In this post, researchers on migration in Finland argue that a ban on short-term visas will put Russian opposition activists at risk. In their expert view, banning tourist visas harms one of the main legal channels for escaping political persecution altogether. Photo: Global Residence Index/Unsplash.
When citizens from Russia fled to Helsinki on Allegro trains after the outbreak of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, many commentators in Finland cheered. These people had “voted with their legs” in protest and chose to escape Russia. Immediately, journalists from across Europe arrived in Helsinki to interview those Russians who had fled.
However, there seems to be a lack of understanding – even among security experts and foreign policy analysts who are very vocal in the Finnish and Baltic “visa-ban debate” – that these people could escape Russia precisely because they had “tourist visas”. Most people think of “tourist visas” only as a necessary document for holidays, but they are one of the main legal channels of leaving Russia altogether.
This does not apply only to holders of Russian passports. The international asylum law establishes that one should first leave a country to be able to apply for international protection. When it comes to reaching European territory, short-term visas, including tourist visas, are actually the only alternative to dangerous irregular journeys for safety. Problematically, EU visas are already extremely difficult to get for most of the people in the world.
As previous research shows, Schengen visa holders in Russia used short-term visas to escape political repression. For example, this is what an interviewee in Olga Tkach’ research article said after the 2011-2013 anti-governmental protests:
Now a passport and Finnish visa can become needed when it is time to flee. Last year I heard that in my social circle quite often. These are not detailed talks about how we will leave if anything happens. These are rather some ideas that consider such a situation possible. This is not professional emigration, this is some type of refuge. (Uliana, 32, journalist)
Politicians and pundits have claimed that one solution to this issue is issuing “humanitarian visas” to threatened holders of Russian passports. The Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has recently claimed that his country has been working with non-governmental organizations and rights groups to identify people in need of protection. However, he did not mention how disagreements on humanitarian visas have caused issues between some member states, the Court of Justice of the European Union and the EU Commission.
The proposal is problematic for countless other reasons. “Humanitarian grounds” is a vague concept that states can apply to exclude people who need international protection. For instance, countries can restrict it to “the sudden and serious illness or death of a close relative” and similar circumstances, as Switzerland did. Moreover, people who face danger in countries like Russia and Belarus may not have the time to apply for a “humanitarian visa”. Activists on the ground report that people deemed subversive often have less than 24 hours to seek safety after a protest or other events. This is why many apply for passports and Schengen “tourist visas” and keep them ready for use in times of need.
Researchers, activists and journalists should keep their understandable emotions in check when speaking publicly about the “visa-ban” issue. Researchers on migration have repeatedly argued that citizenship is a lottery because most people acquire citizenship by random circumstances of birth. In Russia, this also means that the holders of Russian passports are not only “Russians”, but also ethnic minorities who also suffer from state persecution.
Around the world, citizenship remains a major drive for the reproduction of global inequality. Contrary to Estonian Prime Minister’s Kaja Kallas’s ill-informed and callous remarks, “visiting Europe” is neither a right nor a privilege for most of the world population. Instead, it is deadly dangerous or entirely impossible. The discourse of “traveling to Europe as a privilege”, while targeting a particular nationality, is precisely the one that normalises the perpetuation of the EU border violence also against other non-EU citizens on a much bigger scale.
It is disturbing that some previously moderate supporters of causes like “no borders” and “refugees welcome” in Finland and the Baltic countries have aligned themselves with the right-wing discourse of “Europe is a privilege”. Meanwhile, prominent Ukrainian activists fighting with their country’s territorial defence have both expressed how the “visa ban” is a distraction and offered other more efficient forms of support to Ukraine.
In other words, some of those who ”stand with Ukraine” have chosen the same tools that violently expel asylum-seekers from across the EU. Looking at the longer history of EU border violence, it is not explicit that the EU will continue treating Ukrainian refugees as a special “white” group before using the exact same logic of border controls as it continues to do with other refugees.
The blank visa ban also overlooks the fact that Russian elites have long protected themselves against these types of sanctions by acquiring and buying EU citizenship. Moreover, as already happened with the restrictions of cross-border mobility during the Covid-19 pandemic, when people could not enter the EU with vaccination certificates issued in Russia, many flew to Serbia, Armenia and Croatia to get EU-recognised vaccines to be able to travel in the EU.
This example shows that many Russian citizens have knowledge of how to circumvent immigration controls and travel regimes. Therefore, holders of Russian passports with economic resources will either keep finding ways to reach the EU or turn to new destinations and internal tourism, which contributes to Russian economy. This situation already happened following the economic sanctions and the weakening of the Russian ruble after 2014. At that time, Georgia became a major destination for Russian holidaymakers. Similar leeways do not exist for those who will need asylum in the EU.
There are no reasons to believe the ban will lead to anti-war protests in Russia. The Russian government has long destroyed the infrastructures needed for protest. In addition, all Russian opposition leaders have either fled or been jailed.
The ones who will suffer the most by a ban on short-term visas are Russian dissidents and anti-war activists who will not be able to enter the EU and seek asylum in case of persecution. Those who stand with Ukraine should also fight against the EU border and asylum regime that forces people to dangerous irregular journeys to reach the EU.
If you want to support Russia’s anti-war resistance, please consider following and supporting these and other activist groups and media (many of which operate from abroad and send political democratic remittances to Russia):
Ángel Iglesias Ortiz