After the president issued orders regulating the status of foreign nationals during the pandemic, Russia’s Federal Bailiffs Service (FBS) took steps last summer and fall to expel many foreign nationals being held in Centers for Temporary Detention of Foreign Nationals (CTDFNs), leaving only prisoners who cannot be expelled, i.e., stateless people and foreign nationals awaiting deportation. In 2021, the half-empty centers started to refill with migrants subject to expulsion. This happened despite the ongoing pandemic, which has complicated air travel with most countries. In addition, the new requirement of PCR testing, which many migrants cannot afford, was added to the usual requirements for expulsion, which forbid meetings with lawyers to challenge expulsion orders.
A year ago, human rights defenders published an appeal to the Russian government requesting the release of foreign nationals and stateless people who could not be expelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closed borders. On April 18, 2020, President Putin signed an order regulating the status of foreign nationals during the pandemic. Almost immediately after this, FBS offices in various regions started to expel foreign nationals en masse, leaving just stateless people, who cannot be expelled because there is no country prepared to accept them, and foreign citizens awaiting deportation who were deemed “undesirable.”
However, since mid-December of 2020, CTDFNs have started to fill up again with foreign nationals, even though the pandemic has not ended and borders are still closed.
Many of the people who ended up in an CTDFN after the president’s order expired are migrant workers who lost their jobs and cannot return home. These people were not able to extend their residence permits because they lost their earnings. Now another problem has been added to all the others that CTDFN prisoners faced during the first wave of the pandemic (no meetings with relatives or attorneys, difficulty appealing court orders, closure of administrative courts): Airlines now require PCR test results before boarding, and these tests must be paid for by the people being expelled.
We started looking into this situation when we received several letters from CTDFNs in various Russian regions. The foreign nationals who wrote them complained that after the FBS reserved plane tickets for them, they were taken to private medical centers for tests they could not afford. Many people in CTDFNs have not had any source of income for a long time because of the pandemic and cannot even provide essential items for themselves. According to the information we received, almost one-quarter of migrants subject to expulsion refuse testing because they do not have the money for it. Instead, they are returned to the CTDFN for an indefinite period.
We believe that foreign nationals can only be legally held pending expulsion if they can actually be deported. This position was supported by Russia’s Constitutional Court in its ruling of May 23, 2017. The Court found that holding a person in an CTDFN when they cannot be expelled is inconsistent with the Russian Constitution: In this case, detention has no achievable or legally justified purpose and is tantamount to arbitrary and illegal deprivation of liberty.
This is exactly why migrant workers who have no money to pay for PCR tests and, accordingly, cannot be expelled, must be released without delay, at the very least under the condition of leaving Russia on their own within a reasonable timeframe. This measure must be adopted not just because there are no legal grounds for keeping a foreign national in custody, but also to protect the life and health of prisoners in CTDFNs, where it is not possible to organize a safe space or complete and effective medical care during the pandemic. Otherwise, the FBS should absorb the testing expenses for poor people, just like it covers ticket expenses for people subject to mandatory expulsion.