Svetlana Gannushkina, Chairperson at the Committee "Civic Assistance to Refugees and Asylum Seekers" (Moscow, Russia), reflects on recent trends in the Russian asylum system:
Russia adopted first laws for protection of refugees in 1993. However, these laws (a law on refugees and a law on forcibly displaced persons) were rather declarations of intention. Later on, the Federal Migration Service (FMS) was established, and Russia joined the 1951 Refugee Convention by the United Nations. The law acquired a more detailed description, but it did not oblige the state to assist refugees. It was still not only unclear, how the state would grant the refugee status, but also how it would protect a person, who already obtained this status. Refugees often received temporal shelter for one year. However, they received no social benefits. Still, even that status was granted very reluctantly.
In the recent years, the nature of asylum seekers has changed. In 2011-2013, the main group, which was willing to get an asylum in Russia, was formed by citizens of Syria. Before 2014, the UNHCR had upheld a position formulated in 2012 that citizens of Syria might not be sent back to their homeland due to an on-going war. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the FMS repeatedly expressed their support for this position. Nevertheless, FMS local departments did not follow this recommendation: Syrians rarely were granted an asylum, many of them were deported to Turkey or even back to Syria. By the end of 2013, only 1,162 Syrian nationals had been granted an asylum in Russia. In 2014, the UNHCR issued a new document, which prescribed that not only deportation back to Syria was unacceptable but also deportation to the neighbouring countries, as long as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey had already received around 2 million Syrian nationals. In 2014, 3,500 Syrians applied for an asylum status in Russia, but only 1 thousand got this. By the end of 2014, 2,021 persons had had a temporary shelter. Needless to say that no one was granted a refugee status.
In 2014, a new massive influx of refugees came from Ukraine. The first applications were registered in spring 2014. The most massive influx took place in summer. The majority of the refugees from Ukraine spoke Russian as a native language and shared the same cultural traditions and religion like people in Russia. Their integration was unproblematic. It should be noted that the first refugees from Ukraine were actively accepted by the Russian society and the Russian authorities. Many people donated money, helped with accommodation, clothes, and food. The authorities, namely the FMS and the Ministry of Emergency Situations, assisted those people. This is the main reason, why the number of people, who were granted a temporary asylum, increased hundredfold.
It had long queues in the local departments of Migration Service in July 2014 as a result. If somebody wished to apply for an asylum status in Moscow or St. Petersburg, s/he was recommended to come at the end of the year or even in 2015. Moreover, accept of documents from Ukrainian nationals completely discontinued in Moscow, the Moscow Region, St. Petersburg, the Rostov Region, Crimea, and Sevastopol. By the end of 2014, 227 Ukrainian nationals had received the refugee status (mainly Berkut fighters, officials from the Prosecutor’s Office, etc.). The temporary asylum status was granted to 214,152 persons.
Later on, new amendments to the citizenship law were adopted, which aimed at facilitation of receiving passports for the Russian-speaking population. However, the way how this law is applied received many complaints from the Ukrainian nationals. Many of them were refused to get a Russian passport, even if they were born in Russia or had close relatives with Russian passports.
Since August 2014, the FMS launched a campaign to attract Ukrainians seeking asylum to participate in the State Programme to Assist Voluntary Resettlement of Compatriots Living Abroad to the Russian Federation, which started in 2007. But the regional authorities, despite their claims that they are willing to accept people, were not ready to do that in reality. There were cases, when employers, who invited people according to the State Programme to live and work, exploited those refugees.
The only thing, which the status of the participant of the Programme gives to a person, is the possibility to apply for a Russian citizenship according to a simplified procedure. But in this case, it is necessary not only to arrive at the certain place but also to get a local residence registration. It is a hard task, as long as a person, who has just arrived, either rents an apartment or stays in the dormitory. In both cases, a person gets a temporary residence registration and not a permanent registration.
After the President Vladimir Putin had spoken at a meeting with students on 26 January 2015, the FMS website published an announcement that it had met a decision to prolong the terms of the residence of Ukrainian nationals residing in Russia, due to humanitarian reasons.
On 27 July 2015, a new decision was met ‘to prolong the terms of preferences to the citizens who came to Russia from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine devastated by war. All other Ukrainian nationals were granted an opportunity to stay in Russia for 90 more days without going out of the country and to apply for a work permission on the same terms as the citizens of other CIS members, who enjoy a visa free regime with Russia.’
In the course of the last years, a number of asylum seekers from the DPRK dramatically increased. Since the Soviet times, there have been North Korean labour camps in Siberia and the Far East. The families of the workers live in the DPRK as hostages. As long as a person, who flew the DPRK without permission, is considered a criminal, s/he may be tortured or sentenced to the death penalty. Nevertheless, the Russian authorities usually returned the refugees back to the DPRK referring to the fact that the DPRK officials do not acknowledge that a refugee runs a risk to get punished in his or her home country.
Sometimes, the mechanisms of the European Court of Human Rights are applied, which proved to be efficient. It is worth noting that the majority of extradition cases are resolved to the benefit of the refugees. However, this happens only within a mechanism of international protection.