Estonia plans to legalize migrant pushbacks at borders

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

Estonia is planning to legalize pushbacks at its borders in a "mass migration situation" which would break with international and European Union law.

The government is in the process of amending the State Borders Act and an amendment will legalize so-called pushbacks.

The draft legislation says in the event of an emergency situation caused by "mass migration", the Police and Border Guard Board can refuse to accept or process an asylum application if the applicant has crossed the external border irregularly not at a border crossing.

The Estonian Refugee Council said this move would be a "significant violation of both international law and European Union law".

Representatives of the Estonian Refugee Council, the Estonian Human Rights Center and the UN Refugee Agency discussed the issue with the Riigikogu's Constitutional Committee on Tuesday (May 31).

"The right to asylum is one of our fundamental rights. The reception of people in need of protection is a moral obligation under international law that cannot be easily circumvented. States have the right to guard their borders, but this must always be done with respect for human rights and the right to asylum. There are better solutions to mass immigration situations than illegal collective return to a dangerous country," Eero Janson, head of the Estonian Refugee Council, said in a statement.

Estonia's neighbors Poland, Lithuania and Latvia moved to legalize pushbacks last year after mainly middle eastern migrants started to cross the countries' borders with Belarus. Politicians called the scenario a "hybrid attack".

While the number of migrants has slowed, people are still attempting to cross the border but are denied access and pushed back into Belarus.

Estonia, while not directly affected, became a transit country for migrants crossing the Latvian border and traveling onwards to the Nordic countries. However, there are concerns Russia could do something similar and a similar scenario took place in Finland in 2015.

Earlier this year Estonia passed legislation that only allows people to claim asylum at border crossings, similar to Lithuania.

Former Minister of Interior Kristian Jaani (Center) has previously said the legislation is needed to prevent a Belarus style-situation arising in Estonia.

"During an emergency, the state must have the right to immediately return aliens who cross the country's external border en masse and use violence and therefore endanger public order or national security," he said.

The bill will be presented to the Riigikogu for its second reading on Wednesday (June 8) and the third, and final, reading is scheduled for June 16.

If the law is passed, the Estonian Refugee Council and the Estonian Human Rights Center hope President Alar Karis will find it in conflict with the country's international obligations and send it back to the Riigikogu. 


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Editor: Helen Wright

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