passport, for instance, obtaining a visa for Europe is extremely difficult – this is exactly the reason why so many people risk their lives attempting to reach Europe through the deadly Mediterranean route. The data I collected show that many of those who tried to cross from Belarus had previously attempted unsuccessfully to enter the EU via other routes and perceive the Belarus route as less difficult and dangerous. Second, the number of individuals choosing this route is generally low and nowhere near the number of arrivals via the Mediterranean, let alone the figures of 2015-16 when the EU received over 2.5 million asylum applications. Third, the ‘instrumentalisation’ concept has no basis in EU and international refugee law and is used by the governments to arbitrarily exclude unwanted individuals from its scope.
Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?
The most formative station so far has been my PhD research at Queen Mary, where I wrote a thesis on the concept of marriages of convenience in EU free movement law. In my study, I explored the grounds on which the state can attack something as sensitive and private as marriage, and how this affects couples involving UK-resident EU citizens and third-country nationals.
The journey towards completing my PhD, however, was far from easy. Before commencing my doctoral studies in the UK in early 2012 my knowledge of EU law was rather limited – I started with foreign MA degrees in European Studies and Legal Linguistics that covered EU law only briefly. My PhD, by contrast, was purely legal in nature and was at the complex intersection of EU, European human rights and UK domestic law, which means that I needed to work twice as hard as someone holding an LLM degree from the UK.
Second, I was doing a part-time PhD in London while working in an unrelated field in Germany. This turned out to be much more difficult than I had imagined – not least because of the complex task of shifting between my work and academic responsibilities whilst being based in another country, but also because I struggled with severe isolation and impostor syndrome. During this process, however, I learned to be resilient. Every time I was just about to quit, I eventually persuaded myself to take another small step, a strategy that ultimately worked out. In January 2021 – exactly nine years after I started – I passed my PhD with no corrections, an outcome I did not even dare to dream of. My thesis subsequently won the 2021 ELFA award for the best doctoral thesis on European law (proxime accessit) and is now under a book contract with Brill.
How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods?
My current study approaches the topic of the EU-Belarus border crisis from a socio-legal perspective. Apart from the legal analysis of the relevant domestic measures, it has a strong empirical dimension. I have undertaken research visits to Poland and Lithuania to interview NGO representatives, volunteers and lawyers who have been documenting the events at the Belarus border or providing assistance to the non-EU nationals involved.
To compare the Polish and Lithuanian practices with those of the Latvian authorities, the study also builds upon my interviews with people who had crossed the Latvian border from Belarus. The overwhelming majority of my interviewees are Iraqi nationals of Kurdish (incl. Yazidi) origin. Most of the interviews were conducted over online video-calling tools after the relevant individuals returned from Latvia to Iraq. I have also collected and analysed various types of evidence supporting their testimonies, such as documents issued to them in Latvia and photo or video records. It was not always easy to arrange interviews, as people were traumatised, intimidated and feared retaliation by the Latvian authorities in case they attempt to reach Europe again.
What book, article, film, exhibition or song would you recommend, and why?
I would recommend Citizenship and Residence Sales: Rethinking the Boundaries of Belonging, a new book edited by Dimitry Kochenov and Kristin Surak that has just been published by Cambridge University Press. The collection contains twenty chapters by scholars and practitioners approaching the often contested topic of investment migration from various disciplines. Their contributions offer a complex and nuanced view on the phenomenon that is frequently over-simplified and sensationalised in public discourse.
Citation: “It was precisely the total absence of reports on the situation on the ground that attracted my attention” – 5in10 with Aleksandra Jolkina, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 16.05.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/47364