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© RIA Novosti. Iliya Pitalev

Russian refugees: strangers in a strange land

by Anna Arutunyan at 28/01/2013 22:01

When Ali applied for asylum in Austria, he thought that any kind of life would be better than facing rampant power abuses in Russia’s restive republic of Chechnya.

Instead, he found himself fending off questions about whether he was a terrorist. And the scrutiny continued after his asylum was granted. For Ali, it came down to being stuck “between a rock and a hard place.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful to be alive,” he told The Moscow News. “But the refugee life isn’t always worth living, and I think a lot of [refugees] think like that, at least in passing.”

The ordeal that Ali (not his real name) suffered is especially pertinent as some opposition activists consider the fate of Alexander Dolmatov, who fled Russia in June 2012 and killed himself after being denied asylum in the Netherlands this month.

For Ali, whose family obtained asylum in Austria in the early 2000s, the process was humiliating and led to a deep depression.

“If you want a normal life, don’t become a refugee,” he said. “Of course, for most people, it’s a matter of survival.”

The crackdown against the opposition may result in more dissidents seeking asylum abroad, but Dolmatov’s suicide is a reminder that refugees’ stories can have unhappy endings.

Those who are not wealthy and well-connected suffer the most – the examples of exiled tycoons Boris Berezovsky and Yevgeny Chichvarkin, who live abroad in luxury, do not apply to most people who have fled or are considering fleeing Russia.

“A lot of people in Russia think in these stereotypes that once you’re here, you’re in the land of milk and honey. It’s not like that,” Denis Solopov, an environmental activist who obtained asylum in the Netherlands in 2011, told The Moscow News. “From Russia everything looks democratic, but the reality is much harsher.”

Refugees by the numbers

According to UN figures for 2012, Russia ranks seventh in terms of the asylum applications lodged with the European Union, right between Iran and Syria. In the first half of 2012, 8,251 applications for asylum were lodged by Russian citizens.

But according to figures provided by the European Commission, 77 percent of asylum applications originating with Russians in the third quarter of 2012 were rejected in EU countries.

According to Solopov, even if European detention centers for refugees – like the one in Rotterdam where Dolmatov hanged himself – are called “deportation centers,” and not prisons, they can be as psychologically harrowing as Russian jails.

Geert Ates of United for Intercultural Action, a Netherlandsbased network linking organizations that support migrant and refugee rights, told The Moscow News that 17,306 people have died since 1993 while trying to obtain asylum in Europe. These people died either while en route from their own countries or while awaiting a decision on their status as asylum seekers. Some 360 of the deaths were suicides. Of the 71 deaths on Dutch soil, for example, 30 were suicides.

United blamed border militarization, stricter asylum laws, and tightening immigration and detention policies for the deaths.

To leave or not to leave

Asylum seekers from Russia often travel to Ukraine and apply for refugee status with the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, which handles asylum cases in countries that don’t have their own refugee policy. The UNHCR evaluates applications and finds a “safe” third country that accepts the asylum seeker. Asylum seekers can also lodge an application once they’ve traveled abroad on their own, through the police or through refugee centers, depending on local policy. Once they have done that, asylum seekers stay at a refugee camp and face extensive questioning about once a week. The process takes about six months on average, but can last longer in some cases.

“It’s a complicated bureaucratic process. You have to tell them practically everything about yourself and your family,” Solopov said of his own experience obtaining asylum through the UNHCR, and of Dolmatov’s refugee camp, which he visited. “From the officials’ point of view, all refugees are the same. If someone thinks Russia is special, they’re wrong.”

This reality often stands in sharp contrast with how the EU and the West in general are viewed, particularly by the Russian opposition. As leading opposition journalist Oleg Kashin wrote last week in The New York Times, the West’s doors should not “remain closed,” or else “more Russian dissidents will become victims of the state – or die by their own hands.”

But for Ali, who continues to monitor the news from Russia, the decision to leave is paradoxical, both brave and counter-productive.

“If you want to change your country, you have to stay,” he said. “I understand that it’s a risk for a particular person, and it’s unfair, but life is very unfair.”

Opposition activist Anastasia Rybachenko was abroad when her Moscow apartment was searched in June 2012 in connection with the May 6 rioting on Bolotnaya Ploshchad. She decided to stay out of Russia at that point, but opted not to seek asylum, as she was able to secure a student visa in Estonia. Much like Solopov, she described the process of obtaining refugee status as a “horrible bureaucracy.”

Today, Rybachenko says she wants to eventually come back. “I don’t associate myself with being a dissident, or even an emigrant,” she said. “I want to return.” 

Additional reporting by Natalia Antonova

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