Politics & Society This supplement is sponsored by Rossiyskaya Gazeta_www.rbth.co.uk_Tuesday, September 22, 2015_P3
Promised land? Syrians get on their bikes and head for a new life in Europe
Refugee crisis Scenes of people storming train stations, negotiating barbed wire and sleeping in parks across Europe are unlikely to be repeated in Russia. What can Moscow do to help alleviate the biggest humanitarian crisis for decades? marina obrazkova, pavel koshkin RBTH
Russia is not a natural destination for refugees from war-torn Syria, but some are using it as a transit point to Europe. Stories of the “Arctic crossing” may seem rather far-fetched, but a small number of refugees are making the long journey to safety and crossing from Russia to Finland and Norway. At one border point, Skorskog in Norway, north-west of Murmansk, crossing on foot is banned, but wheeled transport moves freely – leading to a bizarre northern cross-border trade in bicycles for desperate families. The numbers remain tiny – Russia’s Federal Migration Service (FMS) says there are currently around 12,000 Syrians in the country, less than 0.1pc of all registered foreigners in Russia. But that could change as European governments take an increasingly robust approach to illegal arrivals. Muez Abu Al-Jadael, a Syrian human rights activist and journalist for the online newspaper Open Dialogue, is a political refugee who was given shelter by Sweden. A graduate of Moscow’s People’s Friendship University, he tried and failed to be granted asylum in Russia. Now he helps Syrians to assimilate and adjust to life in Russia by giving legal assistance to his compatriots. “Before the civil war, most Syrians were just migrants, in Russia or elsewhere, but since the onset of the war we all became refugees,” he
told RBTH. The small number of Syrians who do come to Russia see it as a longer, but perhaps less challenging transit point for Europe. Using Russia to reach Finland and northern Europe via St Petersburg is cheaper and sometimes safer than taking a route through Turkey, Greece or Belarus and Ukraine.
Can Moscow help?
Today there are more than four million Syrian refugees scattered around the world, with 430,000 formal asylum requests made in Europe between 2011 and 2015. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR forecasts that numbers will almost double in Europe in the next two years to a total of 850,000 refugees. Most of them will settle in Germany and other European countries. Russian officials and agencies working with refugees differ over what, if any, role Moscow can usefully play in alleviating what is Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Nikolai Smorodin, the deputy head of the FMS, says the notion that Russia is refusing to take any Syrian refugees is misleading. He says that a total of 7,103 Syrians arrived in 2015, but slightly more, 7,162, left. “The position of the FMS has not changed regarding asylum to Syrians,” Mr Smorodin says, adding that Russia was ready to receive Syrians given the seriousness of what was hap-
pening in their country. Of the 12,000 Syrians registered with the FMS, a total of 2,000 have been given temporary shelter, and a further 2,500 given temporary residence permits. More than 2,000 have been granted asylum and 5,000 are in the FMS system awaiting rulings on their status, Mr Smorodin said. The perception of Russia’s response to the crisis was partly shaped by President Vladimir Putin’s public pronouncements. This month he refused to join any EU scheme to help refugees from Syria, saying that Russian efforts to support President Bashar al-Assad are the best way to stop refugees leaving, and blaming the West for the refugee crisis. It was not always that way, according to Svetlana Gannushkina, chair of the Civic Assistance Committee.“In 2012, when the UNHCR asked representatives of the countries that had signed the convention on refugees to introduce a moratorium on their deportation to Syria, the Russian authorities demonstrated their loyalty to the refugees and even started preparing documents for them.” Responding to accusations from the committee that Russia was refusing to provide temporary asylum to refugees, the FMS claims that the numbers coming to Russia are exaggerated. Most requests are from spouses of Russian citizens who had returned to Syria after the war started, it says.
A human catastrophe
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says that Syrians are free to use Russia as a transit point, but those countries whose policies lead to the current crisis should shoulder the burden of a “catastrophic situation”. Russia also needs to guard against any risk
Horizon of hope: a Syrian refugee from Homs looks out at a calm Mediterranean Sea from the coast of Libya
Hopes of international co-operation MULTIMEDIA
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‘I just need to provide a future for my children’ True lives Syrian refugees are facing a life in limbo, frustrated by Russian red tape, after fleeing the nightmare of war at home Flora mussa, Pavel koshkin RBTH
East or West, home is best. This saying seems to have lost its relevance for many Syrian refugees fleeing their war-torn country for Europe, and particularly for Ahmad, 40, a Shia Muslim who now lives in a comfortable apartment in south-west Moscow. When the Syrian civil war began in 2011, bombs flew over his “family’s heads, houses, and schools and killed peaceful civilians”. Ahmad quickly realised that he had to flee to save his wife and two children. “I didn’t care about myself, but I did care about my family and so I 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 provided letters of recommendation.” Before the civil war started in Syria he
lived in the town of Al-Malihah, about four miles from the capital, Damascus. He had been involved in both clothing and poultry businesses and owned a chicken company, while his wife worked as a teacher in Damascus. As a result of an outbreak of political instability – the bombings and shootings that started in 2011 – his poultry shop was destroyed, with the property confiscated by radicals who regarded him as an infidel. He was forced to move to Damascus, but then more bombings started. Ahmad fled to Russia in 2013 on a tourist visa, then received temporary asylum and worked at a Moscow restaurant. However, in 2014 Russia’s Federal Migration Service refused to prolong his refugee status, possibly because by then Russia was struggling to cope with a huge influx of refugees from eastern Ukraine, fleeing the conflict in the Donbass region. He is now awaiting a court decision on his status, while continuing to live legally in Russia. Ahmad and his wife feel that they have settled and assimilated very well in
Uncertain future: Ahmad, 40, lacks the paperwork that would enable him to find a steady job from personal archives
Russia. His children have also successfully adjusted to life in Russia. Although they have been living in Moscow for only two years, they speak fluent, almost accentless Russian. They go to a local school and are friends with Russian schoolmates and the children of their neighbours. “Me and my wife don’t speak Russian well, so our children talk in Russian with each other as a tactic to play jokes on us,” laughs Ahmad. “I wanted my kids to
that Isil terrorists may enter the country under the guise of refugees, Mr Peskov says. Robert Legvold, professor of political science at Columbia University, doubts that Russia will share “the flows of migrants that are coming out of Syria and North Africa”,but believes “it is the responsibility of most of the major developed countries, not only in western Europe,”but also the United States, which has agreed to take 10,000 refugees. “It is a matter of ethics and principles,” he said.“It would be very good if Russia was able to assist in an international refugee crisis. It is not just a western European crisis, it is a human crisis.” Dmitry Polikanov, a Russian political analyst, and activist who has worked with Ukrainian refugees, believes that the situation offers opportunities for improving international co-operation.“Germany, for instance, has many years of good practice in hosting migrants and the system of integrating them into society; Russia has its own mechanisms of coping with people coming from Central Asia and accommodating Muslims from that region,” he says. “The problem is that Europe is in shock now.” Mr Polikanov sees the opportunity for Russia to forge a diplomatic solution. Moscow is pushing for the elimination of the root cause of the problem by establishing a coalition against Isil, rather than fighting against the Assad regime. That is not an approach the West shares, although the forthcoming UN General Assembly offers a platform to promote it. In this case, this will help to strengthen Russia’s image of a country suggesting reasonable solutions to global problems.
study Russian. Maybe we'll be here forever.” The key challenge of living in Russia for Ahmad can be summed up in a word: documents. As a refugee he has a certain status, but lacks all the paperwork that would ease his life in Russia. This is why he is unable to move freely around Moscow or find a reliable, steady job to support himself and his family. He relies on the help of his Syrian friends based in Moscow. What he cares about most is stability, independence and the future of his children. “I want to get all the documents and be independent, so that I can live here like a normal person. I just need stability, to do business here, open a coffee shop and provide a secure and decent future for my children.” The unpredictable nature of his status is psychologically difficult to overcome, he says, adding: “I hope that one day I will get these documents to move about and work freely.” Ahmad’s fears seem not to be unfounded. Another Syrian, Hassan, 40, relates a less encouraging story. Facing difficulties remaining in Russia, he decided to try to reach Europe via Turkey. But he found himself trapped in the transit zone at a Russian airport, unable to travel because no country would take him. He told RBTH that he had now spent more than a month trapped at the airport. It may not be the nightmare scenario faced by thousands of other desperate Syrians trapped and facing riot police at European borders, but a life in limbo can be little better than one in a war zone.
Build a coalition to save Syria