The contributors to this essay collection have described some of the main challenges that activists and other at-risk people from the former Soviet Union face in trying to seek asylum or temporary refuge. Given the wider stresses and strains from the Mediterranean migrant crisis and the rise of nationalist governments in a number of European countries, the ability to achieve international protection in Europe (and now post-Trump in the United States) is getting more difficult, even as the human rights situation in a number of the countries in the region continues to deteriorate.
As highlighted in the paper by Minos Mouzourakis and Claire Rimmer Quaid and shown in the introduction, different European receiving countries have dramatically different acceptance rates. For example Russians are more than four times as likely to be accepted for asylum in Austria than they are in Germany. Different countries may receive different types of population flow depending on factors including the main entry point (for example a land border with an FSU country compared to arrival by air) and local demographics leading to different mixes of economic migrants and genuine applicants. However such wide variations reflect clear policy by the receiving state not only around evidence and the risk an applicant faces but, put bluntly, around the country’s desire to push the ‘problem’ elsewhere. Elena Kachanovich-Shlyk and Yan Matusevich show that Poland’s artificially low recognition rate assumes that asylum seekers will deliberately transit through it to elsewhere in the EU, while the problem of preventing people from entering and applying is creating a real problem at the Belarus boarder.
The findings of this publication make it very clear to European countries revising their asylum procedures that it is completely inappropriate for Russia and Belarus to be considered as ‘safe third countries’ for those believed to be at risk in their country of origin elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Experience has clearly shown that Russia, and to a certain extent Belarus, cannot be relied upon to provide international protection to nationals from countries with which they have close political ties or a history of security service cooperation. The designation of Georgia and Armenia as ‘safe countries’ should not be stretched to being considered a safe third country for Azerbaijani and Russian nationals respectively, given the risks that they could face from their home country’s security services. Norway, Finland, and Bulgaria should look to end their blanket adoption of the safe third country principle in relation to Russia, while Poland, Estonia and others should stop moving towards adopting such a position.
Similarly it is completely inappropriate to apply the internal protection alternative to citizens from Russia’s North Caucasus republics, most notably Chechnya, who are genuinely at risk from their local security services or other powerful groups within those societies. Chechnya’s security services for example are able to work with their Russian Federal counterparts to threaten the security of Chechen nationals and other opponents of Kadyrov irrespective of where they are in within the Russian federation, and increasingly beyond its borders. With this in mind the UK and a number of other European and countries need to play a more proactive role, directly working with Russian civil society groups to help LGBTI Chechens to be able to claim asylum in their countries.
The family dimension to the asylum and refugee picture is often one of the most challenging, with family reunification a politically and practically fraught process. Setting to one side for the purposes of this publication the huge challenges in this regard relating to the wider group of asylum seekers and refugees, there at least needs to be greater scope for enhancing the existing collaboration between embassies in the applicant’s home country and immigration officials to properly assess the level of specific risk faced by the family members of identified activists and other targeted people from the countries of the former Soviet Union. The respective contributions by Alieva and by Furstenberg, Lemon and Heathershaw remind us of the widely known fact that repressive regimes routinely target families and other loved ones those who dare to speak out against them, to pressure them into silence or in some cases to force those in exile to return to face punishment. However as this threat to family members increases in countries such as Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, it is becoming harder to offer them opportunities to rejoin the activist or other at-risk person who has already received refugee status. Immigration authorities need to understand the growing risks activists’ families face, and should provide greater opportunities for family reunification in these circumstances.
Similarly, as Alieva points out, there is a need for a more intelligence-led approach to providing support in cases where the applicant is themselves the family member of an activist still based in-country who is bravely continuing to operate on the ground. While some activists are willing to take huge risks with their own safety and wellbeing, immigration authorities need to be able to identify when there is a real risk that their sons, daughters or other relatives may be targeted for repressive treatment as a form of leverage against the activist, and be able to give international protection to these family members in such circumstances.
Getting a clearer picture
A way for immigration officials to better understand the challenges faced by families and indeed activists themselves is by improving the formal country information that they use to inform their decision-making. Firstly the UNCHR has not conduced an in-depth country report on Russia since 2012, as part of its 2011 Global Report, despite Russia being a major source and transit country for those claiming asylum. The same applies to many other countries in the region and there may be scope for updating such information to help advise countries in developing their approaches to sensitive topics such as the application of safe third country and internal protection alternative principles. The same lack of systematised information can be found at the country level too. The UK Home Office does not have Country Policy and Information Notes on any of the countries in the region, even though Russia does send  a reasonable number of applicants (between 125 and 200 most years) to the country every year. The low numbers from other FSU countries are in part a reflection on the high thresholds the UK sets that deter people from applying.
In order to address the growing challenges identified in the publication the authors and editor have made a number of recommendations for action:
The UK, European and other western countries should:
- Refrain from a mandatory use of safe third country concepts for those deemed to be at risk in their country of origin. Russia and Belarus should not be considered safe third countries for citizens of other post-Soviet states.
- Resit the obligatory use of the Internal Protection Alternative. It must not be applied in Russia, particularly not in relation to at risk citizens from Russia’s North Caucasus republics such as Chechnya.
- Work with Russian NGOs to provided safe routes for LGBTI Chechens to receive asylum in the UK and other countries that are not yet providing direct support.
- Take appropriate measures to ensure people can apply for asylum at border crossings, with particular note to the Poland-Belarus border.
- Improve the ways in which they assess the risk to family members of activists and look to provide additional opportunities for those under threat.
- Look to provide more official country information from both the UNHCR and national immigration authorities.
- Persist with efforts within INTERPOL to deliver on recently enacted reforms to restrict the ability of states in the former Soviet Union using its mechanisms to harass opponents abroad.
- Work to ensure all other Council of Europe member states fully abide by European Court of Human Rights rulings in relation to protection against refoulement (being returned to face persecution).
- Address deportations and the transfer of population in Crimea within resolutions and other human rights decisions, looking at the use of enhanced sectoral and individual sanctions in relation to human rights violations in Crimea. Support the Ukrainian government and civil society organizations in assisting internally displaced persons from Crimea.
Donors and NGOs should:
- Increase support to the organisations taking care of asylum seekers, activists and scholars at risk.
- Review, restrict and potentially revoke security cooperation with the Russian Federation in relation to extradition procedures.
- End deportations of Crimean residents who refuse to adopt Russian citizenship or who otherwise oppose the occupation.
- Reform deportation order procedures to consider the risk of harm posed by returning people to their country of origin, ensuring that appeals against an order must be completed before it is actioned. Make it easier for people to access asylum procedures including protection against the refoulement of holders of ‘temporary asylum’ and other interim statuses.
- Abide by rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in relation to asylum and extradition, including interim measures taken to stop deportations.
 Building on the findings of the No Shelter, Shelter from the Storm and Sharing Worst Practice publications
UK Government, Country policy and information notes, https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/country-policy-and-information-notes#p
 The list here is compiled by the editor from a mix of recommendations in individual articles and his own suggestions. All of them together may not necessarily represent the views of individual authors. Similarly they may not represent the views of the Foreign Policy Centre.