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Refugees Magazine Issue 98 (After the Soviet Union) - Chilly reception for refugees in Russia

Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1994

For most of its history, Russia's borders have been closed both to people trying to get in and to people trying to get out. But the collapse of the Soviet Union changed all that.

By Jan Cienski

Russia is a country unused to refugees. For most of its history, Russia's borders have been closed both to people trying to get in and to people trying to get out. But the collapse of the Soviet Union changed that and opened Russia to the outside world and the outside world came to Russia.

In the past, the Soviet Union accepted very few refugees, mostly revolutionaries and communists fleeing persecution. But now more than a million refugees and migrants have flooded into Russia from the republics of the former Soviet Union. Tens of thousands more have come from places as far-flung as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia, hoping for asylum and using Russia as a stepping stone to Western Europe.

According to the Federal Migration Service (FMS), the arm of the Russian government dealing with migrants, there are about 500,000 officially registered migrants and refugees from the former USSR in Russia, and as many as 2 million who have not been registered. In comparison, UNHCR has registered more than 60,000 foreigners from outside the former Soviet Union.

The problem could get much worse. There are about 25 million ethnic Russians living outside Russia. The FMS estimates that 2-3 million of them will return in the next two years.

Russia, caught unprepared for the huge flows of people across its borders, rushed to establish laws and institutions to deal with them. Following adoption by the Russian Parliament, the 1951 U.N. Convention on Refugees and the 1967 Protocol entered into force in early 1993. With it, Moscow hoped that Russia would get help for the huge masses of returning Russians.

"We signed so that the international community would actively help with refugees but international help has been very weak," said Vyacheslav Bakhmin, head of the Foreign Ministry's Directorate of International Humanitarian and Cultural Cooperation and a supporter of the signing of the Convention. "Our position is that the Russian refugees in Russia are refugees in the international sense, and we want the same kind of help that other states get."

"The Convention does not answer Russia's needs and the Foreign Ministry miscalculated when they signed it," said Yuri Arkhipov, the outspoken head of the external migration department of the FMS and a fierce opponent of the Convention and of Russia accepting refugees. Arkhipov has blamed the Convention for turning Russia into a "holding pen" for refugees from around the world who enter Russia illegally, "spread disease" and who hope in vain to get to the West.

Juan Amunategui, UNHCR's Regional Representative in Moscow, refuted criticism that UNHCR focuses almost exclusively on refugees from outside the Baltics and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). He said a large part of the problem was that Russia still had no system of refugee determination to regularize the status of genuine refugees. Once a system is in place, UNHCR plans to make an international appeal for $27.5 million to assist non-CIS refugees, CIS refugees and returning Russians. But even with the appeal, UNHCR will be hard-pressed to help. UNHCR Moscow is spending $6 million in 1994 to help only 7,000 people.

"It is unfair to say that we are assisting only non-CIS asylum-seekers," said Amunategui, who is also the U.N.'s Regional Representative. He said UNHCR is running a joint programme with the FMS to help forced migrants in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar. He also noted that it was very difficult to get accurate information on the numbers and needs of these people from the Russian authorities.

Russia's lack of money and experience in dealing with refugees has caused huge problems for all types of migrants arriving in the country. But the experiences of CIS and non-CIS refugees are wildly different, reflecting Russia's traditional suspicion of foreigners.

"Some officials in the FMS would like the problem to disappear and to deport all the foreign refugees. It is a reflection of the old isolationist viewpoint," said Bakhmin.

The Russian diaspora has received attention from Russian politicians ranging from President Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Many of the Russians come from areas devastated by wars and where the local population is often resentful of ethnic Russians. People leaving areas like war-torn Tajikistan often abandon apartments and possessions and arrive in Russia with nothing. In places that are a little calmer, the head of the family often goes to Russia to try to find a place to live and work before importing the family to Russia.

"It is very difficult in Russia," said Vassily Yevtakinov, the head of a committee of Russians from Armenia. "Everybody has to make do on their own because the FMS does not really have the resources to help. People have to rely on their friends and family."

According to Yevtakinov, many regions are unwilling to accept returning Russians because they are a burden on local budgets and because they compete for already scarce jobs.

But whatever their material problems, returning Russians speak the language, look the same as everybody else and are citizens of the country. For asylum-seekers from outside the CIS, the difficulties are much more severe.

Many of them came to Russia illegally or with tourist visas from Russian consulates abroad, hoping to get ferried to Western Europe by criminal gangs who make a handsome profit smuggling people across borders. But once in Moscow, they are stranded with no hope of moving on to Europe and have no desire or possibility of returning home.

Despite signing the 1951 Convention and passing its own laws on refugees, Russia has done almost nothing to process the claims of asylum-seekers. People have been unable to claim refugee status and so are considered illegal aliens by the Russian authorities. Without official papers, they have no right to housing, their children are unable to go to school, they cannot work or get medical care. UNHCR has stepped into the breach and is issuing identity cards to asylum-seekers, but the Russian police refuse to recognize UNHCR's authority to issue such papers.

A new law on dealing with asylum-seekers was published in September. It promises to issue temporary residence permits to asylum-seekers and to decide their cases within three months. But by late October, nobody had been processed.

"People wanted to see if it was possible to live in Russia," said Abu Asil, the Iraqi community representative on a UNHCR-supported refugee committee. "But after people saw how difficult and dangerous it is here, they all want to go to Europe."

Stuck in Russia with no recognized papers and no work, refugees have become targets for the police, who frequently arrest, harass and extort money from them. According to figures from the UNHCR reception centre in Moscow, 400 incidents of police harassment were reported in the first six months of 1994. More than half of them were against Somalis and Angolans, despite the fact that they make up only 13 percent of non-CIS refugees in Russia. The darker the skin colour and the more the person stands out, the more police attention they receive. Afghan and Iraqi refugees are also targeted because they resemble the black-haired peoples of the Caucasus, whom the police accuse of bringing crime to Russia.

"As soon as the police see your black hair, they think you are a bandit or a drug dealer," said Sharif, a 32-year-old refugee from Afghanistan.

In an example of what can happen with no legal protection, 21 Afghan refugees were forcibly deported back to Afghanistan from the Krasnodar region of southern Russia in early August. The FMS said that the deportations were legal because the Afghans had not applied for refugee status. But UNHCR workers who travelled to Krasnodar were told that the regional government refuses to accept applications for refugee status.

The deportation brought a strong protest from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, which complained to the Russian government that the deportations were contrary to the 1951 Convention. The protest note added that UNHCR "sees this incident in the wider context of the generally deteriorating protection situation of asylum-seekers and refugees in the territory of the Russian Federation."

"Those Afghans were in Russia illegally," said Arkhipov of the FMS. "Besides, we don't have a communist government here anymore, so why should we accept these refugees who supported communism in their own country?"

The number of refugees coming to Russia from outside the former USSR has dropped as word has spread about the unfriendly reception and poor living conditions. Those who remain are only a small fraction of Russia's overall refugee problem. But after waiting in limbo, often for years, they need a solution that will allow them to get on with their lives. And that still leaves the almost insurmountable problem of dealing with the ex-Soviet migrants.

"It is a strategic mistake on the part of international organizations to deal only with non-CIS refugees," warned Bakhmin of the Foreign Ministry. "If the Russian refugee problem is not dealt with, it could act as a detonator for an explosion in Russian politics."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 98 (1994)

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