Four beds are squeezed into a tiny room with dirty grey walls. There is hardly any space in the room. There’s also a shower and a toilet here, separated by a curtain. Sunlight illuminates the room through the bars.
This tiny room in a detention center in Russia was the first home for new-born Nabotov and the last for the severely ill Vephviya Sordiya.
The conditions in which foreign citizens and stateless persons are detained in Russia (the stated end goal being deportation) are often inhumane and violate national and international legislation. Migrants can be detained here regardless of their physical condition or family situation. The European Court of Human Rights has found serious human rights violations in the practice of immigration detention in Russia – yet Russian legislation and its implementation remain unchanged, often leading to tragedy.
A range of state bodies in Russia have the power to make decisions about the expulsion of foreigners or stateless persons, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Internal Affairs, State Security Service and Ministry of Justice. There are 81 detention centres across the country with a total capacity of 8,000.
One of the most outrageous cases in the recent years was the detention of Dilafruz Nabotova, a citizen of Uzbekistan, who was 40 weeks pregnant when she was detained by migration officers in Saint Petersburg on 7 September 2015. Her two children – eight-year-old Sarvarbek and seven-year-old Makhbaba – were detained with her, but then separated from their mother and sent to an orphanage. Two weeks later, on 20 September 2015, Dilafruz Nabotova gave birth to a son – five days later, she was returned to the detention centre, the first home for her newborn child. Three weeks later, both were deported. When Dilafruz asked to be reunited with her two older children, migration officers refused, instead threatening to take her baby away from her. It was only three months later that Sarvarbek and Makhbaba were also deported and reunited with their mother.
Dilafruz was detained in violation of the Russian legislation that prohibits the detention of pregnant women and mothers of children younger than 14. What is more, the conditions she faced were unfit for a pregnant woman, a new mother, or a baby. These centres are overcrowded with no medical assistance available. The detention centre in Saint Petersbury where Dilafruz was kept, has a capacity of 336 people, but there are usually many more than that. The shower and toilet situated on each floor are used daily by a dozen people. Each detainee has around 2.5 square metres of living space and shares their room with three others. In some rooms, there is no access to drinking water. Due to poor hygiene, the detention center is infested with mice. According to the detainees, it is only the mice that are free in this institution.
Stateless persons are also kept in these detention centers. As with foreign nationals they are detained to ensure forced expulsion. But their deportation is impossible due to absence of any citizenship, and their detention is simply senseless. Stateless persons are often detained for months or even years waiting for deportation that is impossible to realize. At some point they are released, because they cannot be deported. However, from the perspective of Russian legislation, they continue to violate the law. They cannot leave Russia due to lack of identification documents, but the state refuses to issue these documents. Because of this, they are often detained for a second or third time on the same grounds. Detention for stateless persons becomes an indefinite punishment. For some, it lasts until the end of their lives.
On 8 October 2016 a stateless person, Vephviya Sordiya, died in the hospital in Saint-Petersburg. He had lived in Russia since 1998, but he did not have any citizenship or identification documents. In 2015 he was detained due to violating immigration legislation. Six months later, he was released, punished with a fine, and told by the court to leave Russia on his own. However, since he had no papers (and the authorities refused to issue him any) and could not cross the border, he was unable to leave. In 2016 he was arrested for the second time and sent to a detention centre because of his failure to comply with the court decision of 2015.
While in detention, Vephviya’s health deteriorated – his chronic diseases intensified and he began to suffer from unbearable physical pain. He was refused hospitalization and was not provided with any medical assistance in the detention centre. On 16 August 2016 the city court of Saint Petersburg rejected a request to release Vephviya due to his health problems. Nothing changed even after the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Hours before his death, Vephviya was released from detention and finally sent to hospital – but the intervention was too late.
In a high-profile case in 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the detention of stateless persons in Russia violates the Convention on Human Rights and that the conditions in the Saint Petersburg detention centre were inhumane. The Court demanded that Russia take general measures to combat violations and prevent further violations of the rights of stateless persons. But the government has taken no such measures – the detention centres have not been improved and the legislative gaps have not been addressed.
Until the appropriate measures are taken at state level, the nightmare experiences of Vephviya, Dilafruz and others will continue – people will be born and people will die in detention, just because of their migration status.
a specialist in international law and works for a range of human rights organisations, including ADC Memorial
First published on the Migrant Voice