Border guard head: We need faster way to send people back across the border

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A "stop" sign at Estonia's border with Russia in south eastern Estonia. Source: Ministry of Defense

Estonian agencies practiced processing hundreds of daily asylum requests during a major exercise in 2019. While this aspect is considered today, the focus has shifted to defending the border in light of Belarus' attack. Deputy Director of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) Egert Belitšev believes that an amendment allowing people who have entered the country illegally to be sent right back across the border is needed for emergency situations.

How much time does the new barbed wire fence on the eastern border buy us? How long do officers have to react?

That depends on the skills of those looking to cross the border. We can say it takes 10-12 minutes to bypass the barrier. It depends on the circumstances. But it doesn't ultimately matter as people will be able to cross eventually. What matters is having another piece in the puzzle of border safety.

I suppose the simplest way is to throw a heavy blanket or carpet over the fence and use that.

You can cut holes in the fence if you have pliers with you or cut down some trees to throw on it if you are carrying an ax. In other words, this temporary barrier is just that – temporary. It is giving Defense Forces reservists the chance to practice erecting such a fence out in the border zone. No barrier can ensure border safety. The latter requires information on what is happening on the border and people to block entry attempts.

Barbed wire will also be installed on top of the permanent border fence. How long will that buy us?

That fence is far more complicated to tear down. Scaling it is also more difficult as it is higher. It also has a stronger structure in that its foundation is buried in the ground.

But it is one element in the delay that gives us precious minutes in which to react. Because we have 100 percent border surveillance in sections with permanent infrastructure, we get a lot of images of the person and from many different angles. We can identity and apprehend the person later if we do not arrive on the border in time. What is more, we also have a lot of proof. The facts are clear and we can use them when communicating with neighboring countries.

I would like an answer in minutes. How many minutes does it take to cross the new border?

It depends on the tools the person has with them. It also depends on how professional they are. For example, it is much easier if one has a forklift. It will take a lot longer for an ordinary migrant so to speak.

Reservists constructing Estonia's temporary border barrier in south Estonia in November 2021. Source: Ministry of Defense

There has been a lot of talk about speeding up the eastern border development. The money for the infrastructure is there. What would we need to complete the border by 2025 instead of 2026?

The construction process can be expedited in many ways. Usually, if you want to do something twice as fast, you need to pay twice as much.

Talking about the entire process, the simplest way to speed it up is looking at tenders. We are talking about major public procurements the processing of which takes a long time. Every stage of construction takes about a year.

If we say today that we are in a hurry to develop the border, looking at events in neighboring countries, the Public Procurements Act prescribes exceptions that can be used to save time in the tender process.

What we need to decide is whether this constitutes such an urgent situation were the full process needs to be dropped in favor of expedited proceedings.

You are referring to negotiated tenders? Talking directly to [winner of both recent tenders] Merko Ehitus and asking for their best price?

We would also like to involve other construction companies, instead of just talking to Merko. But yes, I am referring to negotiated tenders where we contact potential contractors, ask for their price and pick the one that best suits our needs. However, this requires us to invoke an exception to the procurement process.

How big of a problem is it that a longwinded standoff, such as what we are seeing in Poland or Lithuania, would simply wear us out?

The possibility needs to be considered. We have examples from the Covid crisis where a lot of units, essential workers have remained in a near-constant state of stress and exhaustion for a year and a half. It needs to be addressed.

We see it as crucial that solving such major incidents, talking about mass immigration, needs to go beyond the Police and Border Guard Board. It needs to be a joint effort of the entire country.

I am also not just talking about the public sector but rather all 1.3 million of us. Every person can make the country a safer place. For instance, it is particularly important to keep one's home secure, lock the door and take steps to make sure the police would not have to respond to incidents that were perhaps easier to prevent.

However, I suppose the risk assessment is somewhat different, rather suggesting that a mass immigration emergency would see new tensions and problems.

I believe in the Estonian people. If we want to make it together, the best things to do is work together. While differences of opinion remain a possibility, they can be resolved without manufacturing vulnerabilities. Everyone is free to voice their opinion. But if the country is in a state of crisis, we need to first overcome said crisis after which we can set about discussing these matters and differences.

Egert Belitšev, deputy director of the Police and Border Guard Board. Source: ERR

Exhaustion is difficult to measure. Do you know how much the crisis is costing Poland in a single day?

We have no precise data on that, but considering what we are seeing, thousands of people on duty every single day, it is clear that it is a hugely expensive operation.

[Minister of the Interior] Kristian Jaani said this summer that if a person has crossed the border and clearly says they want to apply for asylum, said request needs to be processed. Is that so?

There are myriad nuances to international protection proceedings. International protection is granted based on specific criteria. The applicant's country of origin needs to pose a threat to their life or there needs to be threat of persecution.

Still, if a person crosses and asks for asylum, they can no longer be turned back with a friendly pat on the back?

As I said, there are a lot of nuances involved, including ways to expedite these proceedings.

It has been suggested that we need an amendment that would allow us to turn people back in simplified procedure. Please explain.

We are talking about two different situations. There are all manner of legal grounds for stopping illegal immigration on the border. The state has the right to check who is crossing our borders. The state has the right to stop illegal border crossings.

Once the person enters Estonia, we need to launch readmission proceedings to expel them. They need to be returned to their country of origin or another country willing to accept them. Or to the country from where they entered Estonia.

The European Union and the Russian Federation have a readmission agreement that prescribes procedural rules for sending people back. That agreement is in effect today. We file a readmission application that they will review before taking the person back. It also includes expedited readmission procedure that allows us to return the person even inside 48 hours.

Coming to the situation in Lithuania and Poland, we have the question of whether what is happening constitutes normal migration. In a situation where we can see that Belarus has set about facilitating this migration shall we say.

Whereas their border liaison fails to pick up the phone…

And Belarus is no longer complying with the readmission agreement and its norms. We should also have a lever for sending people back in expedited procedure and without going through the full process. But only if we are dealing with a national security situation. It is not something we would be using on a daily basis.

To be able to detain a person three kilometers inside Estonia, take them back to the border and point them in the direction whence they came?

That is the idea. I will not be going into detail in terms of how far the person needs to be from the border, and it is clear we will not be detaining and transporting people back to the border from Tartu. But if we catch a person immediately after they have illegally crossed the border and can be sure they had no such right, it would be possible to send them back to the country from where they arrived without going through the full readmission process, provided there is a security situation.

Exercise Okas 2021 in progress on the eastern border at Narva, where Prime MInister Kaja Kallas (Reform) and EDF commander Lt. Gen. Martin Herem were given an overview Saturday. Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR

Poland is still restricting media access to the border zone, while Lithuania did so temporarily. Can you explain the rationale behind these decisions?

It is very difficult for me to comment on Poland's strategic choices, while I could perhaps explain how Estonia would behave in a comparable situation that can perhaps provide an insight into Poland's decisions.

Let it be said off the bat that our strategy is to remain as open to the media and the public as possible in every situation. To provide a specific and honest picture of what is happening. Because we know that the enemy is also trying to weave a narrative and paint a picture in a hybrid attack situation.

But we must also realize that allowing journalists to get close to the area can be problematic in certain cases. Allow me to give two possible reasons.

The PPA is responsible for everyone's security and that includes journalists. We rather need to prevent a situation where we allow journalists access to areas where we cannot ensure their safety, whereas we are counting on understanding from the media in that it does not mean we are being close. We will allow media access as soon as it is possible again.

The other aspect concerns tactical and possibly strategic nuances in situations of national security where we have an adversary. Things we don't want the other side to know. It is one situation where media access can be restricted to prevent giving the enemy a glimpse into our rear so to speak.

There are also nuances that can be explained to the media, in terms of what can or cannot be shown publicly. Those are the nuances that might warrant restricting media access. But like I said, our goal in Estonia is to be as open as possible.

You have been confident talking about the border, while I gather that it is no guarantee when talking about mass immigration. We still need to prepare for receiving, processing and expelling people.

The better we are at stopping them, the easier these other processes will be in terms of workload. But it comes together to form a chain, which, as we know, is only as strong as its weakest link. It is possible people will get through and cross our internal border, meaning there will be pressure to accommodate and detain them. Such a weak link would cause us to pull resources away from the border.

I looked at European statistics, and it seems returning people is the most difficult aspect.

It is an extremely complicated link in said chain. The EU success rate in terms of returning people to countries of origin is low.

It is roughly 30 percent.

That is quite low. It sends a clear signal to so-called third countries. That even if you enter the European Union illegally, your chances of getting to stay there are two-in-three. That is not the signal we should be sending. That is one weak link in the chain on the European Union level today.

Estonia is doing very well. We are returning people to countries with which we have agreements – Moldova, Georgia, Russia. However, we might at one point have a lot of people we would have to return to countries where others are also having a tough time. What could be a broader solution? I understand that Estonia cannot solve this problem alone.

Estonia has done well so far for which there are two main reasons. One thing is that we are largely dealing with countries we know in terms of how they function.

Secondly, our immigration figures are still minute compared to the others, also as concerns more exotic countries. We still have the resources to deal with every applicant and their particular situation. Talking about the same thing in Western Europe, there are so many people that they cannot all be processed.

Concentrating on every individual and their return is key. This also greatly simplifies voluntary return.

But we need to deal with countries of origin in Europe. Today, we have countries refusing to take back their citizens despite the EU giving them considerable development assistance.

The Estonian-Russian border. Source: Ministry of the Interior

The Brits this summer threatened to refuse visas to countries that are not willing to receive their citizens.

And this has also been one of Estonia's agendas. We tabled the process when we held the EU presidency. We also managed to improve relations with a particular country. The initiative concerned visa sanctions against a third country that was systematically refusing to receive its citizens.

And asking whether the EU will stop issuing visas for diplomats or businessmen of a particular country definitely motivates the latter to behave how a country should behave toward its citizens.

All of these measures are on the table. Talking about development assistance, visa cooperation, we support these things. Of course, they should not be aimed at making an individual's life in the country harder but motivating countries to behave as they should be based on international law.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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