‘Instrumentalisation of Migrants’ and the EU-Belarus Border Crisis: Facts and Fictions

By Aleksandra Ancite-Jepifánova

A shorter and slightly modified version of this blog post previously appeared on Verfassungsblog.

It was July 2021 when, in anticipation of the Taliban takeover, a family of nine fled Afghanistan. Having paid $70,000 to intermediaries who promised to transport them to Europe, they were driven to the border with Tajikistan. During the following weeks, with drivers and vehicles constantly changing, they managed to make their way through Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and across Russia. ‘They were mostly driving at night, at a very high speed and away from major roads. As we drove through Russia, no one stopped us,’ Rohullah (name changed), a father of five, later told me in an interview.

It was the second half of August when they ultimately crossed from Russia into Belarus and continued onwards to its border with Latvia, an EU Member State. The drivers dropped them in the forest, showed the direction and told them they were a short walk away from Latvian border guards who would take the family to a refugee camp.

The reality, however, turned out to be different. Their lengthy journey coincided with the time when, in response to the perceived ‘instrumentalisation of migrants’ by the Belarusian regime, Latvia suspended the right to seek asylum and authorised pushbacks. Although Rohullah and his family travelled to the EU’s external border by land and had never procured Belarusian or Russian visas, they ended up being pushed back and forth by Latvian and Belarusian authorities for several weeks and were eventually separated. Rohullah, his wife and their five young children were exceptionally admitted in Latvia on so-called ‘humanitarian grounds’ and subsequently granted asylum. Two other members of his extended family, young adult males, were ultimately forced to remain in the forest for seven months.

The newly built border wall between Poland and Belarus, January 2023. Photo by Aleksandra Ancite-Jepifánova

The story of Rohullah and his family illustrates the complexity surrounding the narrative of the ‘instrumentalisation of migration’, relied on by EU Member States to derogate from European and international asylum law. Two years after  the start of the crisis, the situation at the Belarus border has remained largely unchanged. In June 2023, Latvia further cemented the ongoing practice of pushbacks in domestic law, following a similar move by the neighbouring Lithuania. The last two years have also seen recurring efforts to introduce the concept of instrumentalisation of migration into EU asylum law on a permanent basis. Drawing on empirical evidence, this post will demonstrate why the ‘instrumentalisation of migration’ is an overly simplified and generalised term that does not capture the complexities of the situation on the ground. Its adoption into EU asylum law thus threatens both to undermine legal certainty and bear far-reaching consequences for the Rule of Law in the EU.

Why We Should Question the Instrumentalisation Paradigm

Recent years have seen an increase in the violation of asylum-seeker rights in the EU, including through so-called pushbacks. These practices have typically not been authorised by domestic legislation and have been denied or concealed by the relevant Member States. However, this changed with the crisis at the EU-Belarus border that has unfolded since summer 2021. 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.

Belarus’ so-called ‘instrumentalisation’ or ‘weaponisation’ of migrants led Poland, Latvia and Lithuania to adopt long-term, far-reaching and blanket domestic legislative measures that allow to (forcefully) return people to a third country without formal return procedures and individual assessment of their asylum claims. The resulting arbitrary denial of fundamental rights protection to asylum seekers, even where they have managed to reach the EU’s territory, openly violate EU and international law, most notably the principle of non-refoulement (for a more detailed analysis see here, here and here).

Underpinning the instrumentalisation of migration paradigm is the wide-spread assumption that the Belarusian regime ‘artificially’ creates migratory flows to ‘destabilise’ the EU. Persons crossing from Belarus are also often framed as a security threat and tool of ‘hybrid warfare’, a narrative that has intensified following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; described as ‘illegal’ or ‘economic’ migrants as opposed to ‘genuine’ refugees; or portrayed as ‘pawns’ used by Lukashenko in a political game.

There are numerous issues with this framing of individuals crossing the EU-Belarus border. 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, thisis 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.

The instrumentalisation narrative about ‘artificial migratory flows’ consisting of economic migrants, not ‘real’ refugees is not adequately supported by empirical evidence. As part of my socio-legal research into the EU-Belarus border crisis, I have conducted fieldwork in all three Member States concerned 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.

My study reveals 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. Germany approves around a half of Iraqi Yazidi protection claims it receives.  Yet, during the autumn/winter 2021/2022 Yazidi asylum seekers were pushed back and forth for several months between Belarus and Latvia before being returned to Iraq via the IOM assisted voluntary return programme without their asylum applications ever being registered.

A refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, March 2023. Among those attempting to reach the EU via Belarus are people who had been living in protracted displacement in the Kurdistan region for nearly a decade. Photo by Aleksandra Ancite-Jepifánova

One of my interviewees, a young Yazidi woman who spent nearly four months at the Latvia-Belarus border and was forced to return to an IDP camp in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, told me over a video call:

‘I live in a Yazidi IDP camp near the city of Zakho. I previously lived in the city of Shingal and was forced to flee after it was taken over by ISIS. During that time I was captured by an ISIS militant who raped me and forced to live with him for three months before I managed to escape. I now live in a tent and do not feel safe. I am afraid that someone will abduct me again.’

The ‘instrumentalisation’ paradigm also ignores the divergent profiles and motives of those trying to enter the EU via the Belarus border. Many interviewees chose this route because it was perceived as safer, following previous, unsuccessful attempts to enter the EU via other routes. A young protection seeker, who was equally returned to Iraq after having spent 2.5 months at the Latvia-Belarus border, described his situation as follows:

‘I am a Kurd from Mosul. I wanted to become a refugee in Europe because I have been threatened by some groups in Iraq. They want to kill me. In 2018, I tried to go to Europe via Turkey but Turkish border guards beat me up, put me in jail for ten days and returned [me] back to Iraq. In 2020, I went to Greece but Greek commandos caught me near Saloniki and sent me back to Turkey. And Turkey again sent me back to Iraq. This time I tried to go to Latvia – I paid $1,800 to get to Minsk. Now I am back but I will keep trying to move to Europe – anywhere safe.’

Moreover, the ‘instrumentalisation’ paradigm ignores the fact that there are people who attempt to enter the EU via Belarus without procuring Belarusian or Russian visas and having no connection with the Belarusian authorities. Examples include those travelling to the EU-Belarus border by land, like it was in Rohullah’s case, or those who had previously resided in Russia or Belarus long-term (either regularly or irregularly) 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.

The Commission’s Troubling Embrace of the Instrumentalisation Paradigm

In June 2022, CJEU declared Lithuanian legislation effectively depriving a non-EU national of an opportunity to apply for asylum solely because they had crossed the border irregularly as incompatible with the Asylum Procedures Directive – even in the event of a declaration of an emergency due to a ‘mass influx of aliens’. Moreover, Belarus cannot be considered a safe third country (for the relevant ECtHR judgments see here and here).

Nevertheless, the Commission appears to have embraced the instrumentalisation narrative. Most notably, it has failed to initiate any infringement procedure against Member States who have continued to engage in the practices the CJEU declared a breach of EU law, let alone criticise their policies. Moreover, in late 2021, following the call of the European Council, it also presented a set of proposals codifying the ‘instrumentalisation’ concept into EU asylum law: a proposal for a Decision on provisional emergency measures for the benefit of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland; a proposal for a Regulation addressing situations of instrumentalisation in the field of migration and asylum (Instrumentalisation Regulation); and a proposal to amend the Schengen Borders Code. 

The Instrumentalisation Regulation proposal did not go as far as domestic legislation authorising pushbacks and suspending the right to seek asylum. The Regulation nevertheless allowed Member States to derogate from the EU’s asylum standards by extending registration period for asylum applications (Art.2(1)(a)), the extensive use of border procedures (Art 2(1)(b)) and de facto detention of protection seekers. While it failed to secure a majority in the EU Council in December 2022, there are now attempts to incorporate its content into the proposed Crisis,Force Majeure and Instrumentalisation Regulation, as part of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum.

Proving the ‘Instrumentalisation of Migration:’ Some Definitional Issues 

The draft Crisis,Force Majeure and Instrumentalisation Regulation defines the ‘instrumentalisation of migrants’ as:

‘[…]a situation where a third country or non-state actor encourages or facilitates the movement of third country nationals to the external borders or to a Member State, with the aim of destabilising the Union or a Member State where such actions are liable to put at risk essential functions of a Member State, including the maintenance of law and order or the safeguard of its national security.’

An immediate problem with the definition 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-Belarus border by intermediaries that are non-state actors. To establish the accountability of the state it would thus be necessary to assess if and to what degree state actors are involved in the operation of a particular facilitators’ network. At the same time, whilst there are numerous reports of the Belarusian authorities forcing non-EU nationals to cross the border, my interviewees revealed that this occurred only after they were previously pushed back by Member State authorities. While Belarusian border guards did not prevent them from crossing the Latvian border for the first time, they also did not force them to do so.

Establishing the aim of destabilising the EU appears equally challenging. For one, visas are officially issued for purposes such as tourism, study, work or private visits. Even if the real aim behind the third country’s liberal visa policy is to put pressure on the EU, this is a subjective and generalised finding that will likely suffer from overinclusion. Thus, it wrongfully assumes that every holder of a Belarus (or Russian) visa who later decides to irregularly cross into the EU from Belarus has been instrumentalised. This not only ignores the complexity of reasons for crossing and profiles of border crossers outlined above but also denies the people involved any agency. Moreover, by imposing blanket restrictions on the right to seek asylum, it is implied that every foreign national crossing irregularly from Belarus has been instrumentalised, including those who had never acquired Belarusian or Russian visas.

Protection seekers at the Latvia-Belarus border (Latvian side), winter 2022. The photo was shared with the author by her interviewees. According to the persons in the picture, it was taken by Latvian police officers who agreed to send it to their relatives in Iraq to show they were alive. 

Finally, putting ‘essential functions of a Member State’ at risk is a very high threshold to meet, in that it would require an overwhelming influx of non-EU nationals. However, even at the peak of the crisis in 2021, Polish border guards recorded less than 40,000 ‘attempts of illegal border crossings’ from Belarus, with the numbers dropping to 15,000 in 2022. Moreover, because many attempt to cross multiple times, the actual numbers are likely significantly lower. Thus, even though the Latvian authorities claimed to have registered over 6,600 border crossing attempts between August 2021 and April 2022, an analysis of daily border guard statistics and interviews with the non-EU nationals involved suggests that the actual number of people behind these figures was as low as around 250 (see here, here and here). Those belonging to this group arrived at the Latvian border at different times and were pushed back and forth for several weeks or months (in most extreme cases up to seven months).

Such low numbers of protection seekers hardly represent a threat to a state’s national security that could not be addressed by existing legal means without resorting to blanket measures denying individuals the right to seek asylum and effectively subjecting them to inhuman and degrading treatment. Nor do they put the essential functions of the state at risk – particularly in light of the fact that the same Member States have in total welcomed over a million people fleeing Ukraine.

The proposal for the merged Regulation further provides that ‘Member States may apply derogations [..] in a situation of instrumentalisation only in respect of third-country nationals or stateless persons who are subject to instrumentalization.’ The document, however, does not specify how this requirement is to be implemented. Any such determination seemingly necessitates an individualised assessment of each case on the basis of unknown criteria, an impossible task to undertake.

Concluding Remarks

Used as a rationale for a radical departure from EU and international asylum law, the ‘instrumentalisation of migration’ concept has led to creation of exclusion zones, where protection seekers are deprived of their fundamental rights solely because they attempt to enter the EU via a certain third country. Yet, as the above analysis shows, the concept is vaguely defined, highly problematic on a variety of levels and does not accurately reflect the realities on the ground. Individuals crossing from Belarus make up a highly heterogeneous group, find themselves in diverse situations and do not necessarily have any connection with the Belarusian or Russian authorities. In light of this, the national as well as EU-level reliance on the concept of instrumentalisation to justify radical departures from the right to seek asylum cannot be sustained and ought to be abandoned.  

About the author

Aleksandra Ancite-Jepifánova is a socio-legal scholar working in the field of European and comparative migration, asylum and nationality law. She holds a PhD in law from Queen Mary University of London and was a re:constitution Fellow 2022/23. She is currently a Research Affiliate with the Refugee Law Initiative (RLI), University of London. Her ongoing research project focuses on the EU-Belarus border crisis, particularly where it concerns 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 in the UK part-time whilst being based in Bonn where she worked for Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (Russian Service).

Citation: Aleskandra Ancite-Jepifánova, ‘Instrumentalisation of Migrants’ and the EU-Belarus Border Crisis: Facts and Fictions, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.10.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/48938

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 10. Oktober). ‘Instrumentalisation of Migrants’ and the EU-Belarus Border Crisis: Facts and Fictions. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. April 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut7y

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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  1. 2. November 2023

    […] ‘Instrumentalisation of Migrants’ and the EU-Belarus Border Crisis : Facts and Fictions, par Alexandra Jolkina, sur le Carnet TRAFO ; […]

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