Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Last Year, 23,000 Russian Citizens Sought Political Asylum in Europe

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 27 – More than 23,000 citizens of the Russian Federation, a large percentage of them non-Russians from the North Caucasus, sought political asylum in Europe in 2012, a number that ranks Russia just behind Afghanistan and Syria and ahead of Iraq, Somalia and China, according to Eurostat, the European Statistics Bureau.

                In a report about this on the Word Without Borders portal yesterday, Yekaterina Trofimova reported that 332,000 people requested asylum in EU countries last year, of whom 26,250 were from Afghanistan, 23,510 from Syria, and 23,360 from the Russian Federation (

            Svetlana Gannushkina, a Moscow human rights activist, said that it was entirely “logical” that Russia was now in third place: “After the Chechen war, Russia was in first place in terms of the number of political refugees; during the war in Afghanistan, it fell to third. [And] now as a result of the armed conflict in Syria, it is in third place.”

            She suggested that most of those from the Russian Federation seeking asylum in Europe were from the North Caucasus where, as she put it, “there are no authorities except bandits” and where instability and the ineffectiveness of the regional authorities are driving ever more people to seek refuge elsewhere.

            “All the systems of the country are in a stupor,” she continued, and “don’t work. The executive powers work but only when they are given orders ‘from above’ to arrest this person or to put that one in jail.  But people need stability, and it is no surprise that they are trying to find it in other, more civilized states.”

            Many of the latter are in Europe, the Eurostat report suggests, with many refugees from the Russian Federation going to Germany, Sweden, Great Britain, and Belgium. But those fleeing from violence and oppression do not always get the asylum they seek. Last year only 14 percent of them received asylum, while 73 percent were turned away.

            Polina Zherebtsova, the author of a widely-read “Diary” on the wars in the North Caucasus who recently received asylum in Finland, put a more human face on these already disturbing statistics.

            She told Trofimova that “the incorrect policy of the last 20 years in the Russian Federation is forcing many people to seek a haven beyond the borders of the country. The bloody and unending wars in the Caucasus and in Chechnya have finally split peoples apart who earlier had felt themselves part of a community.”

            “Before the Chechen war, [members of non-Russian nationalities] were proud that their grandmother or mother was an ethnic Russian, but after ‘the second Chechen’ conflict, they began to hide this as something shameful,” the Grozny native said. And that has been matched by the hatred of ethnic Russians elsewhere to people from the North Caucasus, including their fellow ethnic Russians from that region.

            Such hostility and antagonism, Zherbtsova continued, “has been artificially supported from above,” from Moscow officials who are interested in keeping the conflicts from which they profit going and who see the old imperial divide and rule strategy as their best chance to do that and to maintain themselves in power.

            In Russia today, she noted, “there is no unity and no sense that all these people live in a single country: they have been divide up” as a result of the arbitrariness and illegal actions of the powers that be, the police and the military. Anyone who opposes them and remains there puts his life at risk.

            “Corruption is flourishing, while health care and education are dying,” the writer added. And the standard of living in the region for the vast majority is so low that “many old people and their children in the villages are simply starving. Pension and pay are too small” for them to pay for housing or even for food.

            Anyone who stands up and complains about any of these things because of what he has experienced “often must flee from the country in order not to be killed” by the powers that be. Russia, she concluded, “has become a country unsuitable for normal human life.” Thus, the countries of Europe have become a magnet.

            Europeans can be proud that they are viewed in this way and that victims of oppression elsewhere now view the continent as the place where they believe they can hope for protection. But at the same time, they should be ashamed that their governments are giving asylum to so few of those who seek it and sending many seekers back to a terrible fate in the Russian Federation.

            In recent months, in actions that have attracted relatively little attention beyond the communities directly affected, Austria has send groups of Chechens back as has Belgium, actions that have their analogues elsewhere and that are tarnishing Europe’s reputation as a defender of human rights and a protector of those whose rights have been violated.

            If such people who have fled official arbitrariness of official arbitrariness in Russia find that they cannot count on protections from those in the West on whom they had placed their hopes, it should come as no surprise that at least some of them will be more prepared to listen to the radicals in their homeland, an outcome that helps neither the West, nor Russia, nor people who have only wanted to have a normal life.

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