Refugees (un)welcome: Russia no safe haven for Syrians

As the war in Syria has been going on since 2011 there has been a big increase of migration in the world. Since Russia increased their support for the Syrian regime and began the air strikes in 2015  they have played a major role in the Syrian conflict. As Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s position was threatened, Putin came to the rescue, and today Assad is in a strong position to continue his reign. But while Russia has increased its presence in the Middle East, the country has not been open to granting asylum to refugees.

While most people fleeing Syria and the Middle East are aiming for neighboring countries or Europe, thousands have requested asylum in Russia. But the number of refugees who have been given full refugee status and permanent asylum can be counted on one hand. Applicants asking for temporary asylum have been more successful. About 75 percent of the 4000-5000 Syrian applicants have been accepted, but temporary asylum is only valid for a year.

The only way for refugees to get the same rights as Russian citizens is to be granted permanent asylum. Take for example the right for your children to go to school. As the process for receiving permanent asylum is both very slow and rarely successful, there is little hope for long-term residency for permanent asylum seekers reaching Russia’s border. The statistics show that, for many, it has become significantly harder getting full refugee status in Putin’s Russia in recent years. But prospects for residency in Russia vary. The current simplified process for Ukrainian asylum seekers is nowhere to be seen for the people from Syria who want to start a new life in Russia.

The number of Syrian refugees applying for asylum in Russia is limited compared to Europe. Considering the difficulties of legally staying in Russia it is not a surprise that most Syrian migrants seek residence in European countries. However, the people who have taken themselves to Russia have a hard time integrating into society. Many refugees overstay their temporary visas and work illegally in factories while their children stay out of school, afraid of the authorities. An estimated one million undocumented immigrants are said to be living today in Russia.

Asylum seekers without the necessary paperwork for being permitted to stay have reported being apprehended for long periods of time, sometimes even years. The number of people behind bars for this reason has not been officially published, but human rights groups worry that the numbers are substantial. As a result depression and hopelessness are widespread among those affected by such treatment.

When it comes to the Syrian war specifically, Russian officials have repeatedly blamed America and the European Union for the situation in the Middle East. Putin said in 2015, when Russia began to increase their support for Assad, that the migration chaos in Europe was “completely predictable” and that it was a consequence of American policy. He added that Europe was blind in doing their duties to America and was bearing all the burden.

However, the reasons behind Russia’s border policy towards Syrian migrants are mixed. Russia’s asylum system is in general not as supportive as the migration laws in Europe. There is also an attitude from both lawmakers and the population as a whole that helping refugees in their own country is not as efficient as giving aid and support in the affected country. With that approach, Russia’s policy and the right-wing parties of Europe share similarities, and they have repeatedly been accused of supporting each other.

Reports show that at least on a national level Russia’s population is very skeptical to welcoming refugees. Amnesty published an index in 2016 where people from 27 countries got to answer questions about their attitudes to refugees. In three out of four questions Russian citizens were the most negative of all nationalities on the issue of hosting refugees.

Although Putin divides opinion throughout the world, he enjoys strong support in Russia. His strict approach to migrants is in line with the opinion of the population as a whole. One reason is that Russians are worried about the possible infiltration of IS terrorists, who are considered a threat to national security. Moreover, this worry is said to be exploited by the Russian government, who are reporting news regarding immigrants in a way that fits their agenda. An Hungarian ex-spy recently told The Independent that by exaggerating the problems of the refugee crisis Kremlin is trying to gain influence and spread their views on the geopolitical situation. In this way Putin wants to both gain support from his own population but also destabilize Europe and the EU.

While Russia’s air campaign in Syria has helped Assad’s regime, the conflict in the Middle East is yet to be widely noticed in Russia. The exact outcome of the war is still unclear, but one thing seems certain: Russia will not back down from its policy. With a non-liberal migration system and practically no opposition on this issue the strict approach towards migrants will probably continue.

Mårten Randau

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