Russia: Refugees not welcome

As Russians observe what is happening in Europe from afar, one can find rather few opinions on the migration crisis which are sympathetic to the refugees, as different comments, rather malicious and border on panic (“Europe is dying – and that’s exactly what it deserves!”), are more numerous. Many commentators do not shun away from spreading outright xenophobic fakes or making statements, such as those of the infamous Russian reporter Juliana Skoybeda, who called refugees “a brown wave” (Mrs. Skobeida had earlier made notorious anti-Semitic comments against “liberals”, regretting that the Nazis failed to make lampshades” from the skin of their ancestors, a reference to a horrible practice in one of Nazi concentration camps).

As for the official rhetoric, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova criticized the European Union for being helpless and warned against violation of the rights of migrants coming from the Middle East and North Africa. Mrs. Zakharova stressed that the European Union ought to learn from the Russian experience of resoling the problem of refugees. She said that Russia took some 900,000 people from Ukraine, including more than 400,000 refugees, gave them “shelter, food, welfare payments”, rightfully earning the approval of the international human rights organizations.

These statements were echoed by those of the official Russian human rights defender Ella Pamfilova, who spoke about the experience of Russia with accommodating of refugees in 2014: “While Europe drowns because of refugees, Russia had handled it well last year” (the choice of wording of the Russian ombudsman for human rights here sadly reminds of hundreds of migrants who had drowned in the Mediterranean sea).

Meanwhile, despite the approval by some international organizations referred to by Mrs. Zakharova, the way Russia deals with refugees and asylum seekers raises a lot of questions and gives grounds for some serious criticism. We know what an ordeal our compatriots, Russians who previously lived in the former Soviet republics, have to endure in order to become citizens of Russia: no “shelter and food” is provided to them, not even assistance in getting themselves officially registered in Russia (and lack of registration means it is impossible to do anything else), and they have to go through some very complex procedures for obtaining citizenship. And all of this is accompanied by repression against those who are trying to help these people. For example, the state opened a criminal case on charges of organizing illegal migration against Tatyana Kotlyar, a human rights activist, who had been kind enough to register immigrants in her own apartment in order to help them. It’s not just this, but human rights activists can not get access to schooling for the children of migrants and refugees in spite of the provisions of the Russian Constitution and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which are systematically violated in our country.

As for the refugees from Syria, who also had arrived to Russia both recently, trying to escape from the “Islamic State” or previously, before the military conflict between the forces of Bashar al-Assad and the armed opposition, their treatment by the Russian migration authorities also hardly deserves quoting Russia as a positive example of dealing with migrants even though the number of Syrians coming to Russia is negligible compared to the rest of Europe (and the number of those who succeeded in receiving asylum is merely insignificant). According to the Federal Migration Service, over the period between 2009 and 2014, just two (sic!) Syrians received refugee status in Russia (out of a total of 1781 people who had applied). And temporary asylum was provided to 1921 people while a total of 3343 persons applied for it in Russia.

Receiving refugee status or temporary asylum in Russia is extremely difficult (and not only for the Syrians). Russian Migration Service is notorious for its corruption and offering some “value-added services” on a commercial basis. FMS is also surrounded by hoards of “intermediaries”, offering various “services”. General inaccessibility of the refugee status, difficult financial situation, absence of any state assistance – these are the reasons why migrants and visitors in Russia often become “violators of migration laws”, are regularly detained during police raids, which are dubbed “Illegal Alien” or “Migrant”, and risk deportation from the country. Despite recommendations by the United Nations not to expel the unfortunate asylum seekers back to Syria, the Russian courts over the recent years continued to order expulsions from the country, and only intervention of human rights activists helped to overrule such orders.

Russia also shows little hospitality to peoples, which it historically had been associated with and regarding which the official Moscow could be concerned, as a way of acknowledging its historical responsibility. Recently some people voiced their opinions about the opportunity of providing political asylum to Syrian Circassians, who had arrived en masse to the Northern Caucasus. But Russian authorities had not expressed any enthusiasm, preferring instead to talk about the need for “special measures” to “filter” migrants and identify militants, who may try to infiltrate the country under the guise of refugees.

If we talk about the “warm reception” of refugees and displaced persons from Ukraine, there is also a strong discrepancy between the plight of these people and the statements made by senior Russian officials on supposed “most favored nation” approach reserved for people, who are part of the “Russian world”. For example, on the website of the Russian Federal Migration Service it is officially declared that “for humanitarian reasons” the agency freely and repeatedly extends the length of stay of Ukrainian citizens on the territory of the Russian Federation (i.e., these people are not required to leave Russia, as is prescribed for other migrants, until the resolution of armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine). On top of that Russian president Vladimir Putin promised “preferential” treatment for migrants of conscription age from Ukraine, explaining it by his desire to save them from mobilization in case they didn’t want to fight.

However, the actual police and judicial practice demonstrates the absence of any “humanitarian concern”: dozens of citizens of Ukraine end up in centers for detention of foreign nationals in Russia awaiting deportation from the country (and these are just cases known to human rights defenders). These people are accused of violating immigration rules and sentenced to expulsion from the territory of Russia – often to the areas where they have already lost their relatives, where their homes were destroyed and where military operations are under way now. Here is a typical case: a lawyer managed to overrule expulsion of two brothers, natives of Gorlovka in Donbass, to Ukraine through court. Original court ruling didn’t take into consideration any dangers threatening them back home, neither did it take into account the officially declared easing of migration rules for Ukrainian citizens. While overruling expulsion order, the court nonetheless failed to cancel a fine of 5,000 rubles although these people, of course, should not be fined or imprisoned and it was necessary to help them to get asylum status in Russia, official registration, assistance in getting a work patent, all things that are necessary for migrants from Ukraine wishing to legalize themselves in Russia as labor migrants.

Unfortunately, in other cases the courts even refuse to cancel earlier rulings on expulsion, thus putting Ukrainians in the same position as that of the Syrians. Rejecting asylum status is motivated by the fact that the citizens of Ukraine arrived in Russia before the beginning of the armed conflictthere, when they were not yet in immediate danger, thus their entry to Russia was not motivated by the goal of obtaining refugee status or temporary asylum. And if these people later violated some regulations, they became subject to deportation. International law considers these people “refugees sur place”, meaning that they had arrived to a foreign country before the occurrence of circumstances threatening their lives in their native country. Expulsion of “refugees sur place”, even if they have violated the terms of their stay in a country, is a flagrant violation of international law, but the Russian courts for some reason are ignorant of this fact.

Representatives of some vulnerable groups, who had been displaced from the Ukraine and would like to be legalized in Russia now, also find themselves in a very difficult situation as they meet insurmountable obstacles on their way towards asylum status. Roma people – citizens of Ukraine, who came from the Donetsk region, were not assisted by any state bodies, they had to rely only on the help of relatives and rare volunteers instead. These people, some of whom are illiterate, could neither procure the necessary documents by themselves, nor understand how to comply with immigration legislation. They do not know that, as citizens of Ukraine, there are entitled to beneficial treatment when extending their immigration documents. As a result, they find themselves illegal, subject to deportation as soon as they are discovered. Needless to say that these people do not have access to healthcare, their children do not go to school, nobody is offering them help in getting food or clothing. Solidarity with these people is very scarce. Numerous stories of ordeal of Roma refugees from Donetsk and Mariupol had been summarized in the report compiled by the Anti-Discrimination Centre “Memorial” entitled “Roma and the War”.

So, perhaps, the international organizations that defend the rights of refugees, and, according to Maria Zakharova, have no complaints” about Russia on this issue, should draw attention to the violation of the rights of citizens of Ukraine and other countries, which continue despite the brave statements about Russia’s enormous achievements in providing assistance to refugees.

Olga Abramenko

Originally published on Radio Liberty website (in Russian): svoboda.org