Refugees’ rights and migration reform in Russia

30.10.2016
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As you may know, in April this year the Russian president signed a decree on the merger of the Federal Migration Service (FMS) with the Interior Ministry. In accordance with this decree, FMS was abolished as a separate agency and the interior ministry was put in charge of migration issues.

The merger of the Federal Migration Service and the police looks rather familiar: the recent reorganization of the FMS is not the first of its kind and it fits well into the traditional logic of criminalization of migrants and refugees, who are often portrayed as “a source of terrorism, crime, foreign cultural danger”. However, the official reason for the subordination of FMS, which is formally a civilian structure, to a law enforcement ministry is quoted to be budget savings and improving the quality of migration service’s operations. It should be noted, though, that FMS sought to gain more repressive powers for itself even before its absorption by the police agency, as it insisted that it was not enough for it to simply “deal” with migrants. Back in 2014 the Federal Migration Service has drafted a law “On immigration control”, which, if it had been accepted, would enable FMS officers to initiate and investigate criminal cases concerning organization of illegal migration, to check the documents of citizens and to have the right to use weapons. However, due to the poor performance of the FMS it was decided to merge it with the Interior Ministry instead.

The reform has not yet led to any visible increased efficiency. More than that, even the regular functions of the former FMS ceased to be performed properly, which is not at all surprising: any reorganization, redistribution of powers or downsizing generates a lot of confusion. According to the testimonies of foreign nationals, who are being held in detention centers awaiting deportation, and their lawyers, since April 2016 the Interior Minitry’s Department for migration management started delaying deportation procedures, and the courts have ceased to accept legal complaints regarding the terms, procedures and conditions of detention since the bailiffs were formally deprived of the duties to deal with foreign nationals in detention and no one else was appointed to perform these tasks instead of them. Thus, in the case of Mr. S., citizen of the Republic of Belarus who is held in detention center for foreign nationals in St.Petersburg, the legal complaint, which had been filed on April 15, 2016 and was to be considered in a day since it was filed (according to Article 30.5 Section 3 of the Russian Administrative Code), has not been processed until this day. In a similar situation, Mr. F., a native of Lugansk region (Ukraine), filed a complaint on August 28, but the court failed until now to consider his legal claim. There are also people, who already have printed copies of decision on their deportation from the Russian Federation, but they simply can not be taken to the airport, as bailiffs no longer perform these tasks.

Strictly speaking, Russia’s Migration Service was not a civilian agency in full sense. Despite continued efforts to “demilitarize” it, at least half of its employees wore uniforms, and the now planned 30% reduction in the number of migration officers within the Ministry of Interior is most likely to involve those employees who wear no uniforms and shoulder straps. Both experts and migrants recently report decrease of the civilian component of migration policy and simultaneous strengthening of repressive trends.

Most vulnerable people, including those fleeing from war and persecution in their countries of origin and applying to the Russian immigration authorities find themselves particularly vulnerable in this situation. In October 2016 a wave of arrests aimed at removal of aliens seeking asylum was reported to have been carried in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities. On October 6, 2016 six foreign nationals, who had previously applied to Russian immigration authorities for protection were detained in St.Petersburg. Two of them, including a citizen of Syria and a native of Palestine, who had no citizenship, were arrested immediately after their applications to the Ministry of Interior with complaints regarding failure to include them in the procedure for obtaining temporary asylum status. Interior Ministry officials seized their documents and compiled reports on violation of the rules of stay of foreign citizens in the Russian Federation. These people were then taken to court, which ruled to fine them for violation of the immigration regime, although without further expulsion from the country. These court rulings can be considered relatively humane, if we compare them with some earlier decisions to expel foreign nationals to the zones of military conflict or countries where the expelled risk to be tortured or ill-treated. However, in the future the penalties ruled by courts can be a problem when legal status of these people in Russia will be further considred.

Russian Migration Service’s – and now the Ministry of Interior’s – practice demonstrates that its officials do not even want to understand whom and where they expel, what happens to these people afterwards and what is the situation in their country of origin. Despite the ban to penalize refugees for illegal entry and stay in a foreign country, which is outlined in Article 31 of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the authorities persist in their efforts to expel them in a rather sadistic manner.

Of course, these repressive practices of dealing with refugees had existed in the past and had caused a lot of questions even before the authority of FMS was formally transferred to the Ministry of Interior. The process of receiving refugee status or temporary asylum usually took many months, and instead of being provided with concrete assistance people were palmed off from one office to another and forced to stand in long queues. There were those, who had been expelled from the country after failing to get a positive decision, however, earlier FMS simply refused to provide them with legal status they were seeking, without applying any additional penalty. However now, human rights activists have all reasons to fear that the administrative system will be expelling people to war zones and countries, where there are threats to their lives and health or where they can be tortured and persecuted, all under the pretext of “public safety”, the main current “issue” of Russia’s migration policy. This practice is illegal and runs contrary to both the position of the UNHCR and the Russian law, which prohibits expulsion of foreign nationals, who apply for refugee status or are recognized as refugees, or those have lost their refugee status or were deprived of it.

All this makes a recent statement made by the Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova about the marginalized situation of refugees in Europe extremely hypocritical. In her words, Europe was “ready to close its eyes on many things in order to decrease immigration flow there”. But according to the now disbanded Russian Federal Migration Service, over a period of several years just some 800 people managed to get refugee status in Russia.

In one of his recent statements UNHCR representative Bayisa Wak-Woya said that in Russia refugees were not considered as such from the legal point of view and they were treated the same way as any other foreigners or migrants. In the current situation, when matters of civil authorities were given to law enforcement officials to decide, the treatment of refugees at least “as mere foreigners or migrants” becomes an unattainable ideal: the development of Russian migration policy makes one fear much worse situation, that of open repression of refugees.

Research in this field makes leading migration experts suggest that restrictive measures on refugees, which are being explained by the need to fight against terrorism, usually lead to the opposite result. The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism Ben Emmerson in a recent report “No evidence of risk”, which was presented on October 24, 2016 in New York, said that the majority of refugees from Syria and other countries dangerous for living had been themselves victims of terrorism. There is no evidence that migration contributes to increased terrorist activities, repression and human rights violations themselves create conditions for terrorism and are themselves real threats to national security, the expert says.

by Sergey MIKHEYEV