Feature: Asylum seekers in Moscow face major challenges despite UNHCR efforts

News Stories, 26 March 2003

© UNHCR
A young asylum seeker attending public school near an accommodation centre in the Moscow region.

MOSCOW (UNHCR) Lucala Kasanje, 57, lives with his wife, Monenga, and their five children in a small, cell-like single room on the third floor of an accommodation centre located in a tired satellite town about one hour drive north-east of Moscow.

There are two single beds along the length of one yellowed, crumbling wall, occupied for the moment by four of his five children. In the opposite corner, Kifunji, the eldest daughter, stands boiling rice over an electric hotplate next to a plastic bucket overflowing with dirty dishes.

Monenga sits in a broken chair she has pushed up against a pile of clothes, blankets and other household items, as if trying to keep them from overflowing into the free area in the centre of the room.

While the feeling of claustrophobia is inescapable, this room has become a sanctuary for the Kasanje family. Since 1993, when they arrived in Moscow after fleeing the civil war in Angola, the family has lived in sewers, on rooftops, and, before Lucala stopped looking for work, in rented spaces on the outskirts of town. Since Lucala became unemployed last November, this room, at $50 per month, has become a barely affordable alternative to homelessness.

More than 250 of the 5,913 asylum seekers currently registered with UNHCR Moscow live in this five-storey housing block, while even more refugees and asylum seekers from neighbouring towns visit the adjacent community centre.

Through its implementing partner, Equilibre-Solidarity, the UN refugee agency has developed this place into one of four community centres in the Moscow region. Here asylum seekers find low-cost accommodation, and via UNHCR implementing partners Magee Woman Care International and Gratis access to on-site medical services and psychosocial counselling.

While some particularly vulnerable asylum seekers (such as the elderly, infirm, single mothers and others with special needs) receive financial support from UNHCR, the majority of asylum seekers are expected to be essentially self-reliant. All inhabitants of the accommodation centre are required to pay a monthly fee of $50 for each room.

Thanks to a combined effort by Equilibre-Solidarity and UNHCR, children living at the accommodation centre now have the opportunity to study in the local school. Before February 2002, Moscow's schools had excluded asylum seekers' children on the basis of a regional decree by the mayor's office preventing children without residency permits from attending public schools.

However, through local-level lobbying by Equilibre-Solidarity social workers and UNHCR consultations with the Ministry of Education, the decree was changed and students who had been out of school for years were finally accepted. This gave them not only access to education, but also the chance to interact with local children, promoting better relations between the host and asylum-seeker communities.

All asylum seekers' children attending local schools receive daily hot lunches at the cafeteria and special UNHCR school kits containing pencils, notebooks and other necessary school items. To encourage adolescents to continue their education, the refugee agency also provides monthly "special stipends" of up to $50 for young people aged between 11 and 19. The stipend is intended as an incentive to their parents, and is based on the recognition that, while some parents may be more in favour of their children seeking early employment, secondary school education is crucial for local integration.

Unfortunately, while services managed by UNHCR and its implementing partners provide vital support, the legal situation remains extremely difficult for the majority of asylum seekers in Moscow. The Russian Federation acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention in 1993 and adopted a law on refugees, which was revised in 1997, but there remain serious obstacles to the efficient processing of asylum claims.

Major problems include a rejection rate of more than 95 percent in the first instance and delays in granting timely access to the refugee status determination (RSD) procedure.

Currently the average waiting time before applications are taken in for consideration is about three years, and many people who have lived in Russia for almost a decade are still struggling to file their asylum claims with the authorities.

Though many negative decisions are appealed and the rate of success of judicial review is quite high (nearly 65 percent), very few have actually been enforced by the migration authorities. As many as 131 negative decisions were overturned on appeal to courts of law in 2002, the result of considerable efforts made by UNHCR through private lawyers from bar associations contracted to ensure legal representation of precedent-setting cases carefully selected by the agency.

Residency permits are the most serious concern for asylum seekers. They face problems getting such permits because, until the migration authorities begin processing their claims, they have no evidence that they are staying legally in the Russian Federation.

When their asylum applications are under consideration by the migration authorities, they are in principle documented by an asylum seeker's certificate attesting to their lawful presence in the Russian Federation. But even then, they continue to face serious problems securing residence permits from the Ministry of Interior.

Without housing assistance from the authorities, asylum seekers are forced to rent apartments in a private sector where landlords generally refuse to conclude any kind of lease contract with them to avoid paying taxes on their revenues and supporting their applications for a residence permit. Without a residency permit, asylum seekers cannot claim social service benefits or hospital care.

Even more problematic is that, for as long as they are awaiting access to the RSD procedure, asylum seekers have no official identification document affirming that they have lodged asylum claims. The certificate, a legal document, is only available to those individuals who have already gained access to the RSD procedure. Without the document, asylum seekers are considered de facto illegal immigrants by the city's police force. So every time they leave their homes, they are vulnerable to identity checks and, if caught, are subject to fines, detention and potential deportation.

To address this problem, the UNHCR-Moscow Refugee Reception Centre (RRC) provides all persons of concern with a "protection document" which also serves as a referral letter for use when approaching the migration authorities about the official submission of asylum requests. While the UNHCR document has no legal weight and is only rarely recognised by police officers, it serves as undeniable proof that the bearer has tried to lodge an asylum claim, and should therefore not be prosecuted as an illegal migrant.

Additionally, the RRC holds capacity-building sessions with police officers, intended primarily to clarify a commonly cited confusion between asylum seekers and economic migrants. Finally, in order to resolve cases of police harassment of persons of concern to UNHCR, the RRC retains a staff of lawyers who monitor the situation closely. In 2002, the RRC responded to over 750 cases of police harassment, in which 233 people were in serious danger of being deported.

© UNHCR
A community centre in the Moscow region where asylum seekers can find low-cost housing, medical services and counselling.

Despite UNHCR's efforts, a far more restrictive Civil Code, in force since July 2002, and a new law on foreigners, in force since November 2002, have made the situation of urban refugees in Moscow even more precarious.

Under the new Civil Code, the minimum penalty for not possessing documents demonstrating compliance with residence permit requirements is 500 roubles (more than $15). This figure represents a 500-percent increase over the earlier maximum penalty of 100 roubles. For many asylum seekers, the new regulation is equivalent to a prison sentence, as the threat of such a high fine makes any kind of movement around the city too dangerous.

"If you earn 150 roubles a day in the market, and the police demand 500 roubles every time they stop you, how can you survive?" asks Lucala. "When they stop you, they search all your pockets and take everything you have, and if you have nothing, they make you wait at the station for hours, sometimes even days."

While in custody, many asylum seekers report being threatened with deportation, or even being physically abused by police officers.

The law on foreigners, which requires all foreigners to carry a specially issued migration card, poses an additional threat to asylum seekers. Any foreigner who fails to produce the card can be fined. While the fine does not exceed that already prescribed for violations of the residence permit requirements, the Refugee Reception Centre has noted an increase in the number of asylum seekers targeted for document checks since the introduction of the migration card requirement.

For Lucala, the threat is enough to make him to stay at home, struggling to support a family of seven on the $200-per-month vulnerability allowance provided by UNHCR.

Having spent the last 10 years living a marginal existence in a country where prospects for local integration are slim, and given that voluntary repatriation is not a durable solution in the near future, the Kasanjes have been accepted into UNHCR's resettlement programme. Through this programme, they hope to find real refuge in the United States, Canada or a western European country.

"I really don't care where they send us," says Monenga. "We are ready to go anywhere as long as we are allowed to get on with our lives."

By Matthew Scott and Djamal Zamoum
UNHCR Moscow