For nearly 30 years, the Civic Assistance Committee is fighting to defend the rights of asylum seekers in Russia, a country where the reception of and the policy towards refugees are particularly hostile.
In 2018, 30 asylum applications were accepted. According to the State Federal Statistics Service it is an historical low record, even lower than the one in 2017 when 33 asylum applications were accepted. In the largest country in the world, 572 people benefited from the refugee status on 1 January 2019, mainly Afghans and Ukrainians. Even though it has ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Russia is leading a particularly tough migration policy.
A policy against which the Civic Assistance Committee, a unique non-governmental organisation in Russia, providing humanitarian, medical and legal assistance to refugees and migrants, is fighting against daily.
“Immigration services do everything they can to deter asylum seekers. They put pressure on them so that they sign a document on which is written that they are giving up all their rights to apply to the refugee status to get instead a simple temporary asylum application. But, this latter is valid only one year, without guarantee that it will be renewed”, regrets Katya Rosolovskaya, 23 years old, consultant on migration issues in the organisation.
Word of mouth
At the Committee located on Olimpiski Avenue in Moscow, this young lady who speaks very good French is dealing in priority with nationals from francophone African countries. “From the start, I tell them that the procedure will take a long time, be difficult and that they almost have no chance of getting the refugee status”, she says. The initial procedure of examination of applications takes around three months. With the different appeals, they have to take into account ten to twelve months, if not even more.
During public reception days – Monday, Wednesday and Friday – the seat of the NGO is quite busy. Afghans, Syrians, Cameroonians, Congolese… are numerous to ask for advice or follow the progress of their file. Most of them land here thanks to word of mouth or are sent by the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Lota escaped from Ivory Coast in 2011. After a year in Ghana, he found himself in Russia. Since then, he lives illegally on the Russian territory. “I have a wife and a child who are Russian citizens but I am still without legal documentation.” Even though he sometimes admits being discouraged, he continues to multiply the procedures in order to solve his situation. “Thanks to the Committee, I can count on the help of a lawyer. It is already a lot, and I say thanks!”.
Oldest Russian organisation for refugees
Born from the initiative of Svetlana Gannushkina, the Civic Assistance Committee started its activities at the beginning of the 90’s to welcome the victims of the armed conflicts following the fall of the USSR. “Our first refugees were Armenians who fled the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in Azerbaijan”, remembers the NGO’s director, who is 77 years old.
In order to defend the rights of refugees and stateless persons before the tribunals, she created as early as 1996 a network of lawyers all over Russia, named “Migration and Rights”, incorporated within the Memorial Human Rights Centre. The network counts today around 100 members and works regularly with the Committee. Together, they achieved several victories, such as the granting in 2002 of Russian passports to former Soviet citizens who had become stateless. “It took us more than ten years to win this battle against the authorities”, entrusts Svetlana Gannushkina.
More recently, several children of Syrian refugees have been admitted to school in the Moscow region even though their registration were previously refused on the ground that the parents did not have documents. “Even for such an elementary thing such as access to education, which is a right but also an obligation, the State is not fulfilling its duty,” she says.
There are many obstacles in the mission of the Committee. The registration of the organisation in the register of “foreign agents” since 2012 is one of them. This is not one of the least. It requires the NGO to comply with several formalities such as the completion of an annual audit of its activities and the addition of the mention “foreign agent” on each of its publications. More disturbingly, it impedes the NGO of being supported by the State and receiving national subsidies. A heavy blow for this humanitarian organisation, whose annual budget is around 650,000 €.
In total, the Civic Assistance Committee’s team counts 37 collaborators including counsellors, interpreters, a doctor, psychologists, teachers… and dozens of volunteers. Anna Romachtchenko, 24 years old, is a volunteer for more than a year and works as a Russian-English interpreter. “I assist refugees when they need to go to immigration services, the police station, the hospital, the tribunal, etc.” Not an always easy task especially when one needs to translate complicated terms. “At the immigration centre or at the tribunal, it is each time stressful”, she says.
It is after visiting a refugee camp in Germany in 2018 that she decides to do something to help refugees in Moscow. “In Russia, there a lot of refugees but nobody cares about them and the general attitude is often very negative. For me, it is important to help them because I deem that all human beings are equal”, she declares.
“Like in a closed box”
In addition to its main activity, the Civic Assistance Committee developed several complementary programs. Karina Kotova is in charge of an integration course for adults. “It goes without saying that mastering the language is very important for refugees so that they can express themselves and communicate. But in these courses, beyond learning the Russian language, we try above all to create a comfortable environment, support them and help them feel good”. Indeed, after a while, their precarious and uncertain situation becomes difficult to support psychologically.
“For most asylum seekers, there are unfortunately no durable solutions in Russia. They are like in a closed box with nowhere to go”, analyses Katya Rosolovskaya. “It is important that here they find someone ready to hear their story, someone who helps them. Thus, they fell less lonely”.
Changing the way Russian society looks at refugees is another wish of the Committee’s collaborators. In the meantime, they hope to see that one day their country’s migration policy will change.
Translated by Zeynep Akçay