It is not a good time to be seeking refuge from authorities who wish you harm. The cumulative impact in recent years of the Mediterranean migrant crisis, increasing fear of terrorist attack, and rising nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiment have all helped to frame an international approach to asylum, extradition and temporary refuge that is increasingly unsympathetic to those seeking assistance. Some governments have been fanning the flames of political pressure against migrants, while others who have traditionally been welcoming to those seeking asylum are beginning to reach the limit of their willingness and their capacity to help. From the rise of the radical-right AfD in Germany, seen as a response to Merkel’s decision to provide sanctuary for up to a million refugees, to the wider implications of immigration forming the driving force behind the UK’s move to leave the European Union, this is a debate that has real consequences. Inside the former Soviet Union, too, anti-migrant tensions further encourage the Russian government to put expediency and collaboration with the regimes of Central Asia over returning those at risk ahead of the country’s commitments under European Human Rights law.
So across Europe and the former Soviet Union (indeed the world) negative public attitudes towards migrants, stoked by populist politicians and press, help create an environment where there is public pressure to reject claims for asylum and send back individuals who may be at real risk of harm upon return to their home countries. As the paper in this publication by Claire Rimmer Quaid and Minos Mouzourakis shows, there are dramatically different acceptance rates across the main European receiving countries. For example, in relation to the main European recipients of asylum claimants from Tajikistan, the 2016 protection rate ranges from 11% of those who went to Poland for assistance, to 81% in Austria.
At the same time across the former Soviet Union the human rights picture has for the most part continued to decline, most notably in Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Russia, from which there was an increase in asylum applications to European countries in the most recent 2016 figures compared to recent years. Not only has the internal political and human rights climate worsened, making it more likely that civil society and opposition activists may seek to leave for their own safety, but in the wake of the St Petersburg bombing in April the atmosphere in Russia towards migrants from Central Asia (who include those utilising freedom of movement within the CIS to avoid political pressure at home), and indeed Russian citizens from the North Caucasus, has got more fraught, as the two contributions by Daniil Kislov and Ernest Zhanaev, and Daria Treninina and Kiril Zharinov show.
The primary focus of this publication is on the ways in which European and other Western countries are responding to those activists and other at-risk groups from the countries of the former Soviet Union. In numerical terms the countries of the FSU are far from being the most common countries of origin for those seeking international protection in the West, the numbers being dwarfed by the total flows from Syria and other flows received across the Mediterranean, although Russia accounts for 2% of total EU asylum applicants, making it the ninth most common country of origin. Nevertheless this publication highlights a number of significant challenges in relation to those seeking shelter from the repression they face by the governments of the former Soviet Union.
The publication also brings to attention the surprising continued collaboration between Ukraine and Russia on extradition and the way in which Russia is deporting minority groups and political opponents from occupied Crimea. It also seeks to build on the work of the previous Shelter from the Storm and No Shelter publications to look at the risks people from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union face within Russia.
Safe third countries and internal protection
As governments wrestle with the domestic challenges posed by asylum requests, an increasing focus has been placed on trying to abide by their international obligations to ensure applicants remain safe whilst ‘passing the buck’ elsewhere.
Firstly of concern is how the ‘safe third country’ concept is being applied to countries a person may have passed through before arriving in the country where they lodge their asylum application. The principle is that this provision should only be applied where the country they passed through could have adequately provided them with international protection. In the context of this publication, however, it is clear that the transit countries for many activists and at-risk persons from the former Soviet Union are countries with dubious human rights records of their own and a history of collaboration with their home country security services, most notably Russia, Belarus and Turkey.
In early 2016 Norway classified Russia as a ‘safe third country’ in an attempt to reduce the number of people crossing its land border with Russiaas part of an overall package of restrictive measures that has seen the number of applicants drop by 95%. Bulgaria has also classified Russia as a safe third country for several years.In 2016 the Estonian government attempted to apply the safe third country concept to asylum applicants who transited through Russia; however this was thrown out by its courts who deemed that there ‘are serious obstacles in the Russian Federation with effective access to its asylum procedure as well as substandard protection of rights of asylum seekers, including respect of the principle of non-refoulement’.
As shown in the No Shelter publication Turkey is not able, or in some cases willing, adequately to protect citizens from the former Soviet Union from the predations of their home country security services, with notable cases relating to Tajikistan. Yet under the EU-Turkey Joint Action Plan for refugees, the returns programme attempting to stem the flows of migrants across the Mediterranean, Turkey has been designated as a safe third country – a designation that could put Tajikistanis and others at potential risk in future.
Georgia and Armenia increasingly being added to ‘safe country of origin lists, where the presumption is made automatically to return nationals from those countries.Following the concerns set out in the previous No Shelter publication about Georgia’s vulnerability to pressure from Azerbaijan’s security services, the subsequent abduction in late May of Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli would suggest the need for a reappraisal. It is important to ensure that this trend does to extend to adding the country to safe third country lists where they exist. Similarly it cannot be assumed that Armenia would be able to fully provide international protection were Russia seeking the return of one of one its nationals.
The situation in Poland is highlighted by Elena Kachanovich-Shlyk and Yan Matusevich in their essay contribution showing the particular risks that citizens from Chechnya and Tajikistan face at the Poland-Belarus border, also spelling out the significant risks faced by those forced to wait in Belarus. Human rights organisations are also concerned that Poland is looking to create lists of safe countries of origin and safe third countries that could potentially include the Russian Federation, Belarus, and Ukraine. As Kachanovich-Shlyk and Yan Matusevich show in relation to Belarus, and many in this and past publications have shown in relation to Russia, the level of security service collaboration and poor human rights protections in these countries mean that returnees face a clear and unavoidable risk of refoulement, i.e. being transferred back to their country of origin, often outside legal processes, to face the risk of torture and ill treatment.
Similarly, as shown in this publication, the No Shelter publication and a range of others, it is beyond doubt that Chechen security services are able operate without restriction, often approaching impunity, across the whole of the Russian Federation, as well as being increasingly active outside its borders. Yet a number of European countries still consider it appropriate to use Internal Protection Alternative (IPA)/ internal flight mechanisms, whereby asylum applicants are made to return to other ‘safe’ parts of their country of origin, as a first option for Chechens. For example Germany and Poland have directed Chechen applicants to ‘unspecified urban areas, or areas where Chechen communities are established elsewhere in Russia’, even though the latter scenario may actually put those from minority groups more at risk. Finland has applied a test of whether the Chechen applicant is ‘publically known’ to determine whether internal flight might be applicable, while many others operate on a case-by-case basis assessing the suitability of this process for those who might be at risk.
Of particular current relevance to the suitability of the internal flight approach and the wider response to asylum applicants from the former Soviet Union is the situation regarding LGBTI Chechens. 2017 has seen Chechnya’s small LGBTI community targeted with shocking brutality by the local regime of Ramzan Kadyrov.While politically discouraged, homosexuality is not illegal within the Russian Federation, of which Chechnya remains part. While Chechen citizens therefore remain notionally under Russian constitutional and legal protections, in practice they are at the mercy of a local regime operating semi-autonomously even elsewhere in the Federation or beyond. The Kadyrov regime is known to have undertaken a spate of kidnappings and detentions in what have been described as concentration camps, and there are claims of extrajudicial killings, including by family members of LGBTI people at the encouragement of the authorities. Not only is the Russian government attempting to deny and deflect that such practices are occurring, but a July 2017 report by the Russian LGBT Network also shows that there is collaboration between the Chechen and Russian security services in relation to Chechens who have fled to other parts of Russia, despite the fact that being LGBTI is not a crime in Russia and therefore not within the remit of law enforcement. This cooperation apparently has included the disclosure of the addresses of safe houses elsewhere in the Russian Federation. This again highlights the dangers of applying the internal protection/internal flight principle in the context of Chechens being returned to Russia.
Given the UK’s strong statements against the actions of the Chechen authorities, its global commitments to LGBTI rights, and both a comparatively welcoming environment for LGBTI people and sizable communities of Russian speakers without a major Chechen diaspora, it should be well placed to provide protection to LGBTI Chechens seeking shelter. However, while Germany, France, Lithuania and Canada worked directly with local NGOs to facilitate asylum procedures, is disappointing that the UK has so far refused to work with Russian LGBTI organisations to help find safe havens for LGBTI Chechens at risk.
What our authors say
Closing the Door contains contributions from a range of leading experts in the field of asylum and extradition:
Claire Rimmer Quaid and Minos Mouzourakis discuss current issues for those from the former Soviet Union seeking international protection in Europe and how changes to the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) may affect them in future. They note that current obstacles faced by some asylum seekers from the region include widely divergent chances of obtaining asylum depending on the country of destination; the Internal Protection Alternative (IPA) being invoked to deny refugee status to persons at risk of being persecuted for a Convention reason in part, but not all, of their country of origin; physical barriers to accessing EU territory; the use of “safe third country” and “safe country of origin” concepts; and the risk of refoulement. Proposals to change the CEAS as they stand mean these obstacles could continue and become worse in some cases, for example in the case of a mandatory examination of the internal protection alternative by Member States.
Elena Kachanovich-Shlyk and Yan Matusevich explain that Poland has been a major destination for asylum seekers from Russia’s North Caucasus, and recently from Tajikistan. Most asylum seekers transit through Belarus and then lodge an application for international protection at the Polish border crossing Terespol, which for years has been the most accessible and affordable route for those fleeing persecution. Since 2016, however, the Polish Border Guard has started to systematically deny the right to lodge an application for asylum in Terespol. The problem persists despite ongoing legal pressure, including from the European Court of Human Rights. Denial of the right to ask for asylum not only contradicts Polish, EU and international law, but also puts asylum seekers in a situation of uncertainty and potential danger both in Belarus or back home. What is more, those who manage to apply for international protection face the reality of the low recognition rates and the increasing number of forced returns to Russia. This article looks at the reasons why so many asylum seekers prefer to make numerous attempts (even up to 50!) to cross the border rather than settle in Belarus, apply for asylum there or return back home.
Dr Leila Alieva argues that the dramatic fate of political refugees and asylum seekers from energy-rich authoritarian Azerbaijan shows their increasing vulnerability under the influence of regional and global trends. Their increasingly difficult position also reflects the growing tension between international norms and interests of states worldwide. This tension is more profound in the regions with weaker democracy, such as the former Soviet Union, where norms on protection of refugees become hostage to the strategic cooperation between the neighbouring states. Nevertheless Dr Alieva believes that in Europe the issue should also be watched to prevent possible effects of the refugee crisis, increasing illiberal trends, and the EU’s (and UK’s) internal problems on the status and safety of asylum seekers escaping from Azerbaijan, which is tied to Europe by close economic partnership.
Dr Edward Lemon, Dr Saipira Furstenberg and Dr John Heathershaw explain that following the banning of Tajikistan’s leading opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party, in 2015 and the widespread crackdown on dissenting voices in the country, hundreds of citizens have fled and sought asylum in the European Union. While the government of Tajikistan had cooperated with the local authorities to have activists detained and returned to the country from Russia and Turkey, when targeting exiles in the EU it has fewer options. Faced with these limitations, the authoritarian regime of Tajikistan is increasingly trying to silence its dissidents abroad by threatening and targeting family members on the basis of their association with the individual in exile. The government has subjected them to public humiliation, detained them, confiscated their passports, and seized their property. Given the situation, it is imperative that foreign governments place greater pressure on the government of Tajikistan to halt these human rights abuses and for countries in the EU to grant asylum to exiles from Tajikistan and their family members.
Bruno Min discusses how issues around the recent arrests of journalists and writers from Azerbaijan, Central Asia and Turkey have highlighted how INTERPOL Red Notices and Diffusions continue to be misused by certain states that use international cooperation mechanisms to export human rights abuses. The adoption of various reforms by INTERPOL is a positive sign that the organisation is aware of this challenge, and that it is trying to address it, but it is apparent that the success of these reforms will depend heavily on the roles that INTERPOL, the Commission for the Control of INTERPOL’s Files, and civil society play towards ensuring their effective implementation. There should also be further efforts to ensure that abuses of other international cooperation mechanisms are identified and prevented.
Eugenia Andreyuk and Philipp Gliesche argue that in Crimea, occupied by the Russian Federation, deportations and state-driven transfers of civilian populations are used to achieve loyalty to Russia from the local population. Forced Russian citizenship automatically granted to the whole population of the peninsula enables the de facto authorities to deport anyone who refuses it. They write that the deportations took place including those living permanently in Crimea. The other forms of population transfer have included a planned policy of persecution of disloyal groups of population, such as Crimean Tatars, Crimean Muslims, Ukrainians and others to encourage their (often forced) displacement to the mainland of Ukraine. Going in the other direction Russia is encouraging ‘loyal’ Russian nationals to settle in Crimea.
Halya Coynash believes that both the major political changes of recent years in Ukraine and Russia’s ongoing aggression and occupation of Crimea have created new challenges and highlighted the disturbing lack of reform within Ukraine’s SBU and Migration Service. With a million and a half Ukrainians forced to flee their homes, Ukraine is not in a position to take in large numbers of refugees, but its track record on asylum seekers is, nevertheless, pitiful. Recent statements from Migration Service officials suggest that there is awareness of the mounting repression in Russia and the number of Russians who are or could be in danger for their support of Ukraine and/or opposition to Russia’s undeclared war. This has not so far been reflected in the attitude towards Russian asylum seekers, and a change in policy towards such people, and a rejection once and for all of old methods of SBU collaboration with the Russian Security Service, are urgently needed.
Daria Trenina and Kiril Zharinov’s essay deals with the problem of the lack of effective remedies in Russia at the national level able to prevent expulsion of aliens to countries where they might be subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment prohibited by Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The authors show that although the Russian legal system provides some remedies in theory, they do not work in practice in the majority of expulsion cases. Particular attention is paid to the recent alarming trend of using deportation procedure instead of extradition or administrative expulsion, which hardly provides any legal guarantees at all. As a conclusion the authors suggest a number of practical recommendations aimed at improving the situation.
Daniil Kislov and Ernest Zhanaev discuss the reality of external migration to Russia, providing case studies of asylum seekers and terror suspects. It also discusses the atmosphere of xenophobia and corruption that has been partially encouraged federal officials. It reveals details of continuous abuse of vulnerable migrants in Russia and indulged by the governments of Central Asia.
UNHCR Global Trends 2016 Survey Annex, Table 12 Asylum applications and refugee status determination by origin and country/territory of asylum, http://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends2016/
Tajikistan’s figures have increased substantially in 2015 and further into 2016 while the Russian figures for 2016 were the highest since its 2013 peak. http://popstats.unhcr.org/en/asylum_seekers
European Asylum Support Office, Annual Report on the Situation of Asylum in the European Union 2016, 2017 https://www.easo.europa.eu/sites/default/files/Annual-Report-2016.pdf
Adam Hug ed. No Shelter: the harassment of activists abroad by intelligence services from the former Soviet Union, Foreign Policy Centre, November 2016, https://fpc.org.uk/publications/noshelter/ and Adam Hug ed. Shelter from the Storm? The asylum, refuge and extradition situation facing activists from the former Soviet Union in the CIS and Europe, Foreign Policy Centre, April 2014, https://fpc.org.uk/publications/shelter-from-the-storm/
Lizzie Dearden, Refugee crisis: Number of asylum seekers arriving in Norway drops by 95%, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/refugee-crisis-number-of-asylum-seekers-arriving-in-norway-drops-by-95-a7114191.html
European Migration Network, Ad-Hoc Query on safe countries of origin and safe third countries, Requested by the BG EMN NCP on 10th October 2014 https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/sites/homeaffairs/files/what-we-do/networks/european_migration_network/reports/docs/ad-hoc-queries/return/2014.615_emn_ahq_list_of_safe_countries_of_origin_(wider_diss).pdf
European Asylum Support Office, Annual Report on the Situation of Asylum in the European Union 2016P.101 https://www.easo.europa.eu/sites/default/files/Annual-Report-2016.pdf
The case of Turkey is not a significant focus of this publication and it is worth noting that non-Europeans do, Bill Frelick, Is Turkey Safe for Refugees, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/03/22/turkey-safe-refugees and Orçun Ulusoy, Turkey as a safe third country, March 2016, Oxford Faculty of Law, https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/03/turkey-safe-third
European Asylum Support Office, Annual Report on the Situation of Asylum in the European Union 2016, https://www.easo.europa.eu/sites/default/files/Annual-Report-2016.pdf;see also European Commission, AN EU ‘SAFE COUNTRIES OF ORIGIN’ LIST https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/sites/homeaffairs/files/what-we-do/policies/european-agenda-migration/background-information/docs/2_eu_safe_countries_of_origin_en.pdf
ECRE, Poland: Draft amendment to the law on protection of foreigners – another step to seal Europe’s border, Op-ed by Polish Helsinki Committee, March 2017, https://www.ecre.org/poland-draft-amendment-to-the-law-on-protection-of-foreigners-another-step-to-seal-europes-border-op-ed-by-polish-helsinki-committee/
ECRE, Asylum Aid et al., Actors of Protection and the application of the internal protection alternative (see p 58), July 2014, https://www.ecre.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/ECRE-Asylum-Aid-DCR-and-HHC_Actors-of-Protection-and-the-Application-of-the-Internal-Protection-Alternative_July-2014.pdf
European Migration Network, Ad-Hoc Query on Asylum Seekers from the Russian Federation, 2013, http://emn.ee/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/503_emn_ahq_on_asylum_seekers_from_the_russian_federation_01nov2013_wider_dissemination.pdf
Benjamin Butterworth, Chechnya: Names of 27 men slaughtered and buried in bloody night revealed as gay purge continues, July 2017, http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2017/07/11/chechnya-names-of-27-men-slaughtered-and-buried-in-bloody-night-revealed-as-gay-purge-continues/
Russian LGBT Network, LGBT Persecution in the North Caucasus: a Report, July 2017, https://www.ilga-europe.org/sites/default/files/chechnya_report_by_rus_lgbt_n_31_july_2017.pdf
As confirmed to the author by a leading Russian NGO working directly on the issue. See also Aleksandra Eriksson, Only five countries are helping gay Chechens leave Russia, EU Observer, July 2017, https://euobserver.com/lgbti/138680