Refugees from Syria seek sanctuary

Today almost 4.1 million Syrian refugees are scattered throughout the world. Since 2011, 12,000 Syrians have arrived in Russia. Source: AP

Today almost 4.1 million Syrian refugees are scattered throughout the world. Since 2011, 12,000 Syrians have arrived in Russia. Source: AP

Refugees fleeing from Syria and those advocating asylum for them are asking whether Russia needs to play a greater part in alleviating the problem of mass migration to Europe.

For most Syrian refugees flowing into Europe their first thought is of sanctuary. Only later do they focus on trying to re-build their lives and a home. But just how many will be able to make Russia their home is unclear. The issue is being debated not just by the Russian government, but by refugees themselves.

Among them is Ahmad, 40, a robust Syrian and Shia Muslim, who declined to give his last name because of his pending asylum status. After the Syrian civil war began 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 said. “So we came to Moscow. We applied to the United Nations [Refugee Agency- UNHCR] and it gave us recommendation letters.”

Ahmad fled to Russia in 2013, travelling on a tourist visa. He received temporary asylum and worked at a Moscow restaurant. However, in 2014, Russia’s Federal Migration Service refused to extend his asylum status, interrupting his ability to work and provide for his family. He is now waiting for a court decision on his residency status while he continues to live legally in Russia.

Ahmad and his wife assimilated easily into their Russian community. 

“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. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned him against doing any work in Russia without documentation. The risk of being arrested is high.

Now Ahmad relies on help from his Syrian friends based in Moscow. But the sense of insecurity will haunt him for as long as his political refugee status remains undecided.

If he could get asylum in Europe or elsewhere, he said, would happily leave Moscow to find a reliable income and gain 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 sanctuary in Sweden, Aldjail sought asylum from Russia several times after graduating from the Russian University for People’s Friendship, but did not get it.

Aldjail now helps Syrians adjust to life in Russia, providing legal assistance to them through the Moscow-based Civil Assistance 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 RIR.

One of the most difficult challenges for refugees is getting temporary asylum, which carries a high price, which has been fluctuating since 2012, Aldjail said. 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 an order to accept Syrian refugees, Aldjail claims.

Fees again jumped along with rumours that Russia would no longer accept refugees. In 2015, the costs for temporary asylum went as high as 40,000 rubles ($600).

The costs involved are not the only obstacle to finding sanctuary in Russia. Challenges include corruption and bureaucracy, Aldjail said, as well as the risk of being exploited by employers and the vulnerability to human rights abuses.

“What does matter is the absence of [knowledge of Russian] cultural and civil code by the Syrians, so they don’t even know their own rights or the rules of behaviour,” 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 Aldjail. They have tried to find shelter from famine and the civil war for their families, but have instead experienced cold rejection or negligent treatment.

Refugees now 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 Centre 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 RIR. “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.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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