Informal practices and the rule of law: Russia, migration and the ‘Arctic route’

Joni Virkkunen and Minna Piipponen


When the border between the Russian Federation (hereafter, Russia) and Norway and, later, between Russia and Finland ‘opened’ during the ‘migration crisis’ of 2015 and 2016, the so-called Arctic route through Moscow and Northern Russia became another major channel to the European Union. Migrants from various Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries chose this route given its cheaper price and, significantly, because it was considered safer than the overcrowded route through the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, Italy and Spain. Those using the Arctic route consisted of several groups of migrants migrating for varying reasons, including real and perceived threats such as war, conflict, poverty and religious extremism experienced in their home countries as well as acute insecurities in Russia. Due to extensive coverage in social and online media, reports of and rumours about the Arctic route quickly spread amongst migrant communities and smugglers in Russia and globally.

This study examines the Russian state as a legal power operating through informal practices, and how these practices manifested in the Arctic route. Specific attention is paid to informal practices such as corruption and migrants’ ambivalent encounters with Russian authorities facilitating migration to and from Russia, whilst simultaneously creating severe insecurities and distrust amongst migrants, pushing them to negotiate their daily survival and possible future in Russia. In addition, smugglers and other intermediaries with links to authorities assisted migrants whilst also taking advantage of migrants’ insecurities. Such individuals and intermediaries organised tickets, documents, permits, hotels and vehicles and provided migrants with information about possible routes. For some migrants, smugglers organised the entire journey through Russia to the Finnish border. By mingling with the Russian legal system, they played a central role in how the Russian North and the Arctic became a functioning route to Finland and the EU’s Schengen Area.

Urinboyev (2016) argues that the presence of millions of irregular migrants in Russia affects the functioning of its formal institutions and leads to the emergence of informal structures and responses, that is, a ‘parallel legal order'. Rather than reflecting upon the ‘rule of law’, migrants discover different tactics and strategies to adapt to the current ‘informality environment’ in order to ‘get things done’ and, thus, create various ‘legal orders' to regulate their working lives and seek solutions to their problems. As such, Kubal (2019: 168) illustrated how everyday life perspectives on immigration and refugee law reveal a more complex view of law: migrants try to avoid or bypass the complex bureaucratic structures of the country, like ordinary Russians, but the rule of law ‘does not necessarily entail the rule of disorder and mutual abuse". An everyday life perspective, she argues, reveals the cultural expressions of legality and should not be suppressed under the universal rubric of the rule of law.

In this chapter, we argue that informal practices between migrants, different intermediaries and authorities contributed to the establishment of the Arctic route and functioned both as push and pull factors for migration. These informal practices were simultaneously domestic and transnational, structural and experienced. Furthermore, informal practices become a part of the fabric of everyday life in which a complex set of law and legal practices, administrative procedures and networks are amalgamated with migrants’ everyday life experiences. Immigration laws and regulations create legal categories, such as irregular migrant status, which shape migrants’ incorporation, position and wages in the labour market and their life chances in general (Agadjanian, Menjivar and Zotova 2017: 2). At the same time, refugee smuggling flourishes particularly in countries where the rule of law is weak and public officials are prone to corruption (OECD 2015: 3), and where the informal practices of officials and governance, particularly payments to police officers, migration officials and border guards, as well as life subjected to ‘violent entrepreneurs’ who abuse migrants’ vulnerabilities, become staple features of migrant life (Reeves 2013: 518; Malakhov 2014: 1070). These realties create a context where migrant bodies are not only vulnerable, but also particularly untrustworthy, prone to fakery and, thus, legitimate targets for document checks, fines and threats of deportation (Reeves 2013: 509).

Here, we examine migrants' experiences with Russian informal practices, intermediaries in the process of migration and encounters with the Russian legal system through narrated stories. In doing so, we aim to improve our understanding of migrants’ experiences in Russia as a country of immigration and transit, and our understanding of the everyday insecurities and opportunities such informal practices amongst migrants generate. The chapter relies on a content analysis of the narrated stories from the asylum application protocols of 1164 asylum seekers who used the Arctic route and applied for asylum in Finland in 2015 and 2016. The materials were produced by the Finnish Border Guard, the Police of Finland and the Finnish Immigration Sendee.

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