Johnson's Russia List
20 November 2003
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A CDI Project
Russia: Moscow Emerges As Leading 'Exporter' Of Asylum Seekers
By Jeremy Bransten
It's a statistic that many may find surprising. Russia has emerged as the
world's leading "exporter" of asylum seekers to the rest of Europe. At a
time when Moscow is trying to anchor itself in the West and pressure the
European Union to lift visa restrictions, the rapid growth in refugees
fleeing Russia cannot be a welcome development.
Prague, 19 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- This year, Russia has broken one
record that the Kremlin is not rushing to publicize. According to the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Russian
Federation has become the world's largest source of refugees seeking
permanent asylum in the European Union and future member states, beating
"traditional" leaders such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Diederik Kramers, spokesman for the UNHCR's EU regional office, gave RFE/RL
the details: "We see that in the first three-quarters, from January to
September 2002, there were 14,107 asylum applications from Russian
citizens. And in the same period of time, January to September 2003, it's
23,465. So that looks like a 66 percent increase."
The UNHCR statistics do not include one of Europe's largest refugee havens,
Britain, so the total number of Russian citizens claiming asylum this year
alone in Western and Central Europe may be closer to 25,000 or more.
Since economic reasons are not accepted as valid justification for seeking
asylum in Europe, as Kramers explained, the overwhelming majority of
applicants seeking refugee status from Russia are basing their claims on
alleged persecution. "The basis for the whole international system of
refugee protection is the 1951 Refugee Convention, which gives as a
definition of a refugee a person who is outside his or her country because
of persecution due to membership of a certain social group, political
beliefs, religion, race, and so on. Those are the strict 'convention
criteria,' as we call it," Kramers said.
The UNHCR does not keep ethnic statistics, but evidence from
nongovernmental organizations that work with refugees and individual
governments suggests most of the asylum seekers are, or claim to be, from
Russia's war-torn republic of Chechnya.
Austria is one EU country that has seen a tenfold explosion of asylum
claims this year from Russian citizens -- most of them claiming persecution
by the authorities in Chechnya. Michael Girardi, chief spokesman for the
Austrian Interior Ministry, told RFE/RL: "We have had, up to 31 October,
nearly 6,000 asylum seekers from the Russian Federation and last year we
had below 700 asylum seekers [from Russia]. So it's indeed a large increase
in the number of people from Russia."
Many asylum seekers who initially file a claim upon arrival in Austria move
on to other European countries where there are more established immigrant
communities, such as Germany. But this year, a record 62 percent of Russian
citizens who stayed for the duration of the legal procedure ended up with
full-fledged, permanent asylum in Austria.
That means that as far as the authorities in Vienna are concerned, although
no one at the Interior Ministry will say it outright, claims that the
Russian authorities persecute their own citizens -- in this case Chechens
-- are well-founded and true.
"Most of [the Russian citizens] have very good reasons for why they are
seeking asylum in Austria. So it's true that they are coming to us, and
they will of course receive some aid, and most of them will receive asylum
too, yes," Girardi said.
Compare that to an acceptance rate in Austria of just 0 percent for Indian
citizens this year or 1 percent for Nigerians.
Not all European countries share this open-door policy to Russian
nationals. The European Union has yet to implement a harmonized immigration
policy, so big differences exist in asylum policies among EU states.
The Russian Interior Ministry, in a statement released earlier this month
and quoted by "The Moscow Times," said most Russian asylum seekers claiming
refugee status in Europe were fakes -- motivated only by economic reasons.
Marc Van Lint, legal officer for the Belgium Committee for Aid To Refugees,
told RFE/RL that indeed, many people claiming to be Chechens arriving in
Belgium turn out not to be residents of the republic. "Most people arrive
without papers, and we have the impression that a lot of people who say
they are Chechen actually come from neighboring republics -- Ingushetia or
Establishing the identity of asylum claimants is the hardest task facing
local immigration authorities across Europe. Unlike Austria, Belgium ends
up turning most applicants away. From an average of 80 to 100 Russian
nationals seeking asylum in Belgium every month, only eight have been
granted permanent refugee status so far this year.
Van Lint's organization recently filed suit against the Belgian government,
alleging investigators were doing too perfunctory a job in quizzing
applicants before rejecting them.
Van Lint told RFE/RL that until 18 months ago, Belgian immigration
authorities interviewed asylum seekers claiming to be from Chechnya in
Chechen, giving them a better opportunity to determine the validity of
someone's claim. But after suspecting that its Chechen-language
interpreters were helping applicants improve their tales of woe, the
Belgian authorities switched to conducting interviews in Russian.
Van Lint says this makes identifying genuine Chechen refugees more
difficult. It can also prove intimidating for the asylum seekers. "The
difficulty is that Chechens who come here are fleeing the Russian military
-- most of the time," he said. "So they don't really have good experiences
with Russians and there are rumors circulating that some of the
interpreters working for the authorities, who are native Russians, are
working for the KGB -- or FSB, as it's now called - and that they pass on
information to Russia about the things that Chechen refugees say in Belgium
to found their asylum claim."
There is of course no proof to substantiate the rumor. But Ann Publie, a
spokeswoman for the Belgian Office For Foreigners - the Interior
Ministry's immigration division -- had a surprising admission when
interviewed by RFE/RL. "We have a whole bureau that is doing
identification. We try to get more and more information from them and
afterwards we can find out -- it's a long procedure, but we contact the
consulates in Belgium from Russia and they can say yes or no, these people
are from Russia," she said. "But we send a lot of people back to Russia."
Independent experts in asylum procedures contacted by RFE/RL say it is
highly unusual for a government considering an individual's asylum
application to contact the authorities representing the claimant's home
country to consult on the case. Confidentiality and assuring the safety of
asylum seekers should be considered paramount.
But regardless of the strategy each European country employs to cope with
the new flood of asylum seekers from Russia, it has become an uncomfortable
problem that is becoming harder to diplomatically sweep under the carpet.
Asylum seekers are one commodity Russia would rather not export.