As Europe searches for ways to cope with thousands of migrants fleeing the violence in Syria, Russia remains an unattractive destination for those seeking asylum. Source: Getty images
In mid-September, as Europe struggled to cope with thousands of Syrian refugees seeking asylum, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the opportunity to blame the situation on European countries themselves. Speaking on the sidelines of an economic forum in Vladivostok, Putin called the crisis “completely expected.”
“We in Russia, and myself personally said several years ago that our so-called Western partners continued to maintain their flawed foreign policy, especially in regions of the Muslim world,” Putin said.
The Russian president’s words were a rebuke to those who suggested that Russia could do more to help refugees. Yet the number of Syrians who want to come to Russia is minimal.
“Syrian refugees do not want to remain in Russia because here they don’t receive welfare, housing and work. And it is also difficult to apply for legal residency,” said Munzer Khallum, a Syrian journalist and writer living in Moscow.
According to Khallum, the Syrians who have come to Russia can be separated into three categories: transients whose final destination is Europe; students who come to study and don’t know what they will do after they finish; and long-time expatriates who still maintain a dream of moving on to a better country.
Mahmoud al-Hamza, Council Chairman of the Damascus Declaration Abroad Movement agrees that Russia has little to offer Syrians, in part because the process of applying for asylum is long and difficult. “Russia accepts very few refugees from Syria and does not offer much help to asylum seekers. While they look for work, they must go through complicated procedures and pay bribes,” said al-Hamza. “I encountered cases in which people on the Russian border were interrogated about their political convictions and which Islamic rules they follow. In Europe the approach is completely different.”
Russia is also less attractive as a transit zone, in part because the distances refugees must travel to get to a border between Russia and an E.U. state are vast. “It’s difficult to get to Europe from here,” al-Hamza said. Additionally, few Syrians have taken such a path and therefore cannot advise others on how to travel. Most refugees attempting the crossing to Europe rely on the experience of a family member or friend, according to Khallum.
“Usually one of their acquaintances illegally arrives at a location and then through personal contact on the phone or by mail says how he got there,” Khallum said. “No one of these refugees will reveal the route that they intend to use to get to Europe because they are afraid for their safety and the safety of those who trusted them with this information.”
It also remains difficult to determine the exact number of Syrian refugees in Russia because many Syrians come to the country on work visas or as students and not as asylum seekers, said Svetlana Gannushkina, chairwomen of Russia’s Civic Assistance Committee.
“The Syrians who come here are not formally refugees. They have a visa and a part of them had come to Russia to work. But now they have nowhere to return to.”
Journalist Hallum said that he had recently met some Syrians with student visas, but doubted they were in Moscow to study. “In the airport I met a group of ladies wearing traditional Muslim attire with year-long student visas. They told me that they had come to study Russian in St. Petersburg. However, I think that they had used the only way to avoid the war and possibly, they will not stay long in Russia,” Hallum said.
On Sept. 4, Russia’s Federal Migration Service announced that there were 12,000 Syrians in Russia, but did not separate the number of those who were migrants or asylum seekers.
Gannushkina says it’s doubtful that the number of Syrian refugees in Russia is very high. “In 2012, when the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees asked representatives of the countries that had signed the convention on refugees to introduce a moratorium on their deportation to Syria, the Russian authorities demonstrated their loyalty to the refugees and started preparing documents for them. However, when last year we were flooded with Ukrainians, the Syrians were practically forgotten,” Gannushkina said.
Recent statements from the Kremlin contradict Gannushkina’s words, however. On Sept. 10, Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agency Interfax that Russia wasn’t interested in contributing to an international effort to help Syrian migrants. “We expect that for the most part that expenditures [for dealing with refugees] will fall on the countries linked to causing the catastrophic situation,” Peskov said.
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