Baltic countries bring down the shutters of free migration

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The Baltic countries’ refusal admitting that Russians are fleeing mobilization because of Putin’s war in Ukraine has drawn criticism, with some opponents calling it too harsh. Unfortunately, this was not a decision made in isolation; this is part of a more than year-long shift towards much tougher border policies in the region.

This is not, as the Kremlin likes to suggest, an aspect of alleged irrational hatred of Russia. Rather, it has its roots in Russia’s weaponization of migration over much of the past decade, with the aim of destabilizing its neighbors.

The actions of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as Poland, are responses to what can be seen as asymmetric hybrid warfare. Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has simply provided one more reason for this trend to consolidate.

The rest of the world may have noticed the migrant problem in the summer of 2021, when the Belarusian dictatorship first militarized migration. But the example of this behavior was set by Russia in 2015, when it instrumentalized illegal migrants to influence Western neighbors – through the so-called arctic route.

That year, the Kremlin organized migrants from Afghanistan, Nepal, Palestine and Iraq and encouraged them to enter Finland and Norway through its northern borders. However, they weren’t intentionally shipped to Russia first – unlike the 2021 Belarus border crisiswhen Belarusian President-turned-dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka, in response to EU sanctions, invited thousands of migrants with promises of supposedly easy entry into neighboring EU countries.

Charter flights were organized by travel agencies in Iraq, and at some point in July 2021, dozens, then hundreds of people showed up at Belarus’ border with Lithuania, Poland and later also Latvia, trying to illegally cross the forests. They were actively encouraged by Belarusian border guards and in many cases they were not allowed to return. Belarus said it was just prolong hospitality migrants, while the Kremlin praised Lukashenko for his “responsible” conduct.

Before Lithuania deployed forces to physically close its border, around 4,000 people, many of them undocumented, needed to be taken care of, with the government setting up a temporary camp which sparked protests among the local population. Latvia soon faced a similar challenge. After the first hundred arrivals, he announced a state of emergency in the border region and temporarily suspended asylum applications for people entering illegally through the so-called “green border”. Unlike Lithuania and Poland, which both passed laws limiting the right to seek asylum, Latvia did not change its asylum law, but maintained the state of emergency as the basis a temporary derogation from European Union (EU) asylum law. Estonia, although not directly affected by the Belarusian regime’s hybrid activity, responded by establishing temporary border controls with Latvia.

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The ensuing standoff has led the Baltic states and Poland to revise their response to irregular migration, so far a minor phenomenon in the region (for example, Latvia had barely a dozen cases per year before 2021) . An informal, but apparently permanent, consultation mechanism has been put in place. by the interior ministers of the four countries. With like-minded countries such as Denmark, the Baltic States and Poland pushed for a system-wide review of migration and asylum policies in Europe, and more specifically for amendments to the Borders Code Schengen, offering solutions in the event of instrumentalization of migration. The European Commission proposed corresponding amendments at the end of 2021.

The Baltic States had taken note of the developments in 2015 and, aware of the risks, started work on border fences that later stretched for hundreds of kilometres. Lithuania, Latvia and Poland have also added major border protection infrastructure projects in 2021-2022, and the EU has agreed to fund border security technology.

While the discussion of whether Russia was really pulling the strings in the Belarusian border crisis has never produced a definitive answer (beyond its open support for Lukashenka), it is increasingly clear that the current migratory pressures in Europe are largely encouraged and at least partly instrumentalized by Russia – witness favorable to the Kremlin Serbia’s visa policy, where an increasing number of third-country migrants have taken advantage of free entry to continue their journey to the EU.

It is therefore not surprising that the Baltic countries and Poland resist the entry of Russian citizens even when a request to cross the border is legitimate on its face – as evidenced by the joint decision of the four countries to ban Russians holding a tourist visa to enter the EU via their external borders. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Latvian parliament also ended the long-standing residence permit program that granted investor visas to third-country nationals, mainly from Russia.

In the current climate of grave security concerns about Russia’s overt and covert actions against its neighbours, as well as against the EU and NATO, the long-term reluctance of Baltic governments to consider mass asylum for third-country nationals will probably be preserved in the immediate future. Moreover, after following the Baltic and Polish examples of prohibit the entry of Russian citizens with tourist visasFinland also took the decision to ban Russian tourists and build a new border fence with Russia.

The will of the Baltic States to ensure stricter border security and control of migratory flows, given the troublesome behavior of their eastern neighbor, seems set to last.

Marija Golubeva is a Latvian politician, political scientist and historian. She served as Minister of Interior of Latvia and Member of the Latvian Parliament (2018-2022). She has also been active as a public policy researcher and international consultant.

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