Refugees in Russia: Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

11 March 2013

Elena Ryabinina

On 10 March, 2013, the Human Rights Institute sent an open letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) regarding the urgent need to expedite the review procedure for applicants seeking international protection [see below]. The letter came as a response to the problem that many asylum seekers in Russia—particularly refugees from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan—remain under threat of abduction or unsanctioned return to their countries of origin, where they had been persecuted for political and/or religious reasons. This problem has significantly worsened over the last one and a half years. 

The immediate cause of the letter was an incident that happened recently in Moscow city centre. It involved an Uzbek refugee named Murod Yuldashev, whose forcible return to Uzbekistan was struck down by the European Court of Human Rights in 2010 due to the serious risk of him being tortured in his home country. 

On 8 March 2013 at approximately 10:30am Yuldashev was driving through the Taganka neighborhood of Moscow and pulled over to fix a minor car issue. He was followed by a dark-colored Daewoo Nexia, which pulled up behind him. At the moment when Yuldashev was lowering the hood of his car, he was attacked by two unidentified individuals who attempted to bind his hands behind his back. Yuldashev did not notice where the attackers had come from. Immediately, another two individuals jumped out of the second car and all four began to drag him toward the vehicle. One of the men had a Slavic appearance while the other three looked Asian. Yuldashev—a stocky man with an athletic build—fiercely resisted, yelled and called for help. With the help of two passersby, he was able to fight off his assailants.

Upon arriving home - he and his family live in the southern suburbs of Moscow, where they rent an apartment - Yuldashev called the Human Rights Institute and reported the incident that had happened to him less than an hour earlier. After discussing the issue, it turned out there had been previous warning signs.

On 7 March the entire Yuldashev family had gone to the local UNHCR reception centre. While Murod was meeting with centre representatives, his wife took the children outside to get some fresh air. Behind their car, which was parked nearby, she noticed a red Zhiguli car containing three men of Asiatic appearance. One of them would periodically get out of the car and make a phone call, speaking audibly in Uzbek. In the area surrounding the centre, with its constant stream of visitors, this was nothing unusual. However, the workday was coming to a close and the car remained in place, leaving only after Murod emerged from the office.

When the family returned home late that evening, Yuldashev’s wife looked out of the window and saw that an unfamiliar car had pulled outside their building. Soon there was a call on their house phone. Murod answered in Russian, but the caller responded in Uzbek and asked him to open the main door. Yuldashev opened the door, but no one came up to their apartment. Meanwhile, according to him, there were no other Uzbeks living in the building.

When we factor in the attack on Yuldashev the following morning, it becomes clear that each of these incidents was linked in a single chain of events that could have very nearly resulted in his abduction.

Yuldashev’s case serves as yet another confirmation of the conclusion human rights defenders reached soon after their efforts to correct Russian law-enforcement practice in this area began producing results. They concluded that the better the law protects refugees and asylum seekers who are wanted for return to their countries of origin, the more seriously and flagrantly the authorities disregard the law—and, consequently, the higher the risk that refugees will be forcibly returned to their home countries without being given any kind of legal procedure.

It has become obvious that it is impossible to guarantee these peoples’ safety in Russia solely through the efforts of the UNHCR and its NGO partner organizations. Meanwhile, appeals to law-enforcement authorities in these cases are ineffective in principle. In not one of these instances did the authorities carry out an appropriate investigation; not once did they identify the individuals guilty of abduction and bring them to justice. All of these crimes remain unpunished—and that means they will continue to happen.

The only way out of this situation is extradition to a safe country for those individuals whom the UNCHR declares to be need of international protection. If that does not happen, many of them will be deprived of the chance of ever securing safety for themselves and their loved ones.

About the author: Elena Ryabinina is director of the “Right to Asylum” program at the Human Rights Institute

Human Rights Institute
PO Box No. 765, 101000 Moscow
Tel/Fax: (495) 607-5802

№ 7/13, 10 March 2013

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Mr Antonio Guterres


Dear Mr Guterres,

I am writing to you in relation to the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers in Russia. The situation of those individuals whose forcible return is sought by their countries of origin has never been safe. However, if until recently the joint efforts of the UNHCR office in the Russian Federation and partner NGOs were enough to protect most of them from the threat of persecution that the 1951 Geneva Convention regards as the basis for refugee recognition, in recent years the situation has changed dramatically. At present it can only be called catastrophic.

From August 2011 to December 2012 eight applicants of the European Court of Human Rights were abducted and illegally removed from Russia. In these cases the Court had applied Rule 39 of the Rules of Court, a temporary measure to prevent irreversible developments until substantive consideration of the complaint. The Russian authorities were instructed to suspend deportation or extradition of these people, who were persecuted in their countries of origin, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, for political and/or religious reasons. The majority of the applicants were asylum-seekers in Russia, and one person received temporary asylum less than two months before his abduction. However, all this did not save them from being forcibly transferred to the Uzbekistani and Tajikistani authorities. In those cases in which the applicants' representatives - not the investigating authorities of the Russian Federation! - were able to investigate, the people were removed by air from Russian airports, a process which would be impossible without the sanction of the authorities.

One of the eight – a citizen of Uzbekistan – was abducted and then found himself not in his country of origin which was demanding his extradition but in Tajikistan: apparently, the abductors, who were intent on abducting the Tajikistani citizens who were with him at the time, decided not to leave him free, as he was an undesirable witness of their crime. The fact that he had been illegally transferred "with the knowledge and either passive or active involvement of the Russian authorities", was established in the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on this case. We note that this man is still in Tajikistan, in a second year of awaiting a decision on his fate, which depends entirely on the position of UNHCR: return to Uzbekistan is impossible for him due to risks of persecution on religious grounds and the real threat of torture: return to Russia also means exposing him to the risk of being abducted and forcibly transferred again, but this time to Uzbekistan.

It is hard to even count how many times in recent years UNHCR partner organizations managed to prevent the attempted abduction of other asylum-seekers from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. But it is obvious that neither NGOs nor staff of the UNHCR Office in Russia are able to ensure the safety of asylum-seekers, who every hour of every day face the risk of suddenly disappearing in Russia and finding themselves shortly afterwards at the disposal of the authorities in their countries of origin.

This is clearly illustrated by the circumstances of the refugee from Uzbekistan, Murod Yuldashev, in relation to whom the European Court found in 2010 that his forcible return to Uzbekistan would entail a violation of Art. 3 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. On 7 March of this year Mr. Yuldashev was tracked down by unknown people who spoke Uzbek when he and his family visited the UNHCR Reception Center for Refugees, and the next morning four men tried to abduct him in the centre of Moscow. He was lucky - his cries for help attracted passersby who helped him fight off his attackers. However, it is impossible to guarantee that in the event of a repeat abduction attempt the outcome would be as happy.

This case is just one of many examples. It should be noted that the Temporary Accommodation Centres run by the Federal Migration Service of Russia do not solve this kind of problems – it is indicated by the word “temporary” in their title. People who find themselves in similar positions to Mr Yuldashev are deprived of prospects for a safe life in Russia regardless of their legal status – a threat hanging over them is not related to the law itself.

It is therefore clear that for those who meet the criteria of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees the only durable solution is resettlement to a safe third country. However, in recent years UNHCR procedures for the recognition of persons in need of international protection and their subsequent resettlement have become extremely slow, due to the tightening of the requirements for verification of applicants under security criteria.

There is no doubt about the need for strict checks on applicants to identify the circumstances that may lead to their exclusion from international protection, and host countries must ensure that persons who are granted asylum are not a threat to their security.

However, it is difficult to imagine the objective reasons why the consideration of these issues, despite their serious and relevant nature, takes years to resolve. It is even more difficult to imagine, that when considering such cases the UNHCR assumes that only the applicants who can prove their trustworthiness can count on a positive decision - this would mean the application of the presumption of guilt in relation to asylum cases, the provision of which is essentially a humanitarian act.

The current situation in Russia, combined with the length of UNHCR procedures, is such that many asylum-seekers will not even manage to wait for a ruling on their appeals for international protection, let alone the resolution of their problems. Asylum-seekers wait several years for an answer to the question of whether they can hope for a secure future for themselves and their families. This in itself, is hardly compatible with the principles of humanity, but when exacerbated by the daily risk being abducted it deprives people of the last hope of help.

Dear Mr. Guterres, I urge you to take all possible and necessary measures to swiftly address these issues and expedite the review procedures for asylum-seekers from vulnerable sensitive groups.

Even one refugee without hope for the future is too many.

Yours Sincerely, 

Elena Ryabinina
Head of the Program “Right to Asylum” of Human Rights Institute,
Member of the Expert Council under the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Russian Federation
Representative of the applicants before the European Court of Human Rights