During 2018, the Russian State Migration Service almost did not provide asylum to Syrian citizens, and those who received it earlier were often refused to get it renewed. This led to the fact that only a small number of refugees holding temporary asylum status remained after a decrease of almost 30% occurred in Russia in 2018. The officials, referring to the data of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, wrote in their decisions that, in general, citizens of Syria do not have any obstacles in returning home. The Russian State Migration Service still shows no interest in the fact that the situation in the country is still very dangerous and during 2018, more children were killed in Syria compared to previous years of war, and many Syrians simply have nowhere to return because their houses have been destroyed.
General review of the situation
In September 2018, a report by the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the events in the Syrian Arab Republic, based on the study conducted from January 16 to July 10 2018, was presented at the session of the UN Human Rights Council.
The report notes the active involvement of Turkey in the Syrian conflict, the continuation of the bombing and bloody clashes in several regions, including areas near Damascus. According to the report, the situations are especially dangerous in the provinces of Aleppo, Damascus, Dar’a, Idlib and Homs where the use of heavy artillery and aircraft was recorded. The report also notes the use of chemical weapons. The commission pays attention to the terrible consequences of fighting and describes several incidents of civilian casualties from bombing and shelling. These victims include people from the most vulnerable populations, namely women, children and elderly people. In 2018, hospitals along with schools and markets were bombed and shelled (the report describes destruction and casualties among patients during attacks in hospitals in Sarakib (Oday Hospital), Zafaran, Afrin and Azaz. The report provides examples of widespread looting.
The report especially focuses on internally displaced persons, whose number increased significantly in 2018. The fighting in Syria led to the fact that last year more than one million people were forced to leave their homes, including women and children. The report emphasizes: “In many ways, these movements of the population were related directly to the inability of warring parties to take all feasible precautions, as required by international humanitarian law; also it is related to illegal action of these parties, engaged in indiscriminate and deliberate attacks, paying little attention to the lives of civilians ”(p. 5). According to the Commission, after seven years of war in Syria, 5.5 million people became refugees and 6.5 million were forced to leave their homes and became internally displaced.
It is noted in the report that, according to the evidence available to the Commission: “Warring parties did not make any effort to provide accommodation that would meet even the most basic standards necessary for displaced people. The fate of the displaced was monitored during the study and it appeared that none of them were accommodated in a place with satisfactory conditions regarding safety, nutrition, health and hygiene. Displaced civilians were in the areas, controlled by armed groups in the northern part of the Syrian Arab Republic, abandoned and to survive in overcrowded camps and derelict buildings without basic services” (p. 13). In the south of the country, the situation for displaced persons also remained objectionable. According to the Commission, thousands of civilians were forced to live in cars or in the open air of the desert, “surviving in unimaginable conditions with the help of very limited ration packages, supplied as part of international humanitarian aid” (p. 13).
On February 28, 2019, UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic released a report on the situation in Syria for the second half of 2018 (from July 11, 2018 to January 10, 2019). The report says that, despite some general reduction in tensions, the situation remains very difficult and in some regions, heavy fighting continues. It is particularly noted that “the scope and scale of abductions, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, together with the destruction of vital infrastructure, the lack of effective service provision and civil documentation and extensive property seizures demonstrate that, despite a general winding-down of hostilities in the Syrian Arab Republic, numerous challenges persist regarding the sustainable return of internally displaced persons and refugees” (p.4). The report describes cases of gross violations of human rights, including cases of torture, death of children and women and abductions.
The conclusion regarding the possible return of refugees is the following: “The current situation throughout the Syrian Arab Republic undermines the feasibility of the return of internally displaced persons and refugees” (p. 19). The statement about the release of the report once again stresses that the continuing acts of violence from all sides of the conflict make “the possibility for safe and sustainable return completely illusory”.
In March 2019, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) published a statement of the executive director, Henrietta Holsman Fore “2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria”, according to which, 2018 was the most terrifying year for children in Syria. It is noted in the statement that “in 2008, 1,106 children were killed in the fighting – the highest ever number of children killed in a single year since the start of the war”. Moreover, according to UNICEF, “these are only the numbers that the UN has been able to verify, which means the true figures are likely much higher”. According to data, verified by the UN, last year, 434 children were killed or injured by the detonation of mines. In 2018, 262 attacks on education and health facilities were recorded, which is a frightening number.
According to UNHCR statistics, in 2018, Turkey remained the country where the highest number of Syrian refugees found asylum (more than 3.5 million people). Other countries with high numbers of refugees from Syria include Lebanon (about 950 thousand recognized refugees), Jordan (about 700 thousand recognized refugees), and Germany (about 500 thousand recognized refugees). There were about 130 thousand refugees even in such a poor country like Egypt, which does not have any borders with Syria. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation, in 2018, there were still only two recognized refugees from Syria throughout the territory of Russia, and the number of those holding temporary asylum status decreased from 1128 people (as for January 1st, 2018) to 826 (as for January 1st, 2019) (a decrease of almost 30%). In other words, at the end of 2018, only 828 Syrian citizens had asylum in Russia.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation, the number of all citizens of Syria, including non-refugees, in the territory of Russia in 2018 fluctuated by around 9 thousand people, that is 15 times less than the number of Syrian refugees in Egypt. The Russian state migration service often refused to renew or issue to Syrian refugees documents confirming the right to stay in the Russian Federation. Large families, women and elderly people received recommendations by officials to get back to Syria. In a number of cases, judges embraced the position of the Migration Service; in some regions judges ordered the expulsion of Syrians in the country, torn by war and undergoing a humanitarian catastrophe.
Syrian refugees in Russia
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation, as for the end of October 2018, there were 9.1 thousand citizens of Syria in the territory of the Russian Federation. Over the past year, this number increased by a thousand people (there were 8.1 thousand Syrian citizens in Russia at the end of October 2017). This number includes embassy employees with families and those who arrived before the outbreak of the war.
Chart 1. The number of Syrian citizens (thousands of people) in the territory of the Russian Federation as of the date indicated (according to the statistical data of the Federal Migration Service and the MIA of the Russian Federation)
Since 2012, when the war spread to most of the country and large populations fled from Syria, the number of Syrians in Russia had not changed much. This fact is explained by very difficult conditions for refugees, deliberately created by the Russian State Migration and security institutions. Syrian refugees, who try to hide from persecution and war in Russia, usually quickly lose hope of being granted asylum after their arrival. Contrary to the UNHCR repeatedly stated position, migration service officials still believe that only when they grant the status become refugees. Although a person becomes a refugee after the fact and before being recognized as such by state bodies. The Russian State Migration Service’s mindset paves the way to numerous cases of repression and arbitrariness towards Syrian refugees, the applicants of the Civic Assistance Committee among them. If however, Syrian refugees receive asylum, then they need to prove the necessity of its renewal at least once a year, which officials often deny, thus creating a state of permanent uncertainty. This makes many Syrian refugees choose either to live without regular migration status or to flee from Russia; sometimes the State Migration Service officials openly force them to choose the last option. As the Civic Assistance Committee repeatedly wrote, this state of affairs is a direct result of harsh and often simply inhuman practice of Russian migration and law enforcement services. In fact, their work is based not on humane principles and care about refugees, but on the intention to reduce the number of issued refugee and temporary asylum certificates.
State Services, responsible for migration policy, use four main tools to force Syrian refugees to leave Russia:
1. During the whole period of the conflict Syrian refugees were not granted refugee status. Despite numerous bureaucratic and frankly disenfranchised obstacles, from the beginning of the war in 2011 until the end in 2018, Syrian citizens managed to file 2585 applications to be recognized as refugees. The Migration Service granted only one status in 2014. This is 0.04% of the number of applications submitted. One more refugee from Syria was registered before the beginning of the bloody conflict. From then until the beginning of 2019, no national of Syria was granted asylum and during the last five years of the war in Syria, in which since 2016, the Russian authorities decided to participate actively and directly, there were only two Syrian refugees, registered in the Russian migration service. The number of those Syrian citizens who tried to apply for refugee status has been steadily decreasing since 2013, both because of the fact that the Migration Service almost never grants this status and because the officials refuse to accept documents for this status, without considering the details.
Chart 2. The number of applications for refugee status, which Syrian citizens managed to submit (according to the statistical data of the Federal Migration Service and Main Directorate for Migration Affairs in the Russian Federation for 2011 – 2018)
2. According to Russian law, temporary asylum is granted for a period of up to one year with the possibility of renewal. The temporary asylum was actually granted for some Syrian citizens. But, firstly, not everyone was able to apply for this status, sometimes, because of the open reluctance of the State Migration Service officials to accept applications for this status. Secondly, not all of those who even managed to apply were granted the status, and, thirdly, the authorities did not often renew the status, issued for one year or even less. Since the last quarter of 2017 when for the first time the Russian authorities announced the termination of the military operation in Syria, the number of Syrians with temporary asylum status in Russia started to decrease rapidly. Since then, the authorities have almost completely stopped granting this status to Syrians, while also refusing to prolong the existing certificates of temporary asylum.
Chart 3. The number of the citizens of Syria who held temporary asylum status in the Russian Federation by quarters from 2013 till 2019 (according to the statistical data of the Federal Migration Service and the MIA of the Russian Federation).
At the same time, the number of applicants has decreased, which can be explained by increasing awareness of Syrians of the degradation of the institution of asylum in Russia, as well as by growing impediments in the procedure of application for temporary asylum. For example, in 2017, the Migration Service for Moscow Oblast introduced the practice of imposition of administrative sanctions and fining as a prerequisite of admission to the procedure of granting temporary asylum (see our report “The Price of Refuge: Fines Brought Against Asylum Seekers”, published by Civic Assistance Committee at the end of 2017).
Chart 4. The number of the citizens of Syria who managed to file an application for temporary asylum status, as well as number of the citizens of Syria who received the status in the Russian Federation as per the end of the year from 2011 to 2018 (according to the data of the Federal Migration Service of Russia and MIA of the Russian Federation).
3. Local authorities, law enforcement services, as well as the state migration service, persecute Syrians and restrict their rights, including those who managed to get temporary asylum. Often it happens because it is impossible to get registered in the apartment that a family managed to rent. Because of xenophobia, that is unfortunately widespread in Russian society, many of those who rent out apartments do not want to host Syrian families in their homes. Even when they do let such families in, they do not want to register them at the place of residence, usually explaining it by their willingness not to attract the attention of law enforcement and migration services. As a result, many Syrians stay unregistered. Because of this, they are regularly getting fined, their children are not admitted to schools and their access to the healthcare system and social services is hindered. It does not need to be mentioned that the situation with persecution, restriction, and fines is only getting worse when a Syrian refugee does not have a settled migration status, which is the case more often than not.
4. The absence of state programs on integration and adaptation of refugees. Even when it achievable to obtain asylum, its granting does not imply any social benefits and almost no aid whatsoever. The state services do not help refugees to adapt to life in Russia, to get a profession, to find a job, to learn Russian, do not provide any legal or social support. The plans of the Federal Migration Service of the Russian Federation contained certain ideas on development and implementation of integration and adaptation programs for refugees and labour migrants. There was a work in progress free of charge by an organization providing Russian language courses as well as establishing cooperation between the authorities, NGOs, representatives of embassies and the migrant communities. Ever since the migration service was merged with the MIA of the Russian Federation in April 2016, almost all work in this direction was shut down.
Court decisions on expulsion of Syrian citizens from the Russian Federation
According to our estimates, in 2018, courts had been pronouncing expulsion decisions more often and had been placing the citizens of Syria in the centers of temporary detention of foreign nationals (hereinafter, CTDFNs) where foreign nationals awaiting expulsion from Russia are held, more often as well. What is especially unsettling, is that in numerous cases in 2018, an appeal court would uphold a lower courts’ decision on expulsion of Syrian citizens.
For instance, on July 5, 2018, the Elektrostal District Court of Moscow Oblast rendered a decision on expulsion of anapplicant of the Civic Assistance Committee, citizen of Syria Afar T.A. and placed him in a CTDFN. Unfortunately, Moscow Oblast Court did not overturn this decision, and judge E.A. Fenko noted, “Malicious evasion of Afar T.A. from execution of the court decisions, disregarding of the requirements of the Russian legislation during three years and failure to take measures to legalize his situation within the reasonable time limits, are jointly considered by the appeal court as information demonstrating the necessity to expulse Afar T.A. from the territory of the Russian Federation by means of forced transfer across the state border of the Russian Federation as the only available way to achieve the just balance of public and private interests within the scope of administrative process”. In the end, only the interim measures under the Rule 39 of the European Court of Human Rights stopped the expulsion of the Syrian citizen. However, Afar T.A. has been in a CTDFN for 10 months already, and the conditions of the center are very similar to those of a prison.
Below we provide some other cases that we learned about by studying the court decisions on the first half of 2018.
On June 22, 2018, Domodedovo City Court of Moscow Oblast ruled to expulse A.V., as the Syrian national had been working without a permit. A.V. himself appealed the decision and managed to get the expulsion repealed, however the appeal court considered not the fact that the hostilities are ongoing in Syria, but the fact that A.V. is married to a Russian citizen. We can only guess why the lower court failed to consider this fact, it is probably due to widespread negligence of judges in ruling on such cases.
The same Domodedovo City Court, on the same day of June 22, 2018, rendered a decision on the expulsion of a Syrian citizen Kh.A. from Russia. Unfortunately, the appeal court (Moscow Oblast Court) upheld the decision on the expulsion pronounced by the lower court.
Another expulsion case concerning a Syrian citizen arises from the decision of Egorievsk City Court of Moscow Oblast, that on July 17, 2018 disregarded the fears of D.M. for his life in Syria. The judge of the Moscow Oblast Court, O.V. Komarova, stayed insensitive to those fears as well, and upheld the decision of the lower court.
On June 5, 2018, the judge of Palkinsky District Court of the city of Pskov ruled to expel Syrian N.Kh., however, the Syrian’s lawyer managed to appeal the decision in the Pskov Oblast Court. What made the difference is that the Syrian citizen’s defence proved to the judge that N.Kh. applied for asylum before the migration authorities.
On March 13, 2018, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Tatarstan upheld the decision of the Vakhitovskiy District Court of Kazan on the expulsion of A.Kh.R. from Russia to Syria. The judge in this case did not even look into the military and humanitarian situation in Syria.
On June 7, 2018, the Kuybyshevskiy District Court of St. Petersbourg rendered a decision on the expulsion of A.A.Ya.
On March 6, 2018, Vyborg City Court rendered a decision on the expulsion of the Syrian citizen S.Sh. Fortunately, on April 3, 2018, Leningrad Oblast Court overturned the expulsion decision.
On May 24, 2018, a decision on expulsion of a Syrian citizen was pronounced by a Noginsk City Court of Moscow Oblast.
Earlier we discussed several cases in which judges ruled in favor of expulsion and appealed to the Administrative Offenses Code of the Russian Federation, i.e. Article 18.8 (Violation by an Alien or a Stateless Person of the Rules for Entry into the Russian Federation or of the Regime for Staying (Living) in the Russian Federation) and Article 18.10 (Unlawful Exercise by a Foreign Citizen or Stateless Person of Labour Activities in the Russian Federation).
But deportation rulings are sometimes based on other articles of the Administrative Offenses Code of the Russian Federation. As such, on June 11, 2018 a judge in Sochi approved deportation of a Syrian citizen and held him responsible under article 18.1 (Violating the Regime of the State Borders of the Russian Federation). According to the decision of judge Yu. I. Pechenkina, the Syrian’s fault lay in presenting a passport with an expired visa at the airport’s border control while trying to leave Russia for Turkey (or rather trying to save himself). As a result, the judge ruled to deport him, and not to relatively safe Turkey but to Syria which was torn apart by conflicts and humanitarian issues. During the court hearing she did not even raise the question of potential danger for the Syrian citizen to return to Syria.
The Russian state services do not publish any statistics on the number of deportation rulings towards Syrians and the number of Syrians who were actually deported in 2018. There is no open data, and in 2016 the Ministry of Internal Affairs limited access to already poor statistics. As we were analysing judicial decisions only partial information, up to August 2018, was available to us. And it should be noted that numerous rulings have the citizenship of the person in question deleted so it is impossible to assess the scale of the problem.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs refusing to grant asylum
Refusals to grant temporary asylum to Syrian citizens issued by migration services in 2018 are full of cynical, unprofessional, false and plainly absurd statements. It concerns both decisions of regional migration offices and complaints rejected by the General Administration for Migration Issues of the Russian MIA. Behind these decisions there is a general disposition towards rejection. State officers search for, choose and include information that proves their point. This might explain why they never refer to recommendations of human rights groups, humanitarian organisations, international institutions including the UN since they would work against them. State officers almost exclusively rely on the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs which cannot be considered fair and credible source.
All refusals have the same structure, 1. Enсlosure of personal information and information about documents, relatives, marital status, date of entry into the Russian Federation, address of the place of residence and means of life maintenance; 2. A brief story of applications to migration services with limited descriptions of reasons for refusals if there were any; 3. Generic extracts from the legal base of the Russian Federation beneficial for the refusers, the Federal law “On Refugees” first and foremost, and short accounts of the situation is Syria provided to migration services by the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; 4. Repetitive justification of the refusal to grant asylum to Syrian refugees, as seen by the authorizing state officer.
Migration services usually seek and present certain information which can be used to discredit the Syrian citizens in question:
– whether they have relatives in Syria;
– whether they have visited Syria or other countries;
– how long they delayed applying for asylum;
– whether they have been held administratively liable;
– whether they are working without a permit;
– whether they have prolonged their temporary asylum status on time if there was one;
– whether they are having health problems.
Even when the applicant has no relatives in Syria, no spouse with Russian citizenship, no delay in applying for the refugee status or prolonging one, no administrative record, no labour relations, it still didn’t stop the migration service officers from issuing a refusal. Officials just didn’t specify that the applicant wasn’t administratively liable, never left the country once the conflict in Syria broke out, didn’t work without a permit, or that the application for asylum was sent immediately. Therefore, negative aspects were mentioned and underlined as defining in the decision, and positive aspects were either excluded or in no way highlighted in the dry statement. In other words, the above mentioned facts do not factor in making a decision, they merely serve as a background for issuing an already made one. An exception can be made for applicants with major health problems, and even then, officials try to insist on granting asylum only to those who are in need of emergency care and can provide a paper to prove that. This stance is bluntly cynical and not humane. A person requiring hospitalisation needs to call an ambulance, and cannot pay regular – often ineffective – visits to migration services in order to await their decision which could take months. Migration officers usually leave it at “the applicant has no chronic diseases and does not require emergency care”.
Besides that, officials often justify their refusals with lack of proof of personal persecution and often claim that “there are grounds to conclude that the situation in the Syrian Arab Republic has stabilized”. Sometimes they refer to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense who praise themselves for allegedly achieving progress in the normalisation of the situation in Syria. But it should be noted that these referrals started appearing in decisions three years ago, in 2016, when State Migration Services explained their refusals to grant asylum to Syrians: “According to information from the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation d/d 18.03.2016: The process of negotiating a peace deal is ongoing. Leaders of “moderate opposition” groups have signed 43 ceasefire agreements to stop military actions of subject units…”.
At the same time, it occasionally comes down to absurd and false statements.
For example, the decision of the Migration services d/d 25.01.2018 says: “According to information from the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, around 100% of the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic is now controlled by government forces. In large localities order is maintained by military units of the armed forces of the Russian Federation”. The person who wrote that probably didn’t even think of sounding plausible. After this nonsense about 100% there is talk of control by Assad’s forces and then, immediately, of control by the army of the Russian Federation on these territories. This demonstrates that at times migration service officers shamelessly disregard their responsibilities by not giving much thought to what they are writing.
The statement of reasons for refusal almost always has a generic argument that the applicant is asking for temporary asylum for economic reasons and due to a complicated social and political situation. The “big picture” would look different if only the officials substituted “complicated” with “dangerous”, as heard in recommendations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs addressed to Russian citizens to restrain them from visiting Syria. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs writes: “Due to the fact that there is a civil war in Syria, accompanied by violence against the civilian population and terrorist attacks, the entire territory of the country is not recommended to visit. Sanitary-epidemiological situation is unstable. There are gastrointestinal infections, parasitic diseases, amoebic dysentery, viral hepatitis A. It is recommended to use only bottled water. It is impossible to ensure safe stay in the country. Only central districts of Damascus and in some places, the coastal provinces of Lattakia and Tartus remain the islands of relative stability.” But why then do migration officials recommend Syrian refugees to go to Syria? The Civic Assistance Committee strongly believes that there can be no double standards and nationality-based division when it comes to defending human rights, including the right to life, health, and basic well-being.
Considering all the above, the Civic Assistance Committee is highly concerned about the current situation with Syrian refugees in the Russian Federation. We believe that it is not acceptable to expel or deport people to Syria, or to force them out of the country by creating unbearable living conditions in Russia. Russian Migration Service officials should know and go by recommendations of the United Nations and international human rights organisations. We see it as not only preferable but also essential to form an effective commission, based on the Migration Services, with real authority which would look over the rights of Syrian refugees and which would include representatives of the public, expert communities, and employees of independent regional human rights groups.
Original text written in Russian by Konstantin Troitskiy and published on April 16,2019 https://refugee.ru/publications/sirijskie-bezhentsy-v-rossii-obzor-situatsii-za-2018-god/
translated from Russian into English by Sophia Ismailova and Dasha Gorbacheva