Feature: Asylum seekers in Russia in legal, economic limbo
MOSCOW (UNHCR) - Majid Abu-Khaider, an Iraqi asylum seeker living in Moscow since 1993, recently completed a six-month course on the Russian language to help him adapt and find work in the local community. But he is sceptical about the benefits.
"What's the use in going to these courses?" he asks. "The only time I speak Russian is when I'm talking to the police."
Majid's scepticism reflects the dilemma faced by many asylum seekers in Russia. With no official legal status, they are often subject to identity checks, the threat of which is enough to discourage many from finding jobs, thus preventing them from fully integrating into Russian society.
Russia acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention in 1993. By then, refugees fleeing conflicts in the Commonwealth of Independent States, as well as Kurds escaping persecution in Iraq and Afghans seeking asylum from decades of warfare, had already been taking advantage of comparatively lax visa regimes, porous borders and well-connected networks of human traffickers to enter the territory of the Russian Federation. While many see the country as a staging post for further migration into Western Europe, since 1993, thousands of people have sought asylum in Russia itself.
As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Russia is responsible for carrying out the refugee status determination procedure and granting asylum to those people who are entitled to it under the Russian Law on Refugees.
The UN refugee agency assists in finding durable solutions for refugees by supporting local integration and self-reliance. But for asylum seekers, the possibility that their claims may ultimately be rejected makes local integration a secondary concern; self-reliance remains their top priority.
According to a recent UNHCR working paper on integration, self-reliance is understood to mean that refugees are able to provide for themselves and their community members in terms of food and other living expenses, including housing, health services and education. They must also be able to cope with unexpected events and to no longer be dependent on outside assistance.
In Moscow, a number of factors prevent many asylum seekers from becoming self-reliant. Issues related to the legal status of asylum seekers and their right to work combine to make self-reliance a long-term challenge. Without self-reliance, integration remains a distant prospect.
UNHCR and its partners have been working with asylum seekers, members of the public and government authorities to address some of these issues.
One of UNHCR's core functions in the Russian Federation is to help the authorities develop an efficient system for managing refugee flows and processing asylum claims in accordance with international standards. In Moscow, this work is carried out by UNHCR's Protection Unit and the Refugee Reception Centre.
The UNHCR Refugee Reception Centre is the first point of contact for asylum seekers in Moscow. In the first instance, asylum seekers are given advice on the process of claiming asylum in the Russian Federation and are entitled to free legal consultations throughout the application process. In addition, at the institutional level, international standards relating to refugee protection are promoted through consultations with migration authorities and police officers.
The most serious legal issue facing asylum seekers is the lack of official documentation for the nearly 2,500 claimants awaiting access to the refugee status determination procedure. Asylum seekers without official documentation cannot obtain residency permits, and are consequently denied access to public health care and social assistance.
Moreover, the Moscow police authorities conduct frequent identity checks, resulting in fines of 500 roubles or more, detention and potential deportation for individuals failing to produce a valid Moscow residency permit.
All individuals of concern to UNHCR have to apply for asylum through the Federal Migration Service. But with an average of three years before an application is even processed, and a rejection rate of around 95 percent in the first instance, most asylum seekers can look forward to several years in legal limbo before they can even begin rebuilding their lives.
At the end of 2002, the refugee agency had a caseload of over 5,000 people. Fifty-nine percent of them were awaiting access to the refugee status determination procedure. Until they gain access to the procedure, asylum seekers have no legal status, and are therefore unable to obtain the residency permits required for legal employment, health care, housing assistance and social benefits.
An asylum-seeker certificate is issued by the migration authorities to individuals whose applications have been received for consideration. But even individuals with asylum-seeker certificates continue to face serious problems securing residency permits. Without housing assistance from the authorities, they are forced to rent apartments in a private sector where landlords generally refuse to sign lease contracts with them to avoid paying taxes on their revenues, and thus cannot lend support to their applications for a residence permit. Consequently, even documented asylum seekers are excluded from public services, and are vulnerable to police harassment.
Of the remaining over-2,000 individuals of concern to UNHCR, 328 had been denied access to the RSD (Refugee Status Determination) procedure, 76 were awaiting a first decision on their case, 1,369 had been denied refugee status by the Ministry of Interior, and 343 were in various stages of the appeals process. Following an April 2001 resolution on the Law on Refugees, the migration authorities have accepted applications for temporary asylum. By the end of December 2002, 1,144 persons were granted temporary asylum.
While the lack of asylum-seeker certificates and residency permits affects self-reliance and local integration, UNHCR's implementing partner Equilibre-Solidarity is taking a long-term approach to the problem. By offering training courses in the Russian language, computer skills, hairdressing, auto mechanics and other vocational skills, it hopes that asylum seekers will be able to find employment should their status change.
For many people, however, skills training does little to address their immediate concerns. "Ask them to show you one person who has found a job as a result of these trainings," says Abdul-Salaam Al-Hosseini, an Iraqi engineer in his ninth year as an asylum seeker in Moscow. "They should use that money to buy food for the refugees, not to pay the salaries of these professors."
Despite the frustration expressed by some of the asylum seekers, the UN refugee agency has maintained that continuing vocational education for asylum seekers is a vital element in the process of self-reliance and local integration.
According to Kemlin Furley, a programme officer at UNHCR, skills training is the best solution in a difficult legal environment. "We recognise that, in the short- to medium-term, asylum seekers may not be able to go out and get jobs as soon as their training has finished. But we believe that by training them in the Russian language and vocational skills, we are increasing their capacity for self-reliance, both now and in the future."
She adds, "We had hoped, though, that progress in obtaining legal status and documentation would be faster in coming."
Without improvements to the legal situation of asylum seekers, the prospects for self-reliance and local integration remain slim. UNHCR's work to assist the Russian authorities in developing a fair and efficient system is therefore of great importance. Until asylum seekers enjoy fair and efficient processing of their claims, and receive valid identity documents and the entitlements necessary for them to begin rebuilding their lives, they will continue to live a marginal existence at the bottom of Russian society, while many continue to seek illegal passage to western Europe.
By Matthew Scott