Syrian Refugees in Russia

These days Migration services of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation have been constantly denying Syrian refugees asylum and recommending them to go back home.

Officials explain their decisions by claiming that Syria is no longer in grave danger and referring to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation. We have gathered a few of migration services’ decisions here and compared them for better understanding with the recent report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic acting under the mandate of the United Nation.

According to the UN, by the middle of 2014 the number of war casualties in Syria reached 250 000 people but due to intense military operations this statistics could no longer be collected. Among the deceased and injured there are thousands of children and women. By the beginning of 2016 an estimated 5 million Syrians had to flee their country in search of safety. Most of them found asylum in Turkey (around 2, 7 million as of August 2016), Lebanon (around 1, 5 million as of December 2015) as well as in Jordan and Germany.

According to the Federal Migration Service of Russia (the FMS of Russia), 7 096 Syrian citizens were residing on the territory of the Russian Federation as of April 5, 2016 (no statistics can be found published since the inclusion of the FMS in the MIA). Over the past year this number has decreased from 8 205 people as of April 5, 2015. This number includes embassy staff and their families and those who arrived in Russia before the conflict and are constantly living and working and Russia and not looking for asylum.

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Graph 1. The number of Syrian citizens on the territory of the Russian Federation (according to FMS Russia)

All other Syrians can be divided into two groups: those who arrived before the conflict but cannot go back to obtain a new visa due to military actions (refugees sur place) and those who arrived during the conflict. The latter include in particular families of migrant workers who left for Russia to join their relatives after the conflict outbreak. Both groups have all the reasons to apply for asylum.

During 2015 5, 5 thousand refugees, Syrian citizens above all, left Russia through the border point in the Murmansk Region and reached Norway. It was possible until Norway changed its border crossing regulations by tightening control. Norwegian officials sent back to Russia those Syrian refugees who had a legal status. Most Syrians though stayed in Norway. Moreover, around 500 refugees reached Finland the same way. Apparently this is the reason for the decrease of Syrian citizens in Russia while there is still a small ongoing influx of Syrians into Russia. Despite the insignificant number of Syrians in Russia and the global principle of non-refoulment, based on recommendations of the UNHCR and human rights groups, Russia’s migration services often keep denying asylum. There were cases of refoulment of Syrians to Turkey or forcible attempts to send them to Damascus.

During the conflict (years 2011 to 2015, no data from 2016 yet) a total of 2 011 Syrian citizens applied for asylum but only one of them was granted it. More to that, 4 462 Syrians applied for temporary asylum and 3 306 of them were granted it. However temporary asylum is approved for one year only and might not be prolonged. By the end of 2015, only 1 032 Syrians were registered by the FMS of Russia with a temporary asylum, and only two Syrians were granted the status of a refugee.

It should be noted that it’s almost impossible to apply for asylum in Russia without the help of a lawyer or a regulatory agency. People seeking asylum are just not admitted to the procedure.

An asylum-seeker’s visit to migrations services can end in different ways. One will be granted an interview day at best. Sometimes the waiting period can last a month or two but sometimes even several months. During all this time this person resides in Russia illegally if he has no visa. He can fall victim to any policeman who holds him for protocol and takes him to court, or who cleans him out by checking contents of his bag and pockets and taking all the money he can find. Policemen do not call such check-ups a “search” for which they would need permission. They are just checking whether the foreign citizen has any dangerous items on him.

It’s possible that the refugee won’t even be talked to, he will just be turned down and will have to come again and again in vain. And this is not the worst case scenario.

A new practice has been carried out for several years now, when migration service officers who are supposed to be working with asylum-seekers call out their colleagues who bring refugees to a police station and write down a protocol of Russia’s migration rules violation. Then the “law breaker” is taken to court where it takes the judge just a few minutes to rule that Article 18.8 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses was violated and to assign a fine to the refugee with or without refoulment at the external borders. Generally the judge decides for himself whether to refoul the person who turned to us for help or not, whereas our two metropolitan areas, Moscow and Saint Petersburgh, just don’t give such a choice of law – the law breaker must leave Russia’s territory.

The refoulment decision is made in court and is accompanied by allocation to a special temporary detention center for foreign citizens which is somewhat similar to jail. One can be held there for up to two years (Article 31.9 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses – Limitation for execution of an administrative penalty ruling) and one might not be given the opportunity to apply for asylum from there, or to appeal an unfavorable court decision without missing the proper dates. Lawyers’ admittance to special temporary detention centers for foreign citizens is limited. The decision of the first-instance judge can be appealed but, unfortunately, with an outcome far from happy.

There is also an issue of translation. Quite often the migration services’ translators lack proper qualification or just don’t exist. It’s also not uncommon for the translators to negatively impact the situation by either inadequate translation, or bad advice, or by offering to bribe officials.

This is why it’s so important for refugees to be accompanied by a member of a social organization when dealing with migration services and to have a lawyer ready to help. It’s also preferable to have a translator to rely on. Of all the three possible accompanying persons only the lawyer cannot be denied access by migration services although under the law anyone can have a representative whom he trusts. As for translators, migration services can grant access to an outside translator only if they cannot provide their own for too long.

Non-governmental organizations do not have enough sources to provide such triple support to refugees. And even if such help is provided it cannot guarantee that the situation will follow the direction in accordance with the law.

When presenting statistics of people who applied for asylum and were granted it, migration services often claim that the number of allowed applications is much higher than in the EU. The reason here would be not that Russian migration officers are more sympathetic and generous to refugees, Syrians first and for most, but that there is no free access to the status determination procedure. Thus, one of the vested human rights gets violated here: Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution (Article 14 of the Human Rights Act).

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Graph 2. Temporary asylum provided to Syrians (according to FMS Russia)  

In 2015 migration services changed their approach to granting temporary asylum to Syrians compared to 2014: the percentage of people granted asylum among those who were admitted to the procedure decreased. Preliminary figures of 2016 show that the situation with asylum for Syrians has even changed for the worse since migration services are less eager to provide the refugee status referring to the Syrian conflict upturn.

According to our statistics based on the decisions regarding only our applicants, among the 82 decisions of the migration services issued during the first half of 2016 against people who applied through us 57 people were denied temporary asylum, 17 were denied asylum prolongation, 7 were granted temporary asylum and 1 was granted asylum prolongation.

In some cases it is possible to challenge the refusal to determine a status with the help of lawyers in court but the general picture is quite saddening. At the same time the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in 2014 established that Russia is violating the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and entitled three Syrians compensations of 9 000 Euro each for illegal detention on remand and the danger of being subject to inhuman treatment.

In September 2016 The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic published their latest report which was prepared by the Human Rights Council based on the investigation carried out between January 10th and July 20th 2016. We have compared their data with typical decisions to deny Syrians asylum issued by the migrations services for the same time period.

Typicality here means that given abstracts with minimal alterations repeat themselves in asylum denials not once or twice but in tens of cases over the course of several months. As a rule, temporary asylum prolongation denials say: ”temporary asylum prolongation denied due to the fact that grounds upon which asylum was granted no longer exist”.

Is that true?

Tortures in Syria

When giving out asylum denials Russian migration services often refer to the fact, that in one case or in another there is no risk of torture, and even if there is one, it applies to government forces and certain minorities.

For example, Moscow Region UFMS denied Citizen A. temporary asylum prolongation on January 28, 2016 with the following explanation: “According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation since the beginning of the armed stage of the conflict the high-risk group includes, above all, military officers, members of intelligence services and police, Syria’s ruling Baath Party leaders, public and religious figures supporting the regime. Members of religious (Alawites, Christians, Druzes) and ethnic (Armenians) minorities are significantly suffering from the insurgent forces. As to torture practices, according to available information, the above listed groups can fall victim to tortures”.

Meanwhile the report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic mentions systematic tortures by government forces as well: The use of torture by government forces, particularly its intelligence and security agencies, has been documented by the Commission since its inception. It is extremely rare to find an individual who has been detained by the Government who has not suffered severe torture”.

The arrests themselves aren’t always connected with participation in armed resistance, since “some victims were arrested only due to being activists or being suspected in insufficient support of the government”. According to the report, detention conditions are horrific: “Former detainees reported a dearth of food, potable water, space, sleep and hygiene and medical care. Reports of lice infestations and infected wounds continue to be regularly recorded. One detainee, held in Hama prison for over three years, stated he had lost more than half his body weight while detained. One woman, held in Dayr az-Zayr in 2015, described losing so much weight that she stopped menstruating”.

Danger for women

Some Russian migration officials recommend that not only men but also women should go back home. Even pregnant women. For example, Syrian female citizen V. who was 6 months pregnant was denied temporary asylum by Moscow Region UFMS explaining that she “didn’t prove that she has a higher risk of prosecution than the rest of the Syrian population. Almost all Syrian citizens are having life challenges. Syrian citizens are reluctant to go back home due to bad economic and humanitarian situation in the country”. It should be mentioned that this cynical decision was issued by a woman.

In their report the Commission points out the helplessness of women in Syria. This can be proved by cases that were documented by the Commission when “women have been raped by officials during interrogations in detention centres controlled by government intelligence agencies”. There are slave markets on the territories controlled by some antigovernment forces: “Thousands of Yazidi women and girls, some as young as 9 years old, are sold in slave markets in the governorates of Raqqah, Aleppo, Homs, Hasakah and Dayr az-Zawr”, some regions widely practice forced marriage.

It’s even more dangerous for pregnant women to stay in Syria. And not only due to lack of medication and medical specialists but also because maternity clinics fall under attacks and bombings. For example, on February 15, 2016 shortly before the above mentioned decision regarding citizen V. was issued, “pro-Government planes bombarded the street outside a maternity hospital in Azaz in northern Aleppo governorate. Approximately five civilians in the areas outside the hospital were killed, including two guards who were on staff”. There is another case on record: “On 3 May, an armed group in the Bani Zeid neighbourhood of Aleppo city launched a rocket attack, striking areas around Doubait maternity hospital in Al-Muhafada neighbourhood. The facade of the hospital was destroyed, as were surrounding businesses. Approximately 15 people were killed, including 3 who were inside the hospital. Twenty people, including hospital staff, were injured. The hospital closed shortly afterwards”.

Women and children are often targeted for mass hostage-taking: “Armed groups, including those designated as terrorist groups, have taken hostages in order to effect prisoner exchanges, or for ransom. Women and children are particularly vulnerable to being taken hostage, as families usually move quickly to collect money to pay the ransom, or exert pressure on opposing forces to arrange a prisoner swap”. The report also mentions abductions and arrests organized by government forces when members of “family members of men believed to be fighting against the Government” are captured.

Danger for children

Russia also denies asylum to Syrian refugees with small children. For example, citizen H. applied for temporary asylum for himself and his two underage children (a son born in 2014 and a daughter born in 2007). Nevertheless, on May 12, 2016 a migration officer decided that “the main reason for H. to apply to Moscow Region UFMS for temporary asylum in Russia is to find employment in the Russian Federation”. This migration officer decided to deny the Syrian citizen and his children asylum following the consideration of his application.

The report covers cases of reprisals and numerous victims among children in Syria and the severe and dangerous situation with children’s rights in the country: “Syrian children continue to be victims of violations by all warring parties. Continually exposed to unbearable levels of violence, they suffer from ongoing, multiple and frequently untreated trauma”. For example, the same day when citizen H. and his children were denied asylum, on May 12, 2016 this happened in Syria: “Four girls and one 13-year-old boy were killed when Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Tawhid brigades and Ahrar al-Sham took over Zara village in Hama. Of the 17 persons still missing, 8 are children. Many other children were injured during the attack, including a 4-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy with Down syndrome. A 15-year-old described how she was shot in the arm while attempting to flee the village with her 6-year-old sister”.

Not long before that, on May 5, 2016 “three children died in the makeshift school in the Kamouna camp for internally displaced persons in Idlib”. According to an eyewitness, “the victims’ bodies as scorched beyond recognition”.

Underage children are recruited by some radical Islami groups: “Between April and May, Jabhat al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa recruited hundreds of children, many under the age of 15, in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo”. Government forces also recruit underage children: “In Government-controlled areas, Popular Committees and the National Defence Forces reportedly recruit minors into their ranks and send them to battle without providing them with any military training”.

All these disasters are accompanied now by growth of infectious diseases: “Cases of children suffering from tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and polio have resurfaced, owing to the inability of medical services to carry out full vaccination campaigns”.

Unsteady agreements

Starting from March 2016 migration services have been referring to the ceasefire process when denying Syrians asylum despite its instability and constant violations. Meanwhile the communique of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation dated March 18, 2016 was used in the migration services’ decisions for several months. For example, the issued decision of Moscow Region UFMS says that “According to the information from the Ministry of Defense dated March 18, 2016, reconciliation process is under way. A total of 43 ceasefire application forms have been signed with leaders of “moderate opposition” armed formations…” followed by other details including humanitarian help. All this is brought forward to conclude that there is “lack of humane grounds to allow temporary stay in the territory of the Russian Federation”.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic is not as optimistic is the FMS of Russia. Their report points out that despite the agreements achieved in February, “Since late March, however, there has been a marked upsurge in the fighting, with indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilian-inhabited areas, particularly through pounding aerial bombardments”. The report also unravels the myth about the non-existent danger in areas controlled by the government forces. End of March solely brought in several blatant examples of how unstable the agreements are and how much danger there is for civilians:

“On 23 March, five ISIL suicide bombers exploded themselves in different locations in Jableh, Latakia”.

“On 25 March, a sniper killed Dr. Mohammed Khous as he was leaving Zabadani field hospital in Rif Damascus. Snipers also fired at those trying to rescue him. Dr. Khous was reportedly Zabadani’s last doctor. Civilians have reportedly died from injuries sustained by sniper fire in Zabadani because of a lack of doctors and medicine at the hospital”.

“On 31 March, strikes by pro-Government forces in Deir al-Asafir, an area outside Damascus controlled by anti-Government groups, hit a school, a hospital and a mosque. At least 31 people were killed, including 3 children and their parents. Several children were killed in the hospital after being evacuated from the school. The strikes caused extensive damage to the hospital, the school, the mosque and several homes”. Affairs of the Russian Federations to Russian citizens which point out the danger of staying in the whole territory

The report generally emphasizes that nowhere in Syria can people feel safe and that law doesn’t apply almost anywhere: “Away from the battlefield, civilians and hors de combat fighters continue to be disappeared, taken hostage, tortured and subjected to sexual violence, often in the context of detention. Unlawful killings, including deaths in detention and summary executions, remain a hallmark of this blood-soaked conflict”.

Russian officials issue their asylum denials referring to completely different data and optimistic comments about the situation in Syria. Would they be ready to send their friends and families there?

In this case they would quite possibly trust recommendations of the Ministry of Foreign of Syria. Indeed, MFA’ s official regularly updated website says that “due to the ongoing civilian war in Syria which is violent towards civilians and comes with terrorist attacks, it’s is not recommended to visit the whole territory of the country”. Hence no – they wouldn’t send their friends or family there, and they would, of course, tell them that it’s a dangerous destination.

This report was prepared by the Civic Assistance Committee Chairman Svetlana Gannushkina and the Committee’s analyst Konstantin Troitskiy.

Photo by: IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation/Flickr.

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