When Moscow authorities evicted the Learning Center for Refugee Children from the premises it had occupied for nearly twenty years, its volunteers kept offering free classes to newcomers. The center, which is a project from the Russian NGO, Civic Assistance Committee, is dedicated to providing training to refugee children from Syria, Afghanistan, several African countries, and Chechnya, as The Moscow Times has reported. After the Russian Ministry of Justice declared the Civic Assistance Committee a “foreign agent” on April 20, 2015, the NGO lost the funding that supported the center.
Since 2012, Russian authorities have been using the so-called “Foreign Agents” law to blacklist domestic civic and human rights organizations. Under the law, domestic NGOs receiving funding from abroad have to register with the Ministry of Justice as “foreign agents” if they engage in “political activity.”
The Civic Assistance Committee pushed back against its labeling as a “foreign agent” with a defiant message on its website: “On April 20, 2015, the Ministry of Justice added the Civic Assistance Committee to the registry of organizations performing functions of foreign agents. Well, indeed, we are the agents of these foreigners.” The statement linked directly to a photo gallery showing refugee children attending trainings, learning, drawing, and playing outdoors with the center’s volunteers. “We are the agents of these [sic] foreigners,” each image read.
The NGO’s response has exposed the absurdity and duplicity of the “Foreign Agents” law, which has been applied to more than 100 domestic rights organizations since 2012. Many NGOs have closed their offices while others, like the Learning Center for Refugee Children, continue to operate under severe obstacles.
According to Human Rights Watch, Russia’s human rights groups have condemned the law and described it as “unjust” and “slanderous.” “Because in Russia ‘foreign agent’ can be interpreted only as ‘spy’ or ‘traitor,’ there is little doubt that the law aims to demonize and marginalize independent advocacy groups,” a recent HRW report explained.
The Russian government claims the law is used to counter threats from foreign governments. These threats, it argues, are made under the guise of humanitarian aid that seeks to compromise the Russian government, as well as Russian values and society. In reality, however, the weight of the law has settled most firmly on Russia’s most marginalized and endangered residents and citizens, like those served by the Learning Center for Refugee Children
The center provides free classes to help refugee children learn the Russian language, as well as local customs and traditions. The center also provides instruction in navigating the city of Moscow, which can be a daunting task for new immigrants. Olga Nikolaenko, the director of the center, told Voice of America, that the organization was the only option for refugee children to better integrate into Russian society. “Our kids who attend school will probably drop out. If they can’t find help here, they’ll have great difficulties and no one will help them keep oriented in the right direction,” she said in the same interview.
Currently, the center’s classes are being held at various temporary locations while the organization’s leaders look for a new office. Nikolayenko does not have much hope, however, that the center will succeed in challenging the Moscow authorities’ eviction decision, The Moscow Times reports.
As this incident demonstrates, the Russian government has used the “Foreign Agents” law to paralyze the work of human rights organizations and make it impossible for Russia to maintain a vibrant civil society. Like many illiberal regimes, it views non-sanctioned grassroots action, particularly when aided from abroad, as a threat to its power. Such attitudes do not bode well for Russia’s future.