Syrian refugees in Russia: Struggling to get rooted
The first thought for many Syrian refugees flowing into Europe is of asylum. Only later do they focus on creating a home. But just how many will be able to call Russia their home is being called into question not just by the Russian government, but by refugees themselves.
This includes Ahmad, 40, a robust, stout Syrian and Shia Muslim, who declined to give his last name due to his pending asylum status. After the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Ahmad found himself living legally in an apartment southwest of Moscow.
“I didn’t care about myself, but I did care about my family and wanted to find them a safer place,” he told RBTH. “So we came to Moscow. We applied to the United Nations [Refugee Agency] and it gave us recommendation letters.”
Ahmad fled to Russia in 2013 via a tourist visa, received temporary asylum and worked at a Moscow restaurant. However, in 2014, Russia’s Federal Migration Service refused to prolong his asylum status, interrupting his ability to work and provide for his family. He is now waiting on a court decision on his residency status while continuing to live legally in Russia.
Ahmad and his wife assimilated into their Russian community easily, he said. “They are very nice and friendly people, who respect ordinary Syrians, and I respect Russians very much,” Ahmad said.
But Ahmad’s status as a refugee is in limbo. The Moscow office of the U.N. Refugee Agency warned him against doing any business in Russia without documentation. The risk of being arrested is high.
Ahmad relies on the help of his Syrian friends based in Moscow. But the sense of insecurity will haunt Ahmad as long as his political refugee status is undecided.
If he could get asylum in Europe or elsewhere, he said, would happily leave Moscow to find a reliable income and confidence in the future.
Syrians in Russia: Understanding the culture and their civil rights
Muiz Abu Aldjail, a Syrian journalist for the Open Dialogue media outlet and a human rights activist, looks at the refugee crisis from a different angle. A political refugee who found asylum in Sweden, Aldjail sought asylum from Russia several times after graduating from the Russian University for People’s Friendship, but did not receive it.
Today Aldjail helps Syrians to adjust to life in Russia, prodiving legal assistance to through the Moscow-based Civil Assistant Charity Committee.
“Before the civil war most Syrians were just migrants in Russia or elsewhere, but since the onset of the war, we all became refugees,” Aldjail told RBTH.
One of the most difficult challenges for refugees is getting temporary asylum, which carries a high price that has been fluctuating since 2012, according to Aldjail. In 2012, the price was set between 70,000 and 100,000 rubles ($1,070-1,500 today). That price plummeted to 20,000 rubles in 2014 after Russia’s Federal Migration Service issued the order to accept Syrian refugees, Abu Aldjail claims.
But prices jumped once more with the rumors that Russia would no longer accept refugees. In 2015, the cost for temporary asylum shot as high as 40,000 rubles ($600).
Price isn’t the only obstacle to finding sanctuary in Russia. Challenges include corruption and bureaucracy, according to Aldjail, as well as the risk of being exploited by employers and vulnerability to human rights abuse.
“What does matter is the lack of [knowledge of Russian] cultural and civil code by the Syrians, so they don’t even know their own rights or the rules of behavior,” Aldjail said. “This leads to . . . a misunderstanding that Russia is against them.”
That’s why so few Syrians are content to stay in Russia, said Abu Aldjail – they have tried to find their families shelter from famine and the civil war, but instead experienced cold rejection or negligent treatment.
In fact, refugees prefer to use Russia as a transit point to Europe, in particular Finland or Norway.
“The refugees themselves hardly seek shelter,” said Dmitry Polikanov, a board member of the PIR Center and political analyst. “They seek good living standards and benefits of being in Europe, so they don’t need other destinations.”
The official statistic from Russia’s Federal Migration Service seems to confirm this trend: In 2015, 7,103 Syrians came to Russia, while 7,162 left the country.
Is Russia reluctant to take in Syrians?
Today almost 4.1 million Syrian refugees are scattered throughout the world.
Europe received some 430,000 applications for asylum between 2011 and 2015. Of the 12,000 people who arrived in Russia from Syria since 2011, only 2,000 received temporary asylum in Russia, according to Russia’s Federal Migration Service.
This number pales in comparison with the 100,000 refugees asking Germany for asylum, the 65,000 asking Sweden, the 6,700 seeking it in France, and the 7,000 looking at the U.K.
“The Syria problem is not only a problem of Syrians, it is a problem of the whole world,” said Huseyin Oruc, vice president of the Turkey-based Human Development Foundation, an agency that has extensive and diverse experience in providing humanitarian relief to refugees.
“Russia is one of the important actors for a political solution,” Oruc continued. “If Russia works for peace in Syria, it is best for the refugee problem.”
Robert Legvold, professor emeritus of Columbia University, said he doubts Russia will begin receiving migrants from Syria and North Africa, but that doesn’t mean Russia shouldn’t.
“it is a matter of ethics and principles,” he told RBTH. “It would be very good if Russia was able to assist what is [called] an international migration crisis. It is not just a Western European crisis, it is a human crisis. Any country that is able to assist, should.”
Syrian refugees can use Russian territory as a transit point, noted the Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov.
But the question about accepting refugees is irrelevant for Russia, Peskov said, because the burden of the current humanitarian crisis should be shouldered by those countries whose policy led to the civil war in Syria.
Another argument against accepting the Syrian refugees, Peskov said: the risk that terrorists from ISIS might come to Russia under the guise of refugees.
Further, media claims about Russia turning down Syrian refugees’ requests in large scale are misleading, said Deputy Head of Russia’s Federal Migration Service Nikolai Smorodin.
“There hasn’t been any toughening of the Federal Migration Service’s position in providing asylum to Syrian citizens in Russia,” Smorodin told the Interfax news agency. Taking into account the international situation, Smorodin said, Russia is ready to receive Syrians.
UPDATE: Two weeks after the interview that took place on Sept. 16, Ahmad and his family left Russia for the EU.