Criminologist Jüri Saar warns against helping migrants

Priit Pullerits
University of Tartu professor emeritus of criminology Jüri Saar says that those who feel tempted to help people illegally crossing the border are risking tough punishments.
University of Tartu professor emeritus of criminology Jüri Saar says that those who feel tempted to help people illegally crossing the border are risking tough punishments. Photo: Remo Tõnismäe

University of Tartu professor emeritus of criminology Jüri Saar says that those who feel tempted to help people illegally crossing the border by offering them food, warm clothes or a place to lie low are risking tough punishments that can take them behind bars for long years.

Are those who illegally cross the border into Estonia and appear out of forests, on roadsides and villages criminals in the eyes of the Estonian state?

Indeed, the Estonian penal code includes a few sections that treat crossing the border as a crime. However, there are conditions in that case. If the person or persons have ignored orders from a border guard officer, have crossed the border as a group or have used a means of transport to cross the border where it is not allowed. There was a fourth condition until 2014, before mass immigration became a hot topic in Europe, that was multiple illegal border crossings.

The State Borders Act classifies illegally crossing the border as a misdemeanor. The punishment is 200 fine units or detention. A person who appears in a border village as if out of nowhere has definitely committed a misdemeanor. Whether they have also committed a crime depends on the circumstances.

It is also interesting how section 260 of the Penal Code that criminalized the illegal stay of foreigners in Estonia and prescribed a punishment of up to a year in prison was revoked in full in 2014. For some reason, sanctions for border crossing were relaxed in Estonia immediately before things started heating up on European borders.

The Penal Code distinguishes between a single person and a group of people crossing the border. Why is that?

Yes, people crossing the border in groups is considered more dangerous. A group is usually prepared and can have a leader who knows where to go, crossed the border. Let us recall the incident of Eston Kohver from 2014: Russia could only claim that he was on their side because our border was not properly marked. It was a thicket.

How many people constitute a group?

A group is made up of at least two people. What is currently happening on the Polish border is mass breach of legal order. I’m entirely sure that Poland’s criminal code classifies tearing down border infrastructure, failing to follow orders and attempts to invade the country as criminal acts.

The problem with processing such offenses is their sheer number. Over one million people entered Europe during the 2015 migrant crisis. Who has the capacity to process each person’s case in a situation where many didn’t even have identification? It was like a steamroller rolling over Europe that no one knew what to do about. Other than [Angela] Merkel’s infamous message that we can manage. But what else could she say? We cannot just loose the army on thousands of civilians and have a bloodbath in the middle of Europe.

That is what makes using masses of people for hybrid war purposes or attacking a sovereign state so dangerous. It is very difficult to counter. And that is why Poland has been forced to move a lot of additional manpower to the border. There are currently 3,000-4,000 people on the Belarusian side of the Polish border, but what if there were 30,000 or 40,000?

Why aren’t people who cross the Estonian border illegally punished to the full extent of the law? Sending them back where they came from is no punishment.

There are legal nuances involved. People who have been caught crossing the border illegally can be sent back to Russia. However, if they are caught in Estonia, under the bed of so-called Good Samaritans who have offered to help them, it allows Russia to claim that we can’t prove where they came from, that they might have come from Latvia instead.

The Dublin Convention holds countries through which migrants arrive in the EU responsible for them. That is also the reason why Poland is doing everything it can to push them back. Otherwise, they will be forced to process thousands of applications, which is what thousands of people on the border are hoping for, entering Poland and securing refugee status.

Whereas we need to be accurate in our terminology here. We are not talking about refugees in this case but illegal migrants.

Therefore, we should absolutely refer to those who get across as illegal migrants?

Precisely. We know that they have entered the country illegally, while we don’t know their reasons.

The international conventions currently in effect reflect a different era in the development of the Western world. It was a completely different story when someone managed to escape the Soviet Union through great hardship and danger only to be handed back to the terrorist regime. Several conventions were passed to prevent such incidents in the early 1950s, which Estonia has also joined. But things have become more complicated since then.

And another aspect: Western European countries could live without having to worry about their security after the last great war. It was ensured by NATO, U.S. troops in Europe that deterred Russia from sending in their tanks. Whereas it is very convenient when you border the Soviet Union or Belarus that sported extremely strict border regimes where a baby mouse could not take a stroll 25 kilometers from the border – we remember how it used to be in Soviet days. Europe let its borders go and found itself depending on the good will of its neighbors. But good will can turn to malice.

The merging of the Estonian police and border guard in 2010 that was required by the EU meant that the border guard ceased to be a military unit back in 2007. The border guard effectively became the border police, which is inevitably a watered-down version of what is otherwise a military structure with its own firepower and equipment.

Therefore, developments in Estonia have moved contrary to the state of European-Russian relations. As if they were the best times imaginable where we should forget about our troubles and where there are no dangers. It was clearly pressure from the EU where strong borders were deemed unnecessary and it was suggested that we can all be happy and do business without them.

Postimees wrote about a Polish woman who lives near the border with Belarus and helps illegal migrants, offering them shelter, food and pointing them toward Europe. Would such actions constitute crimes in Estonia?

Again, we need to distinguish between crimes and misdemeanors. Criminal offenses of illegally crossing the border see abettors and instigators punished based on the same section as persons who crossed the border. Therefore, those who aid and abet human trafficking will be punished based on the same elements of offense as the traffickers. Illegal border crossings could be human trafficking. In the case of border crossing misdemeanors, only the perpetrator is punished.

But a person offering their help does not know the situation they are dealing with. What will someone who arrives in the EU without identification or a place to stay live off? What are their chances of getting by legally? They are easy pray for human traffickers. Therefore, a kindhearted helper might end up as an accessory to human trafficking.

Does that mean one’s kind heart can get them in a lot of trouble?

The punishments for human trafficking are very serious in Estonia. Up to 15 years in prison. People who think they are doing others a kindness should keep this in mind.

Of course, if a hungry, half-frozen person shows up on your door, you need to feed them and warm them up, but you also need to notify the proper authorities who will take it from there.

And if you don’t notify the authorities?

Then you are in violation of the law. Because the helper will not be able to answer the question of how the person they took in crossed the border, whether they were part of a group, caused damage to border infrastructure or refused to follow instructions.

Is merely pointing one in the direction of Värska or Misso aiding and abetting?

(Smiles.) One should always be a decent human being, while there is a flip side to this coin. We need to make sure our tiny peripheral country survives.

The Polish teacher Postimees wrote about is being disloyal to the Polish state by putting up and helping migrants. And by failing to notify the authorities. Those bringing buses from Germany are also dubious – what is their responsibility?

The Baltic presidents recently made a joint statement, pushing for tougher asylum rules in Europe. What about them should be changed?

They probably meant that the rules shouldn’t be as automatic as they are now, because the situation has changed.