Throughout dozens of countries in today’s world, repression and war is running rampant, and the numbers of political refugees keep growing. However, the most influential European and North American countries are more often than not sending people, who have fled persecution, back to their homelands, and in the process helping authoritarian governments deal with dissent. Zaborona Editor-in-Chief Kateryna Sergatskova has studied the question of forced migration in Eastern Europe for many years, and has interviewed political refugees and asylum seekers. In this text, she offers looking the truth in the eyes and accepting the fact that today’s democratic countries are placing less and less effort into achieving equality and creating a just, open society.
On May 23, a Ryanair plane, flying from Athens to Vilnius, made an emergency stop in Minsk. The Belarusian air traffic control stated that the plane could potentially be carrying a bomb. Among the plane’s passengers was one Raman Pratasevich, founder and former chief editor of the NEXTA Telegram channel. Belarusian border police forced all the passengers out of the plane for additional scrutiny, and arrested the journalist and activist. Officially, Belarusian authorities excused the emergency landing by claiming that the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas had planned to blow the plane up over Vilnius. But obviously, the point of it all was to arrest the ‘objectionable’ figure of Pratasevich. Hamas themselves denied any involvement in the supposed ‘bomb threat’ the Belarusian authorities claimed the group had sent.
The NEXTA Telegram channel has over 1.2 million subscribers. The channel came into popular Belarusian awareness one year ago, during the initial spark of protests against the newly-instituted repressions and falsified elections of Alexander Lukashenko. NEXTA authors would send out the time and place of new protests, uncover and expose the names of repressive security forces, and call for Belarusians to take the streets. Lukashenko had wanted, for a while, to ‘deal’ with the authors of one of the most influential media outlets in the country. The Belarusian authorities have long hated journalists.
The safety of flights weren’t the only thing that the special operation of the ‘last dictator of Europe’, as Lukashenko is commonly called, has threatened. He also revealed a problem long known by Europe’s top leadership, but one that has escaped their attention. The situation with Pratasevich has shown how radically vulnerable forced migrants and political refugees are to, and how much they rely on, the system built by corporations and governments.
NEXTA’s founder was flying to Vilnius. For many years, this city has served as a sort of ‘Belarus-in-exile.’ Since the 00s, when Lukashenko began his concerted campaign against the opposition, opposition activists have been fleeing to neighboring Lithuania, which joined the European Union in 2004. Lithuania is where Belarusians opposed to the authoritarian regime of Lukashenko found charity funds and NGOs that are supported by Europe, Canada, and the United States. In 2020, as predicted, a new wave of political refugees poured into Lithuania.
Ukraine has become the second such country that forced migrants flee to. Kyiv already has several organizations dedicated to helping Belarusians settle in the country and start their lives over. This isn’t a new situation for Ukraine, either: since 2014, hundreds of Russians who have suffered from the authoritarian politics of Vladimir Putin have arrived in Kyiv. And thousands of Ukrainians have had to flee their homes in occupied Crimea and parts of the Donbas, becoming migrants in their own country.
Both Ukraine and Lithuania have much to tell the West about the struggles faced by those forced to leave their home for the sake of saving their life and their health. The main issues they face are the state structures uninterested in the plight of the migrant, and selective justice. Human rights defenders and lawyers have struggled for years to change the attitude of the migration agencies to migrants, but the situation isn’t getting any better. And in the larger countries of the European Union, the situation for political refugees is only worsening.
Threats to safety
In November of 2020, the French police arrested a Chechen refugee, 36-year old Magomed Gadayev. He fled to Europe from Russia in the 2010s, after spending half a year in a secret prison run by Chechen regime security forces, where he was tortured. He received refugee status in Poland and testified to Russian investigators – becoming a key witness in a criminal case on torture in Chechnya. He lived quietly with his family in Poland at first, and then in France – but this only lasted until an 18 year old Chechen native cut off the head of history professor Samuel Paty in the Paris metro. After that, the French president announced mandatory deportation orders against more than 200 Chechens who supposedly threatened the security of France.
Gadayev became one of those. He spent a few months in pre-deportation detention until his lawyer proved to the National Court of Asylum that he faced only torture, prison, and possible even death in Russia. Zaborona has gone into his case in detail here. He was freed in March, and the court ruled in favor of banning him from being deported anywhere. However, a few days later, the French police once again arrested Gadayev, stating that he will be deported. He even inflicted a wound to his own stomach to prevent his deportation, but he was still placed onto a plane and sent to Moscow. It was then revealed that his deportation was ordered by the French Interior Ministry at the request of the Russian Interior Ministry. In Russia, Gadayev was detained by Chechen police and taken to Chechnya – the place he’d fled from ten years ago. There hasn’t been any news of Gadayev since then.
The situation has caused a scandal in France. Gadayev’s lawyers have appealed the decision to French authorities. However, the French courts announced that French law enforcement had no reason not to send Gadayev to Russia – in other words, they saw no danger in the fact that Ramzan Kadyrov himself is waiting to enact reprisals against Chechen oppositionists.
Since the end of the 2000s, Russia and other non-democratic countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have been actively fighting against dissent – with the help of European instruments. For example, a common practice is to introduce charges of ‘extremism’ or ‘terrorism’ against opposition activists, politicians, or journalists, without worrying about evidence for the charge. In order to open a case, all that’s needed is a social media post that criticizes the ruling regime – according to local laws, this can be considered ‘extremism.’ If the oppositionist has left the country, however, then an international warrant is issued and added to the Interpol database. This warrant can be used to detain them in any country that uses that database.
This instrument is actively used in Ukraine as well as the European Union. Law enforcement in France, for example, sees no issues with cooperating and exchanging information with authoritarian regimes on oppositionists, and extradites people facing real harm on regime requests. Nothing can be changed once a person has been deported due to a request like this.
80 million refugees
The largest spike in forced migration since World War 2 occured in 2015: millions fled violence in Syria, which has been in the throes of a civil war, giving rise and opportunity to terrorist groups like the Islamic State. Refugees attempted to flee to Europe, risking their lives traveling on overloaded boats on the Mediterranian, and often lacked any legal status. A few European countries created tactics to ‘defend’ themselves from this flood of refugees – for example, Hungary promptly built a fence and set up strict limits on accepting refugees. Anti-migration rhetoric became a fertile topic for conservative politicians and populists all over the world.
And after terrorist acts committed by Islamic State members shook Europe, refugees became the largest target for politicians and state officials. Instead of learning how to recognize actual threats and to work with influence agents, they began a war against people who had never been connected to terrorism – in fact the opposite, people who were forced to flee repression and war.
The UN recognizes a global refugee population of 80 million, people who have left their homes unwillingly. People flee for a variety of reasons, including changing climate patterns, poverty, war, and repression. Nearly a third of them cannot return to their homelands, because all that awaits them there is torture or death. The World Bank forecasts that refugee numbers will nearly double in 30 years due to climatic changes.
The protests in Belarus, like the ones in Russia in support of opposition politician Aleksiy Navalny, have coincided with the coronavirus pandemic and the introduction of quarantine measures across the world. Most countries temporarily closed their borders, while some added a heap of additional restrictions that have been in place for over a year. This has only complicated an already difficult situation for those forced to flee persecution. Vulnerable people have found themselves in an even more vulnerable position.
Many countries, for example in the European Union, are now talking about introducing a ‘covid passport’ regime for their vaccinated citizens. These ‘passports’ would fail to account for countries like Ukraine and Belarus, where vaccination is proceeding slowly – not to mention that there are no international vaccine certificates.
Saskia Sassen, a professor of sociology at Columbia University who studies the process of globalization, calls forced migration ‘expulsion’. In her book Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (2014), Sassen suggests that the solution to the problem may be found in the financial system built by global corporatism and influential governments. She believes that the fact that states allow some people to move and forbid others from doing the same, and that they take away some of the rights that migrants have, creating unfair decisions against them – this is all part of a single problem.
“There’s no hegemony that could support a sane system without extremes,” Sassen told Zaborona. “The elites [helming the corporations and governments] clearly don’t care about the rest of the populace, or about the broader development of their countries. They want nothing to do with poverty, corruption, or the illegal detention of protestors. There was a time when the elites had to demonstrate somehow that they’re respectable, that they obey the laws and are even generous to the poor. But in our time, this is a rare sight. There’s this feeling that a new breed of rich have appeared, who are completely shameless and indifferent when it comes to social inequality and desperate hunger.”
Nowhere to run
After a large wave of opposition activists from Belarus fled to Lithuania and Ukraine, Lukashenko closed the land borders with those neighboring states and left open only airspace. But now, the parliamentarians of the Council of Europe and of the United Kingdom are calling for airlines to stop all flights through Belarusian airspace, and the majority of European nations, including Ukraine, have stated that they will no longer allow routes to Minsk.
This reaction was supported by many, except for the Belarusian oppositionists themselves. For example, human rights activist Palina Brodik, who defended refugees from Belarus and who herself fled from Minsk to Kyiv because of the repressions, says that the move is a very dangerous step against vulnerable people left in Belarus. They now have nowhere to run from Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime – both land and air borders are now closed to them.
“It’s important to remember that repression against journalists, human rights defenders, and activists is still going on in the country,” says Brodik. “We receive new requests from people every day, who have been forced to quickly leave [Belarus] for Ukraine. If Ukraine stops air flights with Belarus, then a million hostages will be left in Belarus.”
Brodik believes that economic influence would be more effective against Belarus, than to restrict the movement rights of average citizens. In fact, she pointed out that Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly arrested Belarusian citizens based on requests from Belarusian security services. Most oppositionists in Belarus are faced with life sentences or the death penalty, which the country retains. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s migration service often denies forced migrants political asylum.
Lawyer Oleksiy Skorbach represents dozens of refugees from the entire post-Soviet world. He says that governments in that part of the world have yet to reform their migration agencies. According to him, it seems like they’re not even interested in doing so – because it allowed them to press those same asylum seekers for bribes. As for the refugees themselves, they quickly find themselves fighting for the very right to live in another country, entering a state of purgatory or hell.
Every year, thousands of people across the world suffer from inequality linked to forced migration. It’s often difficult to prove that they’ve suffered from repression in the first place. Russian, for example, is still considered to be a ‘democratic government’ with an independent judiciary and trustworthy law enforcement bodies. For example, Ukraine has more than once extradited, at Russia’s request, people who fought in the Donbas.
Yet a process of adaptation to this new reality is also occurring, both in everyday life and in the cultural sphere. It’s nearly impossible for forced migrants lacking legal status to find work, which means they need to find other ways of supporting themselves and their families. Many of them are forced to stew for years in bureaucratic procedures, and don’t have the time to create new social ties. As a result, they fall out of society and are unable to self-actualize – meaning that their views can be radicalized. This risk is especially strong if the Sword of Damocles of deportation hangs above their head.
Immigration policies in many countries partly adopt a colonialist outlook, where the migrants by default become some sort of second-class citizen, lacking many basic rights and forced to depend on the goodwill of the state. This creates a dangerous situation for both the migrant and for society – it can take a hostile stance towards the migrant, since there is a potential for mutual rejection and misunderstanding.
For this reason, many citizens try to avoid situations where they could be forced to ask for political asylum and become a ‘stranger’ to society. Legal ways to do this, in Eastern Europe at least, are not abundant. You can find work, but employers rarely try to help and aren’t very willing to employ foreigners, because this often adds an additional financial burden to the business. You can marry a citizen of the country you’ve run to – and there has long been a market for these sorts of services. You can also roam from country to country every three months, but this isn’t a widely available option – it requires a lot of money, and employment that isn’t tied to an office. But regardless of what choice is made, the problem remains, as it imposes a burden and responsibility on already vulnerable citizens. A solution can only be found in the policies of the governments and corporations which create the global infrastructure and set the rules.
“States have to re-examine their immigration policies,” says Saskia Sassen. “Governments have to have some understanding of what migration entials, and to be aware that there are strong factors that often expel or threaten people unless they leave the country. The majority of refugees would have preferred to remain in their own countries, but they’re either expelled or their lives become unbearable.”
Forced migration or expulsion has become a phenomenon on par with the climate crisis, and follows in its footsteps – and action needs to be taken in line with its scale. Solutions need to be found in ecosystems and global infrastructures, and the very concept of migration as an ‘alien’ process needs to be reconsidered. Considering the conditions of the modern world, with its hybrid wars and global conflicts, migration should be understood as a natural process, the “global warming” of social relations. The search for a ‘cure’ for migration needs to stop – and focus should be put on ending the harm caused by existing political decisions.