Syrian Refugees in Russia Have to Fight for Their Rights

Syrian citizens are fleeing from their war-torn homeland, and some of them have chosen Russia as their country of asylum. But life for them here is also a struggle.

14 November 2017

Ekaterina Fomina

Ekaterina Fomina is a Russian journalist at Novaya Gazeta.

[This is the outcome of an ongoing partnership between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy Russia (oDR) that aims to shed light on the social and economic repercussions of the Russian military intervention in both countries. The text of this article is also available in Russian].

Russia’s support for Syria, in fact, only extends to its armed forces, and the country’s civilian population has received less and less attention as the years pass. In July 2017, only two Syrian citizens were given refugee status in Russia. In January 2017, 1,317 Syrian citizens were given temporary asylum, but by summer the number had fallen to 1,301. And although Russia is one of a handful of countries to issue visas to Syrians ‚ and with it the right to legally escape the war — the situation of displaced people in Russia is far from enviable.

Svetlana Gannushkina and Natalya Gontsova of the Civic Assistance Committee, a Moscow-based Russian NGO that supports refugees and forcibly displaced persons, spoke to oDR about the problems they face in Russia.

How many Syrians are currently living in Russia?

Svetlana Gannushkina: According to the Federal Migration Service, there are now roughly 7,000 Syrians in Russia. That’s a small number for the whole of Russia, but a significant burden for our organisation. At my count, there are 2,000 Syrians living here permanently and with legal status. Another 1,300 have temporary asylum, and only two people have refugee status. This is not surprising: only 589 people overall have refugee status in Russia, according to official figures.

About 5,000 Syrians are, however, in limbo — these are the people who turn to us for help. Many of them live in the Moscow region, in the towns of Losino-Petrovsky and Noginsk. We are also approached by people whose temporary asylum status hasn’t been renewed, a situation that has recently become the norm.

Are there specific criteria for assigning Syrian citizens who have fled their country refugee status?

Natalya Gontsova: The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees considers all Syrians to be refugees, since they are fleeing from a war.

[Photo: Svetlana Gannushkina, Chairperson of the Committee, and Natalya Gontsova, Counselor for Migration Issues. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved].
Why do Syrians choose Russia as their country of asylum? It doesn’t seem like an obvious choice.

NG: First, Russia is one of the few countries that still issues Syrians with tourist entry visas[i]. In the second, some Syrians have connections here. Aleppo, for example, was historically famous for its garment industry. Before the war, successful business people from the city opened clothing factories in Russia and recruit fellow Syrians to work in them. Some people, for example, had already set up shop in Russia in 2011, and then, when they realised they couldn’t return home, they settled here and invited their families to join them. That’s what has happened in Noginsk. A few young Syrian men settled there, gave their brothers or fathers power of attorney so they could marry a Syrian woman. After the marriage was officially registered in Syria, their brides could join them here.

SG: Yes, visas play a role here. Russian consulates hand them out pretty easily. And people flee to whatever country accepts them. We recently helped a family from Syria, a mother and two children. When I asked how they had come to Russia, the woman said that they had paid $3,000 each for tourist visas. Of course, every consul is well aware that if someone is coming from Syria or Yemen, which are experiencing conflict, they will request asylum. But there’s no consistency about what happens next: Russia’s Foreign Ministry, which issues the visas, knowing that these people are not coming as tourists, has one policy; the Internal Ministry, meanwhile, has another, and refuses them asylum.

Where does this attitude come from?

SG: I think this cruelty is forced on them from the top. Russia doesn’t need migrants — this is what the government believes, and explains it by suggesting that “the people won’t like it”. The argument goes like this: if we give asylum to someone today, there’ll be another crowd banging on the door tomorrow. Europe is in shock and doesn’t know what to do next.

But who are these “people” they talk about? I’m part of the people. The intelligentsia are also part of it, and don’t try to deny that. I don’t live on benefits: I’ve worked all my life, just like my ancestors. Everybody has their own perception of “the people” — i.e. others who are like themselves.

I make frequent trips to Europe and have never seen any shocked-looking Europeans — we only see them on our TV screens. In Germany, they recently published an electoral map showing where people had voted for Alternative for Germany, whose policies are based on anti-migrant/refugee ideas. Interestingly enough, AfD won the most votes in regions with very few migrants — unfortunately, mainly in the former GDR.

Do refugees in Russia see the country as a temporary home or are they interested in settling here?

NG: There are various types of refugees and migrants. Some are families: the husband comes first and the family follows. They settle down here, learn Russian, get used to life here and want to stay, so they do all they can to get permanent residence status. But there are also young unmarried men who are more mobile, see no prospects in Russia and would happily move on if they could.

[Photo: The Civic Assistance Committee opened courses for Syrian refugees, children and adults in Noginsk. Photo: Polina Rukavichkina / All rights reserved].
In general, of course, refugees here see Russia as a wheel which you need to keep constantly spinning in order to survive. It’s hard psychologically, so they dream about moving to somewhere where they’ll have a better reception. Some people hope for help from members of their own community, but are abandoned. Half of them have told me how they paid several thousand dollars to other Syrians in Russia to organise temporary residence permits, and then discovered that their “helpers” just disappeared with the money.

Many are prepared to stay because they have no choice: they have nowhere to go back to. Refugees often say to me: if it wasn’t for the children, I’d rather go back to Syria and die there than suffer here. It’s usually older people who tell me this. I immediately remember my own grandfather: he never left his home village, but was keen to see his daughters, at least, leave for the city. It’s the same for elderly Syrians: they don’t want anything for themselves and everything they do is for their families’ future. People are the same everywhere.

SG: At the same time, refugees who are refused legal status — and that’s the majority — can expect to be expelled from Russia[ii]. But people somehow find ways to live under the radar for years, and sometimes decades. This is a peculiar thing about Russia. I know one man — not, it’s true, from Syria — who was ordered to be expelled by a court. But he has lived very well for 20 years in Russia. He has a wife and child, and works informally, off the books. His mother-in-law, admittedly, can’t understand why he and his wife have never formally married — she doesn’t know he has no official ID papers. But he pays the police off any time he’s challenged about it. Not everyone, of course, has such phenomenal charm and chutzpah.

Most refugees are fleeced by the police, ripped off or worked into the ground by their employers and remanded in custody when the courts decide to expel them. There have been real cases of Syrians being expelled, but more recently, appeal courts have been overturning expulsion orders.

But where did the rumour come from that you can buy refugee status with a bribe?

NG: Syrians have told us that there was a woman working in the Directorate for Migration Affairs who took money for organising residence permits. She was an intermediary between the migrants and the official who took the decisions, and was the person who actually handed people the papers they had paid for. But then it was discovered that many of those whom she had “helped” weren’t even in the migrant database [i.e., the official was bribed, but didn't follow through with her part of the bargain].

What does a Syrian, or any other refugee in Russia, need to do to get some official status and become a legal resident here?

NG: The first thing they need to do is visit the Directorate for Migration Affairs and fill in an application form. That’s the theory, anyway. But in Russia they still have to fight for this application form to be accepted. Even trying to hand in the documents you need to apply for refugee status is no easy matter. The staff at the Directorate immediately try to put you off: “It’s too much of a hassle, and they’ll refuse you anyway.”

We had a case recently where a family — a mother and her two adult sons — arrived from Syria, and one of our volunteers went to the directorate with them. Initially the staff wouldn’t accept their application form for refugee status, but the volunteer persuaded them to take it. And how did it all end? A couple of months later their application, both for refugee status and temporary asylum was refused.

But how could they refuse them this status? Surely there is a UN Refugee Agency directive on this.

NG: They say that everything is fine in Syria, that international agreements are being signed everywhere and the situation is being normalised. But our Directorate for Migration Affairs doesn’t pay much attention to UN directives and international agreements. Its reference point is Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the arguments put forward for refusing a given person refugee status are based on information coming from that ministry.

They often write, for example, that “most of our population have difficulties of some kind: this applicant’s difficulties are nothing out of the ordinary”. In other words: “everybody suffers here, and you have to suffer as well”.

Applications are also turned down on the grounds that a person has come to Russia to improve his material situation, because of financial problems back home and not because it’s dangerous there — as though there’s nothing dangerous about having no work and nothing to eat. Maybe the bombs are no longer exploding every few minutes, but there’s still plenty of danger.

Refusals are often couched in absurd language. A young man applies for asylum, for example, and his elderly mother is still in Syria. The refusal document reads: “It is possible for him to return home, because he has family there, and his family members can help him.” But who is going to provide any support for him? His elderly mother, whom he may not even be able to find any more?”

Here is an extract from a refusal of temporary asylum in Russia to a 19-year old Syrian woman:

According to the information bulletin of the Russian Centre for the Reconciliation of Warring Parties in Syria, issued on 4 July 2017 within the framework of the implementation of the Memorandum on the Creation of De-escalation Zones in Syria, signed by the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran on 4 May 2017, inspection teams are continuing to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire regime. The situation in the de-escalation zones is considered to be stable. The number of populated localities that have joined the reconciliation process has reached 1871, while the number of armed formations that have expressed their approval of the acceptance and implementation of the ceasefire conditions has reached 228. Negotiations are also continuing with armed opposition groups over acceptance of the ceasefire conditions in the Governorates of Aleppo, Ildib, Damascus, Hama, Homs and El Quneitra. The Centre for the Reconciliation of Warring Parties is carrying out humanitarian operations in the city of Aleppo, where the local population is receiving food parcels. Taking all this into account, there are grounds for believing that conditions in the home country of this applicant have stabilised considerably [emphasis added].

But given that Russia provides Syria with military support, why can’t we give asylum to its people fleeing from the war?

SG: No, we don’t support Syria: we support its regime, which is not supported by the Syrian people. We don’t support the country, but government is friendly with it. Our governments are friendly with one another, but it’s really dangerous when governments talk to one another behind our backs.

As for supporting refugees, we can say that the institution of asylum doesn’t actually exist in Russia. No one pays any attention to people here — and this applies not just to asylum seekers, but our own citizens. Legalising migrants would be good for us as well as them: they would pay taxes, send their children to school, have vaccinations and visit their doctors to avoid becoming carriers of disease. They would also learn our language and culture and become a source of this language and culture, wherever they happened to be. It’s not military power and bombs that spread Russia’s influence in the world: it’s our language and culture.

Our citizens are perfectly capable of realising this. They just need to have it explained to them that these people are already in Russia, and the question of whether they should be doesn’t arise. Do we want them to live here legally, or to live here anyway, but as illegals? And that would mean an increase in corruption, a fall in wages and salaries, children aimlessly wandering the streets and getting drawn into a criminal environment.

Of course, you can do what you like with an illegal worker, “squeeze the crap out of him”, as Vladimir Zhirinovsky puts it. You can squeeze him, and then throw away the crap - and there’ll be a queue of people to replace him waiting behind the door. What we have is a slave labour system. These powerless migrants, who can be underpaid or not paid at all, are a gift for dishonest employers. One of the things we do at Civic Assistance is to help these migrant labourers, which isn’t easy. We phone employers and ask them to pay the workers the money they have earned but unfortunately, we can think ourselves lucky if we get half of it back. We also try to defend the migrants’ interests in court, but there’s often nothing that can be done as there’s no proof of any formal working relationship.

If a refugee or migrant has no formal status or has lost it, what can he or she do?

NG: Theoretically, they should leave Russian territory within 48 hours. But they have a month to lodge a complaint with the Internal Ministry. If that is declined, they can take the matter to a district court, and if there are turned down there, they can go to appeal.

If they lose their case at a Moscow City or Moscow Region Court, that’s basically the end of the line and they become illegal. They can’t leave Russia either — no other country will take them. So they go off to complete another application form, and the system gears up again: when a migrant turns up at the Directorate for Migration Affairs to make a second application, the police are called and they are taken to the nearest police station, where an officer draws up a charge sheet stating that they have “infringed the Russian Federation’s visa regulations”. The case then goes to court, and the court decides whether to expel them or not. And even if the judge decides to let them stay, they still have to pay a 5,000 rouble (£65) fine. And police practice in the Moscow region is that a repeat residence application can’t be filed until the fine is paid. But if the fine hasn’t been paid after 14 days, it’s back to the police station.

How long does it take to process an appeal?

NG: The whole process can take up to a year and while it’s going on the person has the legal right to remain in Russia. The police, however, take no notice of this rule, and if someone’s stopped on the street, it’s straight to the police station.

To live for a year in this state of suspense is really stressful. Let’s assume the refugees are not living in Moscow. They’ll have to travel there and back more than 11 times to go through the process of applying for documents and appealing when they’re turned down, and each time stand in a queue and be sworn at and even called “terrorists” and asked “what they’re doing here?” It’s not easy. They are continually being stopped on the street. Refugees spend thousands on roubles on bribes: one person demands one here, another one there. People call them “fines”, but we know that they aren’t.

But if refugees manage to jump through all these hoops and finally get a document giving them temporary asylum, can they then walk along a street without any fear?

NG: To be completely legal, you have to be registered at a given address. And that’s another circle of hell: you need to find accommodation and a landlady who’ll agree to register such a “peculiar” tenant.

And who will agree to let rooms to refugees in Russia?

NG: That’s another massive problem, and many people refuse, but greed is a powerful persuader. Landowners bump their prices up by several hundred percent. Families look for flats; single people rent a bed in a shared room. It’s hard to convince owners that registering tenants doesn’t mean giving them official residence rights. And even if they do convince them, there’s yet another hurdle: the Directorate for Migration Affairs requires flat or house owners to come with the tenants to have them registered, and the owners get their share of insults and xenophobic remarks as they stand in the queue with the refugees.

Is it possible to assess the numbers of refugees and migrants in Russia?

NG: It used to be easy: the figures would be on the Directorate’s site. But now the Internal Ministry is responsible for the issue, and they aren’t publishing them anymore. We use Federal Statistics Office figures in our work.

But judging by those figures, there are only two Syrians with refugee status in the whole of Russia. Do you know who they are?

NG: We have no idea who they are. Why should they turn to us if everything is going so well for them? I’ve been working at Civic Assistance for two years now, and the figures haven’t changed – there are still just two Syrian refugees.

But in the last six months, the number of Syrians who have been given temporary asylum in Russia has also dropped (to 16). What’s that about?

NG: Temporary asylum is only given for a year, or sometimes less, whereas you can hold refugee status for three years. Then you need to renew it. Exactly a month before your refugee status runs out, you have to go to the Directorate and “re-register”.

[Photo: More than a month the family of Syrian refugees with four children lived in the transit zone of Sheremetyevo Airport. After all, they didn't receive refugee status. Photo: Ekaterina Fomina / Novaya Gazeta. All rights reserved].
For a long time, the people working at the Directorate were very laid back about it all: a lot of refugees would turn up just ten days before the expiry of their status. But now if they re-apply even 29 days before, rather than 30, they are immediately refused any extension and reported as having missed their deadline. This year we have won a number of cases relating to asylum application renewal, all of them heard in Lyubertsy, in the Moscow Region, where the court officials were sympathetic to the plight of Syrian women and children.

How do refugees find out about Civic Assistance?

NG: Unfortunately, many of them still don’t know about us. Information about the committee is spread through the grapevine, but there are people who know about us but don’t come to us for help because they know that we can only help in isolated cases. We explain to people how they can act within the law, but often they don’t get the outcomes they’re hoping for. So people get disillusioned with the system, and sometimes with us as well.

SG: But it’s not just Civic Assistance that helps refugees. We have the Memorial Human Rights’ Centre’s Migration and Law network operating out of our offices. The network has several dozen legal advice points around Russia, from its western borders to the Far East.

The Migration and Law network has been going for more than 20 years now, despite a desperate lack of resources. When we don’t have enough money to pay our legal experts, they mostly go on working for us for free. We have a collective of like-minded people who meet up for seminars twice a year to discuss issues around migration and our work. We also invite people from the Directorate for Migration Affairs and other government bodies, as it’s absolutely essential that we work together. It’s obvious that NGOs can’t solve the problems of migration on their own.

If Syrians are fortunate enough to get refugee status, what help can they expect from the Russian authorities?

NG: Firstly, the right to work. Then the opportunity to live in a temporary accommodation facility (of which there are five or six across Russia) and money for their journey [to these shelters]. Those who have only just applied for refugee status and are waiting for a decision have the right to a one-off payment of 100 roubles (£1.30) and Compulsory Health Insurance.

What medical services can they access?

NG: If they are at death’s door, or about to give birth, they’ll get an emergency ambulance. The fact that they don’t know they have the right to dial the emergency services is another matter. But if they don’t have Compulsory Health Insurance, the hospital will try to throw them out as quickly as they can. The UN Refugee Agency has a partner, the Health and Life charity, which has an agreement with a private clinic in Noginsk (where the largest number of Syrian refugees live), and they run a clinic twice a month (but only for those who are in the process of applying for refugee status).

Getting some kind of official status involves an enormous amount of hassle — all that running around from one government office to another, and then several appeals. Do refugees share their experiences with you? How do they stand the constant stress?

NG: People complain that they are forever getting stopped on the street by the police — even those who could “pass” as Russians. In small towns like Noginsk, if police officers see a light haired lad in the company of migrants — that’s his reputation gone.

We’ve asked men about attacks, hate crimes. They’ve told us about insults and beatings. But they don’t complain: it would take pliers to drag any information out of them. Women are much more sensitive to xenophobia. They also stand out more on the street — most of them wear hijab. And local children don’t want to play with their children. But there’s an additional problem in Noginsk: most of the children aren’t given places in school, although in Russia, education is universal by law.

I can tell you about one situation I witnessed myself: I went to the local education authority offices with two mothers, to get their children places at school. I sat them down on a bench opposite the director’s office, while I waited in the reception area. Suddenly an agitated woman flew into the office and started shouting, “Was it you who came with them? Ask them to stop talking in their language. Don’t they know where they are?” She was literally screeching that she couldn’t stand them speaking in Arabic.

It’s very unpleasant for Syrian women to be treated in such a way. At home in Syria, many of them were respected figures, but here they can be insulted, held by the police without food for several days and laughed at. Russians in general treat them like dirt.

How do you fund your work?

SG: We are funded by foundations in other countries and have partnership support from the UN Refugee Agency. But they can’t give us as much money as in the past: the refugee issue is an enormous global problem, and Russia is doing very little to combat it. Ukrainian refugees are the exception: over the last four years around 200,000 Ukrainians have received Russian citizenship; a slightly larger number, temporary asylum, and 300 people have even been given refugee status. But this is a special case, which we aren’t discussing here.

What is the Russian government’s attitude to you?

SG: In our government’s eyes, we are, unfortunately, a “foreign agent”. It would probably prefer that we didn’t exist. They imagine that since we receive grants, the grant givers call the tune, whereas in fact the tune is called by international law and the people who ask for our help.

In January this year, our government passed legislation on organisations “engaged in socially useful functions”, and it is now preparing to support them by creating a register of these NGOs. But the same legislation states that those NGOs that the Ministry of Justice has included in the “Foreign Agent” register will not be eligible to be included in the “socially useful “one.

This is sad. But our work is needed and people are ready to help us, so for the moment we shall carry on.

[Main photo: Free integration courses for refugees in the "Civic Assistance Committee". Source: All rights reserved].

[i] Obtaining a visa is obviously not an option for those who are known to the Syrian security agencies for their political activism. Syrians still need an invitation from a Russian citizen, or a person with a minimum five-year-residence, or a permanent residence. For Circassian Syrians, getting a tourist visa is a relatively smooth process though, mainly because of their family connections in Russia.

[ii] The committee only finds out about deportations if refugees inform them – the decisions are not made public. Gontsova knows about cases where Syrian citizens have been deported to Syria by Russian courts, while other expulsions have been stopped via Article 39 of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The committee has contacted the Interior Ministry to request info on deportations, but their response was that there is no provision on destinations of deportations in their rules – i.e., if a third country is willing to accept a person to be deported (and he/she can pay for travel), there is no reason why they have to be forcibly sent to their country of origin.


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