“Hybrid” human rights? How speaking of “hybrid warfare” masks the violence of EU borders beyond Belarus

The “hybrid warfare” narrative to explain the situation at the border of Belarus and Poland makes yet another tragedy at the EU borders seem unprecedented and exceptional. However, Daria Krivonos argues, this is not new and, worse, legitimizes the suspension of international human rights norms as if to protect the EU from the ”threat” of migration and asylum seeking.

Many commentators of Lukashenkas’s use of the migrant crisis to retaliate against sanctions tend to use the narrative of “hybrid warfare” to analyze the situation at the border with Poland. The term often refers to a combination of military and non-military forms of conflict that targets a wide range of pre-existing social issues, political cleavages and security vulnerabilities.

This narrative has become normalized and accepted not only by the political leaders calling to suspend the processing of asylum claims, but also by some human rights activists and scholars.

In this essay, I argue that the “hybrid warfare” narrative makes yet another tragedy at the EU borders seem unprecedented and exceptional, which in turn leads to unprecedented and exceptional measures to protect Europe itself.

The situation at the border between Belarus and Poland, unfolding since July, has escalated during the past few weeks. According to some estimates, eight people have died, but the true figure is likely to be higher and there is lack of reliable information due to the state of emergency in Poland.

However, the stories of people trapped between barbed wire and armed border guards didn’t start in Belarus. One state has not produced the tragedy alone.  The prevailing focus on geopolitics prevents us from understanding the historical contexts that have led to these migrations and produced the acceptance of violence waged against these people.

Words that do the political work

Words do not only describe phenomena. They also produce meanings. In her book “The Death of Asylum”, migration scholar Alison Mountz wrote about the tendency to overuse the word crisis in relation to migration. While we are certain about the unfolding of the humanitarian crises, Mountz urges us to ask where this crisis takes place and whose crisis it is.

The global media talked about the arrival of more than a million of asylum seekers in 2015 as the EU’s crisis. However, empirically speaking, it was a crisis for the displaced people and the neighbouring states that continue to host the vast majority of asylum seekers, refugees and stateless people.

Addressing these questions helps us to see that the discourse of crisis is productive: it does the political work of allowing the states to expand enforcement and security agendas of the states that simply act in line with the unprecedented situation.

The time framed as “crisis” then becomes a crucial moment to pay attention to the extension of state powers and the increasing policing of territory and human mobility. Under the narrative of “crisis”, states gain legitimacy to expand restrictive measures to movement. In addition, it is well known that funds allocated during crises go to the further militarization of borders rather than in the reception of people seeking protection.

Exceptionalising “hybrid warfare”

Framing the situation at the Belarusian borders in terms of “hybrid warfare” in 2021 serves the purpose of exceptionalising the current situation at the EU’s eastern border.

The discourse of hybrid warfare evolved during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The concept is popular in public and scholarly discussions, but its utility as an analytical tool has been heavily contested.

Some scholars have argued that the discourse of “hybrid warfare” helps to connect different sorts of anxieties to familiar East/West civilizational geopolitical ideas in which the East and, in particular, Russia are ultimate culprits.

Hybrid warfare has become a part of this civilizational mode of geopolitical thinking. It is worth asking what kind of work this discourse does in the context of migration politics.

I suggest that the narrative that has become easily accepted even among human rights activists helps to misplace the “warfare” waged against migrants to Europe itself. As if the EU were a victim that has the legitimate rights to protect itself from the “threat from the East”.

It is in this context that a proposal to build a fence along Finland’s external border should be understood. Several months earlier, violent pushbacks were reported on the Croatian border. It has been happening for months, but has attracted much less attention than the events in Belarus.

As other scholars have noted, since the Mediterranean border crisis, the EU has invested a huge amount of resources in securing and closing down the Mediterranean sea routes. The opening of new routes to Europe should not come as a surprise.  It is also worth to remind that Poland joined the EU on the conditions of becoming a barrier protecting the “internal security” of the Union.

The discourse of protecting Europe from the “hybrid attacks” of authoritarian regimes masks the fact that the EU has long bargained with other states that violate human rights, such as Turkey and Libya, a phenomenon that scholars have called refugee commodification.

There is little new in the deployment of forced migration in the states’ foreign policy making and bargaining processes in the politics of Europe itself.

“Hybrid” human rights

Most importantly, the narrative of “hybrid warfare” does not only misplace the warfare. It also creates a sense that human rights too can become “hybrid” and therefore suspended under these supposedly exceptional “hybrid” circumstances.

Consequently, the situation in terms of “hybrid warfare” may legitimize the suspension of international norms in the conditions of a new “hybrid” reality.

We can see the efficiency and productiveness of the anxiety driven by the “hybrid warfare” discourse at the border between Belarus and Poland. Some 2000 unarmed people trapped under sub-zero temperature in the forest are considered a threat to the EU.

In reaction, some political figures are discussing the possibility of breaching a host of international agreements regarding human protection. It took less than a week to start a discussion on the revision in Finnish legislation and a potential closure of the border “to deal with hybrid threats”.

What was considered as “Trump exceptionalism” just a few years ago is now a normalised political debate in a Nordic country run by a social democratic government. The effortlessness and swiftness of European states to give up on human protection becomes easier to understand once we move away from the discourse on “hybrid warfare”.  

Human rights have historically been subject to changing political interests. They were not meant to be universal. Non-Europeans could not be considered refugees until 1967 because the 1951 Refugee Convention was only meant to protect European refugees. The 1967 protocol of the Refugee Convention was a hard-won victory of the formerly colonized countries to expand the convention to protect non-European people.

We must acknowledge the unequal history of human rights legislation, but also remember it is one of the few tools we have to protect lives and dignity. Europe’s anxiety politics and the numb acceptance of “hybrid warfare” discourse should not trick us to believe that Europe is the one suffering from warfare.


Daria Krivonos is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre of Excellence in Law, Identity and the European Narratives (EuroStorie), University of Helsinki. Daria’s research interests include migration, racialisation, whiteness, labour markets, and gender. She conducted research in Russia, Finland, and Poland. Twitter: @KrivonosDaria.