Why Russia refuses to give refugee status to Syrians

Despite playing a major role in Syria’s war, Moscow has granted refugee status to only one Syrian national since 2011.

Baibers and Sara
Baibers Suleiman, who is Syrian Circassian, and his wife Sara fled to Russia in 2016 [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]

Maykop, Republic of Adygea, Russia – When Baibers Suleiman arrived in Lebanon in 2014, having fled the war in Syria, he did not feel at ease.

“We felt alienated, foreign, although we were just three hours away from our home,” the 36-year-old Syrian electrician says. He and his 30-year-old wife Sara felt they needed to leave.

A Syrian friend of Baibers’ living in Russia suggested they go there.

The fact that Baibers is ethnically Circassian helped.

Adygea, one of the Russian republics in the historical Circassian homeland in the Northern Caucasus, had been helping Syrian Circassians find refuge in Russia, a policy in line with its efforts to repatriate descendants of the Circassian tribes ethnically cleansed from the region in the 1860s.

Baibers and Sara arrived in Maykop, capital of Adygea, in September 2016. A year later they obtained temporary asylum.

“Life here is relaxed. It is enough that there is no fighting, no war,” says Baibers.

Although he qualifies for refugee status according to the Geneva Convention, which Moscow is a party to, it is not what Baibers and the thousands of Syrians who have sought asylum in Russia received.

There is a perception that it's difficult for Syrians to get refugee status in Russia. This is not true. It is actually impossible.

by Svetlana Gannushkina, NGO worker

In fact, since 2011 when the war started in Syria, only one Syrian national has been granted refugee status in Russia.

And unlike Baibers, who had the help and support of Adygea’s authorities, most Syrians in Russia face an uncooperative, if not outright hostile, asylum system.

“There is a perception that it’s difficult for Syrians to get refugee status in Russia. This is not true. It is actually impossible,” says Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the Civic Assistance Committee (CAC), a Moscow-based NGO assisting refugees.

According to numbers obtained by CAC, as of October 2017, there were 589 people with refugee status in Russia, most of them Ukrainians who fled the recent war and Afghans who arrived after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the late 1980s.

There were two Syrians on that list, one of them received refugee status before 2011.

In Adygea, most Syrian refugees have permission for temporary stay.

Only 22 Syrian Circassians currently have temporary asylum, according to Ashad Guchetl, head of the Center for Adaptation of Repatriants (CAR), a government-supported organisation helping to settle Circassians in the republic. 

There are none with refugee status, Guchetl said.

Frequently rejected

Foreigners applying for permission for temporary stay have to prove they have ties to Russia; for individuals of Circassian descent, this is relatively easy, as their historical homeland is located on Russian territory.

But most Syrians fleeing the war to Russia cannot rely on this option. When they apply for refugee status or even temporary asylum, they often face rejection.

According to Stasya Denisova, an Amnesty International researcher, authorities often refuse asylum status because applicants cannot prove they are at a “greater” risk of persecution than others from their country.

“Russia interprets this definition in [the Geneva Convention] in a very narrow [way],” says Denisova.

In 2015, according to data from Russia’s Federal Migration Service (FMS), 695 Syrians who applied for temporary status were rejected and 1,302 received it.

By mid-2016, when the FMS was dissolved and its functions transferred to the Main Directorate for Migration Affairs under the interior ministry, there were some 7,000 Syrian nationals on Russian territory.

Gannushkina, from the CAC NGO, says the majority live without legal status.

When caught by police, Syrians without legal documents are sent to migration detention centres and face deportation.

According to Gannushkina, Russian judges have started blocking decisions by the interior ministry to expel Syrians.

Deportations are rare but do take place.

“Russia is probably the only country in the world that expels Syrians,” she says.

She highlighted dozens of deportation cases, including Syrians put on flights to Turkey.

In 2014, CAC reported the case of Sultan Raslan, a Syrian married to a Russian citizen who lost all contact with his family after he was deported from Moscow.

A few months later, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Russia on another deportation case involving Syrians.

Hostility towards refugees

Gannushkina says part of the problem is general hostility towards refugees among state bureaucrats.

“I talked once to a bureaucrat in the interior ministry. He told me, ‘You want us to give refugee status to all these young Syrians? My brother, a young officer, is being sent to fight in Syria,'” recounts Gannushkina.

“‘So my brother will go fight, and we will be feeding here these Syrians. They should go to Syria and defend their homeland, their lawful government,’ the bureaucrat told me.”

Russia’s interior ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

In September 2015, Moscow launched an air campaign to assist Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as rebel forces fought his military to a stalemate – a move that eventually turned the tide in the government’s favour.

That same month, Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, dismissed the idea of hosting Syrians, saying countries that caused the refugee crisis should bear the costs of it.

More recently, Russian authorities tightened migration and asylum policies because of the upcoming World Cup.

Amnesty’s Denisova told Al Jazeera that police regularly harass Syrian asylum seekers in the streets when checking for documents.

“[Refugees] are used to paying small sums of money every month to their local police officer because they are aware that they are renting flats on [an informal] basis,” she says. 

She also claimed that police arrest refugees who visit the interior ministry to apply for asylum, and they are only freed after paying a fine of 5,000 roubles ($89) for being undocumented.

Refugees flee to Western Europe

Difficulty securing asylum has pushed many Syrians out of Russia.

In 2015, some 5,500 left for Norway through the Borisoglebsky-Storskog border crossing at the northeastern tip of the Scandinavian Peninsula.

This route was closed when Norway closed its border and sent some refugees back.

The promise of better conditions there even attracted some Syrian Circassians who had made it to Adygea.

Guchetl said some Circassians CAR helped had left for Western Europe, but refused to say how many.

“There are people who went to Germany, others to Norway. These are countries of higher material status. There they get good money until they learn the language and get permanent residency,” he explains.

Sara and Baibers say they are not thinking of leaving Russia as they feel welcome in Adygea.

When Baibers broke his legs in a work-related incident in 2017 and was unable to work and pay rent, the CAR gave him free temporary housing.

Sara, who used to be a history teacher in Syria, is now working in a cheese factory and studying Russian. She says she hopes to get another degree in Russia and teach again.

“We like it here. Everyone has been helping us; we cannot complain,” Sara says.

Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter: @mkpetkova 

Source: Al Jazeera