Svetlana Gannushkina on refugees and migrants

posted 17 Feb 2014, 06:45 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 17 Feb 2014, 06:48 ]
13 February 2014

Source: (info)
On Tuesday 11 February human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina gave a lecture on “Migration in Russia” at the Sakharov Centre, as part of a series of lectures organised by the Moscow Open School of Human Rights.

She was only able to cover one aspect of this vast subject during the lecture, namely the problems faced by refugees in Russia over the past 20 years.

Gannushkina based her lecture on personal experiences from her many years spent working for the Civic Assistance Committee and the Memorial Human Rights Centre, and as a member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights between 2002 and 2012.

According to Gannushkina, global migration processes have become more dynamic in recent years due to the emergence of a common information space, the eradication of borders between states and the fact that it is consequently easier for people to move around the world.

"The European Union is a good example of this phenomenon, and now more and more countries are asking themselves whether they should not conclude visa-free agreements. Russia has already concluded such agreements with nine of the former Soviet republics.

It is not hard to understand why similar agreements have not been concluded with Russia’s other neighbours – the Baltic States are now part of the Schengen area, for example. The border with Georgia has been closed at the request of the Russian Federation, and Turkmenistan, which has closed its borders and no longer wants anything to do with anyone, is moving in the same direction,” she explained.

The first group of migrants arriving in Russia during the period in question were victims of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. In the Gorbachev era it was believed that this wave of migrants would naturally peter out and the problem would gradually resolve itself. Around 40 000 Armenians arrived in Moscow from Baku around this time.

Some of them were helped to resettle by people they knew, others were handed over to the Azerbaijani representative office, since they were residents of Azerbaijan and considered to be Azerbaijani citizens. The Azerbaijanis refused to accept them, however, and so they were taken to the Armenian representative office, even though they had no direct links to the country. Yet no one dared to chase them away, and so the Armenian refugees began living in hostels and sometimes even in the corridors of the Armenian representative office in Moscow.

"The conditions were quite unspeakable. Muscovites would bring in any old rags – old coats, mattresses, blankets, whatever they could find – and people slept on them. They cooked on some kind of hotplate, and the whole place smelt of borshch. They would be cooking borshch right next to the office of the Armenian representative in Russia, just outside his door,” said Gannushkina, recalling her visit to the Armenian Embassy.

It was subsequently decided by the Moscow City Council and the Council of Ministers that these people should be settled in hostels and hotels around Moscow. Gannushkina believes that this was a big mistake – instead of spreading the refugees around the country, they left them in Moscow where they then put down roots; "We created a major problem for ourselves. We knew at the time that the issue would not be resolved for years to come, but the Russian authorities were sure that it would be over within a few months".

Refugees escaping the Georgian-Abhkazian and then the Georgian-Ossetian conflicts followed this first wave of migrants. The latter included the Georgian Ossetians who travelled to Northern Ossetia, where the refugee problem was not as acute and gradually resolved itself over time as the refugees received citizenship. According to Gannushkina, however, none of these migrants have ever fully integrated, either in Russia or in Ossetia.

The Georgians who arrived in Russia from Abkhazia between 1992 and 1994 have still not become Russian citizens and have no official status. Some of the children of these migrants were born in the Russian Federation but still have no birth certificates.

Gannushkina noted that one of the positive aspects of these waves of migrants into Russia from the post-Soviet area, compared to similar migratory flows in other countries, has been that the people already share a common Soviet heritage and can speak Russian.

"The Armenians from Baku were practically Russian; they had been part of the Russian diaspora in Baku and barely differed from the local Russians,” she said. “There were well-educated people among them, and it was pure stupidity to refuse entry to these migrants.”

There are three different options under the law for dealing with the problem of the official status of asylum seekers – the state can recognise them as refugees, they can be returned to their home country if the threat they were fleeing ceases to exist, or they can be moved to a third country.

According to Gannushkina, citizenship does not solve all of the problems faced by former migrants in Russia. Some of the Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan who arrived in Russia back in 1990 in the first wave of migrants have still not fully integrated. Some of these former refugees who were accommodated in hostels in Moscow were recently evicted following a court decision, and not provided with anywhere else to live or informed of their options, in violation of the Housing Code.

The second way of resolving the refugee problem is to send them back home when the situation in the home country has become more settled. Gannushkina pointed out that this is a sticking point, however, since humanitarian factors can be ignored for political reasons.

This is what happened with Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia recognised their independence but failed to consider whether the Georgian refugees should be returned there, even though Georgians accounted for 41% of the population of Abkhazia at the beginning of the Abkhazian-Georgian conflict and were subsequently evicted. It was impossible for Azerbaijanis to return to Karabakh for the same reason.

The third solution to the refugee problem is to move them to a third country. This can be arranged either by the countries themselves or by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The criteria are strict, and are only met in a minority of cases. Many Armenians from Baku left for the USA in the early 1990s under such a procedure.

Citizens of Afghanistan represent a further group of asylum seekers. “This (the arrival of these migrants – ed.) should also lie heavy on our consciences, since we left Afghanistan in 1992, and the country even declared an amnesty for those who had fought for the Russians, but in 1993 they shot everyone who had qualified for the amnesty,” continued the human rights activist.

People who become trapped in Russia – refugees “sur place” – come to the country to work or study but are then unable to return to their home country and are forced to seek asylum.

The problems relating to the Afghan refugees have still not been resolved: there are estimated to be around 2000 orphaned Afghan children who were brought here, 1800 of whom have been granted refugee status. Together with the Afghans forced to seek asylum they have spent a long time assimilating into Russian culture, and many of them no longer wish to return to a Muslim country.

According to data quoted by Gannushkina, there were 239 000 asylum seekers in Russia in 1997. In 1998 there were 128 000, and there are currently only 632 according to the official figures, which is a result of the peculiarities of Russia’s policy on migrants.

A total of around 2 000 Syrians have applied to Russia’s Migration Service for temporary asylum, but only half of them were granted this status.

Gannushkina believes that a further 2 000 or 3 000 Syrians were simply not allowed to register as asylum seekers. “On 5 February we were engaged in an altercation with the Border Guard Service, since 17 people had been refused entry into Russia because, according to the border guards (none of whom could speak Arabic), they were not seeking asylum.

These people flew back to Syria. The same thing happened in St Petersburg, and then we received a letter telling us that one of the people who had been sent back was shot,” she said.

Africans and Egyptian Copts have also sought asylum in Russia, as well as Syrians. The Copts, who had come to Russia to find fellow believers (the Coptic Church is very similar to the Orthodox Church – ed.), were sent to a temporary accommodation centre and refused asylum, having been classified as economic migrants, “who had come in search of a better life".

Gannushkina concluded that Russian legislation and law enforcement practices make it difficult for refugees to remain in Russia.

Source: Russian Planet 

Translated by Joanne Reynolds