Staunton, June 26 – Despite its role in the Syrian conflict, Moscow has granted refugee status to only two Circassians from Syria of the roughly 3,000 who’ve applied for that status, Alisa Shishkina says, the result of Russian fears that such people are or will become Islamist radicals or that they will disturb the shaky ethnic balance in the North Caucasus.
Shishkina, a specialist on ethnic conflicts at the Higher School of Economics, says that unlike other Syrians who are fleeing from the war, the Circassians from there in principle have somewhere to go, the North Caucasus homeland from which tsarist authorities expelled their ancestors in 1864 (magazines.russ.ru/nz/2018/2/v-poiskah-utrachennoj-identichnosti.html).
According to her research, 7,000 to 8,000 refugees from Syria now live in Russia. Some are students or others who have been in Russia for some time; the others are mostly Circassians who have fled the fighting. Of these, the overwhelming majority are having difficulty gaining entrance and status within the Russian Federation.
The reasons for this lie in government policy and in government fears. On the one hand, according to the Federal Migration Service, migrants from Syria, classified by Moscow as “a dangerous country,” may stay in Russia but face enormous hurtles in securing the necessary documents. As a result, many live in a gray area.
And on the other, “the administration of the North Caucasus republics sees in a possible flood of Circassians a threat to the shaky inter-ethnic balance characteristic of that region,” Shishkina says. In many of them, no ethnic group is predominant and so the addition of new people in one, many of them fear, will lead to destabilization.
Not surprisingly, the greatest fear is among non-Circassian groups in Adygeya and Kabardino-Balkaria who are concerned that the arrival of Circassians from Syria will undermine their position by allowing the Circassians to increase their power. (On such shifts in the region, see also kavkazr.com/a/respublika-na-pereputye/29320973.html).
Shishkina has interviewed many of the Syrian Circassians who have moved to the North Caucasus. Nearly all say they have returned because of their “historical roots and family ties in the Caucasus region.” Among their greatest difficulty, especially among older age groups, is a lack of Russian knowledge; but all face problems with documentation.
But another problem is finding work. In Syria, many of the Circassians had been in the police or in the army, positions which in Russia for what Shishkina says are “understandable reasons,’ they cannot even hope to apply. And they also have to rely on family ties or Circassian organizations to help them get started with housing and furnishings.
How well they are doing, the researcher says, depends “to a significant degree” on how the local people relate to them; but regardless of whether that is positive or less so, Shishkina continues, “the procedure for receiving citizenship or refugee status is most often blocked at the federal level.”
“Despite all the difficulties,” she says, “the overwhelming majority of those she interviewed … expressed a desire to remain on the territory of Russia even after the political crisis in Syria will be resolved.” And they look to the Russian state to adopt new laws to allow them to do so.
Because Russia is involved in Syria, Shishkina says, it can hardly refuse to take in Circassians from there who are fleeing from the violence. But because of fears that they will destabilize the ethnic balance or be recruited by Islamist extremists – for which there is as yet no evidence – Moscow appears unlikely to assist them in significant ways.
And thus, she concludes, “for Syrian repatriants, the road home has often become transformed into a path to nowhere.”
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