While Russia is not an obvious country of destination for asylum seekers, many refugees have ended up there. What they face is a repressive and arbitrary asylum system that punishes rather protects. Russian law enforcement and courts work hand in hand to block applicants from access to international protection regardless of their circumstances.
Back in 1997, Russia hosted almost 240,000 refugees displaced by various post-Soviet conflicts but the number dropped off dramatically and has not surpassed the 1,000 mark since the mid 2000s. As of 2017, there are just 598 recognized refugees residing in Russia, with Afghans who fled their country decades ago making up the largest group. For the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers, the coveted refugee status remains elusive: In 2016, the refugee recognition rate was at 3 percent.
Russian legislation does, however, offer the possibility of obtaining a more precarious form of temporary asylum that can be issued for a period of one year and is subject to annual renewal. As of 2017 there are 228,000 persons with temporary protection status, which requires an excruciating renewal procedure every year during which they are not allowed to work.
A look at the country breakdown reveals that 99 percent of those granted temporary status are Ukrainian citizens displaced by the war in Donbass and who are covered by a special fast-tracked asylum procedure. For citizens of other countries, there is little hope. Currently, just 1,317 Syrian citizens have temporary protection.
The treatment of Syrian refugees in Russia is particularly egregious considering the country’s direct military involvement in the war where the Russian air force has been accused of war crimes by Human Rights Watch. While some Syrians arrived in Russia due to professional or family ties that preceded the war, many opted to come because of the relative ease of obtaining a visa at the embassy in Damascus. The issuance of visas has long been a money-making scheme for Russian consular officials, with reports of Syrians being charged upwards of $3,000 for tourist visas that normally cost a fraction of the price.
Once in Russia, however, Syrians have just 30 days to either apply for asylum or attempt to cross into the E.U. irregularly. In 2015, over 5,000 asylum seekers, primarily Syrians, famously crossed over into Norway by bike at a border crossing 400km north of the Arctic Circle. Russia has since virtually shut down the border by detaining asylum seekers who attempt to make their way to the E.U. just as Norway has since enforced a controversial fast-track procedure for sending asylum seekers back to Russia, which the Norwegian government considers to be a safe country of origin.
With no prospect of being recognized as refugees, an estimated 5,000 Syrians are currently stuck in Russia without any legal status, unable to regularize their stay while at the same time being prevented from leaving the country. Syrians and other asylum seekers have been locked away in detention centers across Russia where according to Russian law they can be detained for up to two years while awaiting deportation. Despite the ongoing war in Syria, Russian authorities nearly deported three Syrian citizens to Damascus back in February 2016, an expulsion that was only halted thanks to an international outcry.
A recent report by Civic Assistance Committee, Russia’s only nongovernmental agency providing legal and humanitarian assistance to refugees, documents how migration officials routinely fine and detain those who apply for asylum. Those looking to file an asylum claim are charged on the spot by police officers for being in violation of Russia’s migration and residency laws before being taken to court. In blatant disregard of proper legal proceedings, courts issue rulings – often within minutes – without providing the defendant access to an interpreter or legal counsel. Once the $88 fine has been paid, those who are not slapped with a deportation order are free to return to the migration office and make another application. As a result of this scheme, migration authorities collected almost $9,000 worth of fines within a four-month period in 2017 – in the Moscow region alone.
The recent case of Ali Feruz, an Uzbek journalist who has been in detention since his asylum request was denied and a deportation order was issued, is emblematic of the state of Russia’s asylum system. In his case, an uproar was successful in pushing the Russian Supreme Court to overturn the initial deportation ruling, most denied asylum seekers continue to languish in detention centers. According to Konstantin Troitsky of Civic Assistance, the Russian interior ministry has refused to provide any statistics or information on the number of foreign nationals currently in detention. Instead, they themselves have come under fire for the legal assistance they provide migrants and refugees, with Russian authorities categorizing them as “foreign agents.”
While regular asylum seekers can all but forget about gaining any kind of meaningful protection, Russia is known to extend asylum to political VIPs such as former Ukrainian officials who fled the country after the Maidan Revolution. Both the ousted president Viktor Yanukovych and former prime minister Mykola Azarov enjoy refugee status in Russia as well as the rest of their entourage that fled Kyiv back in 2014. Those fleeing persecution in their home countries, such as Choi-Myung-Bok, a North Korean defector who was nearly forcibly deported in 2017, can expect no such welcome.
Thanks to the efforts of international human rights organizations and local NGOs, a few of the most egregious cases have come to light and deportations halted. With limited capacities for providing legal assistance, there is only so much an organization like Civic Assistance can do in the face of a repressive and dysfunctional asylum system. In the meantime, asylum seekers in Russia are forced to live in the shadows or hope for a better future elsewhere.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.