‘The convention on refugees: rescind it or carry it out’


Who receives refugee status or temporary asylum in Russia – and how.


Darina Shevchenko
8 October 2015

According to data from the Civic Assistance Committee, which offers legal, medical and social assistance for refugees and their families, there are 800 people with refugee status in Russia today.

Human rights activists assert that refugee status is very difficult to obtain in Russia, regardless of the fact that the country signed the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees after the fall of the Soviet Union. For their part, public officials declare that the majority of claimants do not have sufficient grounds to receive refugee status, arriving in Russia solely for economic reasons. 

More than Europe

For two weeks, a Kurdish family from Syria has been living in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. Two adults and four small children cannot enter Russia. 

The border guards decided that the refugees’ passports were forged, and did not allow them to leave the airport. According to Roza Magomedova, a lawyer from the human rights centre Memorial, the Kurds have had to sleep on benches and wash in the toilets since 10 September, with no opportunities for a hot meal.

The family, which fled from Islamic State, applied for temporary asylum in Russia and is still waiting for a decision. Magomedova claims that the refugees received their passports legally. ‘In accordance with the Convention on the Status of Refugees, any individual who is seeking asylum – even if they enter another country illegally – cannot be deported back to a place where they are under threat,’ states Magomedova.


A Christian family from Egypt at Moscow's Civic Assistance Committee. (c) Aleksandr Utkin / VisualRIA.On 9 September, Konstantin Romodanovsky, Head of Russia’s Federal Migration Service (FMS), declared that Russia was ready to accept refugees from Libya and Syria. On 4 September, Nikolai Smorodin, deputy head of the FMS, told Interfax that, since the beginning of the conflict, 2,000 refugees from Syria have received temporary asylum in Russia.

In Smorodin’s words, reports that Syrians were being refused shelter in the Russian Federation en masse were entirely unfounded. In a session of the State Duma on 16 September, Otari Arshba, First Deputy Head of United Russia, declared that, in 2015, Russia had accepted nearly three times as many refugees as Europe. 

Human rights activists claim that Russia has turned away almost as many refugees as it has accepted. ‘The refugees we work with say that receiving a Russian visa is simpler and cheaper than, for example, a visa to EU members states. However, arranging refugee status or temporary asylum in our country is very difficult. They arrive, are refused, and are expelled,’ says Yelena Burtina, who works for the Civic Assistance Committee.

They don't even try

Richard, 28, is from DR Congo, and has lived in Russia for three years. Every day in his small hometown, he would play football together with friends on the football pitch. That was one of the few recreational opportunities available. The local authorities sold the land – including the football pitch – to a businessman. Richard and his friends began to hold protests – the guys went out onto the streets with the demand that the land remained public. Richard spent a year in prison.

‘My uncle was able to get me out of prison, but only on the condition that I leave the country. I was provided with a student visa for 60 days, after which I attempted to get temporary asylum. I was refused, as they could not find sufficient grounds. I left my country due to political persecution, and I cannot understand why my case did not seem serious enough to government officials,’ says Richard.

After this, Richard did not try to obtain legal status in Russia. ‘I got a job with an advertising agency, handing out leaflets. The police would often check my documents, take me into detention and then released me. Not long ago, my son was born. I fear that I will be unexpectedly deported from the country, and my son will be left without a father. His mother and I wanted to marry, but given that I had overstayed my visa and had no legal status in Russia, we weren't able to,’ Richard tells me. He recently filed another application for temporary asylum and should receive an answer by the end of the year.

‘They are very reluctant to give Africans refugee status, so many prefer to not even file an application. Furthermore, refugees don't know the language, and even those who don't speak Russian too badly don't understand the formal language of our government officials,’ says Anna Voronkova, a volunteer for the Civic Assistance Committee.

‘Even some Russians would find it difficult to answer a question such as “For what reason did you not arrive at the appointed date?” or “Why did you not come when requested?” Without middlemen, it is extremely difficult for them to pass through the circles of our bureaucratic hell.’ 

Isabelle, 40, is from Cameroon, and arrived in Russia after her older brother was killed by Boko Haram. Isabelle’s life also came under threat. She has been in Russia for nearly two years. She isn’t even trying to receive either refugee status or temporary asylum. She believes that it is useless, and is even afraid to start putting together the necessary documents. ‘They’ll just refuse me and expel me from the country, and when I return home I’ll be killed,’ says Isabelle.

Dropped off in the middle of Moscow 

According to data from Civic Assistance, in general, refugees are currently arriving from Syria or Ukraine. 

‘There are also refugees from Central Asian states such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as from Iran and Iraq. Russia’s Far East sees refugees from Afghanistan and North Korea. Today, most refugees in Russia are from Afghanistan. Many of them arrived some time ago. These days, Afghan refugees arriving here are those who work with the local government and international forces present in Afghanistan, and are therefore persecuted by the Taliban. Women often arrive who the Islamists believe to have “misbehaved” – namely, studied or not agreed to a forced marriage,’ says Burtina. 

When refugees make the decision to flee their country, they have little time to carefully consider where to go. Many of them cannot even imagine what today’s Russia is like. ‘One of the refugees I helped had brought along a map of the USSR with him,’ says Burtina. ‘He had only the vaguest idea where he was going.’ Some people arrive in Russia legally, but many find help from middlemen—people smugglers who have built an illegal business on such services. 

‘For example,’ Burtina begins, ‘not long ago a Syrian family paid middlemen a very large sum of money to be taken to Finland. The husband, a very ill wife and three children were transported in a freight wagon, unable to see where they were headed. The smugglers dropped them off near a McDonalds in Moscow and left. There they were, in the middle of a foreign country without money, documents, or possessions of any kind.’ 

On a mission to refuse 

‘People can wait months for their turn to start proceedings [for the application],’ says Burtina. ‘They are in a tough legal situation – every day they risk being deported. The Russian government offers them no assistance – no benefits and to help in finding work. It seems to me that this contradictory policy must stop. Either Russia fulfils its obligations to the Convention on the Status of Refugees, or it rescinds it and declares that it will no longer accept refugees.’

Olga Semyonova (surname changed) arrived in Moscow from Ternopil in western Ukraine after the start of the conflict in the east. Olga did not agree with the activities of the new authorities in Kyiv and decided to move to Russia. Olga hoped that she would quickly receive temporary asylum, bringing her son with her to Russia. ‘I wanted my son to learn Russian and learn to love your country, so I left everything behind and moved here,’ says Semyonova. 

The FMS refused to grant her the status, as it appeared (to the authorities) that her life was not under threat, meaning that there was no basis for legalising her status as an asylum seeker. Olga found a good job in Moscow, but plans to return to Ukraine so that her son can start the first grade at school.

It is now very difficult to register the children of refugees in Russian schools. The FMS requires that school directors inform them of all students without registration or Russian citizenship. The Center for Integration and Education of Children of Migrants and Refugees, where children who have fled hunger and war were taught, was evicted from its premises by Moscow’s city government earlier this year. Volunteers believe that this was a result of the Civic Assistance Committee's inclusion on the register of ‘foreign agents’ in April 2015.

No basis

‘Refugee status is hard to get, because the grounds on which 90 per cent of people in Russia apply for it do not meet the criteria of either Russian or international law. A person may receive refugee status only if there is a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of five factors: race, religion, ethnicity, citizenship, membership of any defined social group or for political convictions.’

‘These applications must be factually based, and not something a foreigner has simply invented. We listen to the refugee and hear his point of view, and analyse the political situation in his country. We then find out whether the refugee took his concerns to the police, and how the government approaches his problem. For example, if a Coptic Christian from Egypt complains of religious discrimination, we know that his country's government is fighting radical Islamism and that the new regime defends the rights of religious minorities. According to my observations, refugees often want to stay in Russia for economic reasons,’ said an official who had worked for several regional FMS departments, under condition of anonymity. 

Your world 

In Russia, refugees are often left to fend for themselves. ‘In the first days following their arrival, some would sleep in the railway stations or on the street,’ says Burtina. ‘There are no state programmes for aiding refugees in Russia. They get a single lump sum of 100 roubles [£1].’

Zakhai, a Syrian citizen, fled from war to Russia three years ago. Zakhai crossed the border illegally, working in Moscow in an underground textile workshop at Izmailovo market alongside his countrymen.

After a raid by nationalists from the Holy Rus organisation, the workshop closed and the refugees were detained by the police. Zakhai was able to escape the police and remained in Russia. ‘There’s a large Syrian diaspora here, and most of us work,’ says Zakhai, ‘Moscow needs a cheap workforce. We all help one another, trying to make the best of our situation – because we can't go back.’ 

Editor’s note: this article first appeared in Russian at Yod News. We are grateful to Yod for their permission to translate and re-publish this article here.

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