On 12 October 2022, Amnesty International published a report “Latvia: Return home or never leave the woods”¹, detailing what it deemed violations of migrants’ rights at the Belarusian-Latvian border under Latvia´s current state of emergency. The formerly respected human rights organisation thus continued its biased reporting practices that downplay security threats from Belarus and Russia and help the Kremlin propagandists to undermine European resilience. Notwithstanding the responsibility to scrutinise human rights violations by an EU member state, Amnesty International failed to correctly identify the perpetrator of this crisis entirely fabricated by the Lukashenka regime.
In the wake of renewed tensions at the Lithuania-Belarus border and with a successful Interpol raid against a human trafficking network in mind, the Latvian government decided to extend the state of emergency along its border for another three months. The state of emergency had been declared almost a year ago and continuously renewed since then as a reaction to an unprecedented effort by the Belarusian regime to facilitate illegal migration into Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Whilst Russia is waging a brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, concerns that the Russian and Belarusian regimes will use migration as a tool to exert pressure on the EU—and especially its members most vocal and supportive of Ukraine—must be heeded.
The Case of Hybrid Warfare
Amnesty´s report dwells extensively upon “Trapped in a lawless zone” by Aleksandra Jolkina and contextualises the alleged human rights violations while making minimal reference to the actions of the Lukashenka regime. Furthermore, the term ‘hybrid warfare’ appears only in quotation marks and is mispresented as a fabrication that the Latvian government, together with the European Commission, allegedly invented to justify their measures. This portrayal undermines the genuine security concerns of several EU Member States amidst the ongoing war in Europe—the war Russia has launched against Ukraine with the tacit support of Belarus.
Both Belarus and Russia have been hostile toward their neighbours. In recent years, they have employed hybrid warfare not only against Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland but against the EU as a whole—the factual reality that must be neither ignored nor dismissed as some sort of a Latvian plot. And weaponisation of migration is only one tool in the enemy’s toolbox.
This disgusting practice capitalises on coercive rather than cooperative migration. Cooperative migration diplomacy is based on a mutual agreement between states that have economic or political benefits for the actors of the agreement. Coercive migration diplomacy implies that one state, or a group of states, channels migration flows toward another to raise the cost of non-compliance for the destination state until the latter accedes to political or economic blackmail.
Mass migration—as leverage—seeks to erode political stability in the targeted nation through several effects accompanying the event (such as endemic conflict between heterogenous groups living in close proximity if not properly integrated). It has become a common practice, especially favoured by states with traditionally less power vis-à-vis their more powerful adversaries, by undemocratic regimes vis-à-vis democratic governments.
Russia and Belarus lack the strength to directly confront the EU and NATO member states. Hence, such ‘grey zone’ attacks are an effort to undermine the European unity and decision-making power from within. In the meantime, propaganda promotes a negative image of the West and often accompanies tailored disinformation campaigns to bolster the anti-EU sentiment.
The Kremlin appeals to the anti-immigration political forces, aiming to radicalise people. It instrumentalises anti-immigration actors via fabricated stories and constant disinformation. Such coordinated campaigns were well-documented in Germany, following an influx of refugees from Syria—also fleeing bombardment by the Russian Air Force—in 2015.
A Fabricated Crisis
Amnesty International only briefly alludes to Minsk’s illegal conduct at the Latvian border. Not once does the sixty-seven-page report mention what amounts to a human trafficking operation by the criminal regime. Alexandr Lukashenka imitates the Russian Federation’s modus operandi to punish the Baltic states for being outspokenly critical of the oppressive Belarusian regime and its many crimes, such as hijacking a Ryanair plane, as well as for their resolute support of Ukraine. Lukashenka has wielded the border crisis as a political tool to divert international attention from the repression of the democratic opposition and to bargain for sanctions relief with the EU.
Albeit people were crossing the border before the current crisis, those were mainly refugees from Belarus, Russia, or Central Asia. Mounting evidence suggests that Lukashenka now employs his country’s diplomatic offices abroad and a national airline company to create favourable conditions for citizens of the MENA states—mainly Syria and Iraq—to travel to Belarus. This new route to enter the EU through Minsk was promoted with an advertising campaign, and a simplified tourist visa was introduced. Once in Belarus, aspiring migrants were guided by the local security forces, who de facto controlled their journey to the EU border. Authorities giving false promises to migrants, providing instructions and equipment, and leading them to the foreign border constitute an act of hostility against a foreign country. Belarusian border guards facilitate illegal crossings, in some cases resorting to such extreme measures as police batons or tear gas. Meanwhile, the Belarusian regime has enriched itself through a concerted effort to lure desperate people and then exploit human misery in hybrid warfare.
Although Lukashenka was not particularly successful in his quest to lift sanctions and scale back political pressure, the information war he waged has contributed to societal polarisation in the bordering countries. Over Belarus and Lukashenka towers even a mightier foe—the Putin regime. Belarusian security forces are known to conspire and collaborate with their partners in Moscow. And Russian dominance in bilateral relations suggests that Minsk’s actions have been fully in line with the interests of the Russian Federation.
Ignorance is a Bliss
Despite the unresolved crisis at the Belarusian border, the Baltic states and Poland’s wide acceptance of Ukrainian refugees and their outstanding determination to support Ukraine have been nothing but commendable. Amnesty International, however, frames it not as a virtue but a vice, constantly referring to the number of Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Latvia following the Russian invasion. The report claims that Ukrainians are more welcome than ethnic minorities, overlooking the fact that Ukrainians are an ethnic minority in Latvia.
Such analysis either suggests that its authors are ignorant, which taints their credibility, or even hints at malign intent. For instance, Aleksandra Jolkina, an independent researcher whose contribution to the report was deemed “invaluable”, previously wrote about the ‘visa ban’ and the minority status discourse in Latvia. Moreover, the testimonies that served as the basis of Amnesty´s report are quite similar to the ones which Dr. Jolkina had already presented and the Latvian authorities had already countered.
This western-centric view speculates that all ‘Eastern-Europeans’ are the same and mimics the Kremlin narrative, which is particularly depressing in the current context. Meanwhile, Russian propaganda has ramped up its efforts to turn public opinion against Ukrainian refugees, fabricating stories of crimes they allegedly committed in Poland and Germany. Latvia—home to a large Russian minority—is especially vulnerable and often targeted by malign disinformation campaigns.
Worth mentioning is the letter to Director of the Europe Regional Office Amnesty International, in which Latvia’s Ombudsman Juris Jansons argued that previous reporting by Amnesty on the matter was “not based on evidence” but on “biased statements.” And this would not be the only time that the organization has damaged its reputation, given its recent shameful and heavily criticized report on the conduct of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Developments at the Latvian-Belarusian border must be further monitored. And a solution that would satisfy both the requirements to protect migrants’ rights under international humanitarian law and legitimate national security concerns must be found. However, Amnesty International’s record of biased reporting—that turns blind eye to the human trafficking operation by the Lukashenka regime and serves as a propaganda mouthpiece for Minsk and Moscow—begs for thorough scrutiny.
Belarus and Russia wield migration as a hybrid weapon. Fragility in the face of hardship makes Europe vulnerable to their attacks. It is high time the EU and NATO responded to preserve the life and dignity of those affected, as well as preserving the cohesion and resilience of European societies. Inter-European cooperation, as well as a common migration and asylum policy, should become a priority for a resilient EU.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).