Since November, the world has been watching Aleppo turn into a field of death, as the Assad regime killed civilians trapped in the besieged city with help from the Russian military and Iranian-backed militias.
Just as the offensive escalated, Civic Assistance, a Russian legal aid organization helping refugees, released a new report on December 6, claiming that Russian authorities were sending Syrian asylum seekers back to their war-torn country. Their justification? The situation in Syria is getting better.
In a heart-wrenching piece titled “How Russia makes – and humiliates – refugees” published on the same day, freelance journalist Anna Nemtsova tells the story of Salekh, a tailor from Syria seeking asylum in Russia. “The judge told me that life in Aleppo, where they are bombing every day, was actually fine, that I should go back home to Syria; so I told her straight away: ‘My chopped off head will be sent back to you and thrown upon your desk, then it will be too late for you to give me the refugee status.’”
Salekh’s story, unfortunately, is not unique. The Civic Assistance report documents a number of cases when the Russian authorities turned asylum seekers away, citing insufficient evidence for their asylum claims. The report analyzes how the Russian legal system’s flaws and the Kremlin’s loyalty to the Assad regime make the asylum seeking process for Syrians like Salekh a nightmare.
According to the report, as of 2015, 1032 Syrians received temporary asylum in Russia, and only two persons received refugee status. Temporary asylum is granted for just one year, and has to be renewed every year thereafter; refugee status does not have any strict expiration date and entitles asylum seekers to social benefits and assistance.
Those asylum seekers who come to Russia without first obtaining a visa, which is hard to do when fleeing a country in a state of war, tend to be the most vulnerable. As the wait for an interview with immigration authorities can take several months, the police often detain asylum seekers, fine them for remaining in Russia illegally, and oftentimes force them to leave the country. In the Moscow and Saint Petersburg regions, asylum seekers do not have a choice but to leave, under the law.
Perhaps the most appalling of all is how Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs determines those Syrians who are truly at risk. Those persecuted by the anti-Assad rebel groups, such as “military officers, security officers and police leadership of the ruling Baath party, public and religious figures actively acting on the side of the regime,” are the most at risk of torture, according to the Ministry.
It is unsurprising that the Kremlin’s alliance with the Assad regime is informing Russia’s immigration policy towards Syrians, which refuses to recognize the torture and murder of innocent civilians and opposition activists committed by the pro-government forces. Despite mounting and indisputable evidence of the Assad army’s brutality towards the opposition and ordinary civilians, the Kremlin continues to be an accomplice in war crimes committed by one of the most brutal and murderous regimes in the Middle East.