It's a statistic that many may find surprising. Russia has emerged as the world's leading "exporter" of asylum seekers to the rest of Europe. At a time when Moscow is trying to anchor itself in the West and pressure the European Union to lift visa restrictions, the rapid growth in refugees fleeing Russia cannot be a welcome development.
Prague, 19 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- This year, Russia has broken one record that the Kremlin is not rushing to publicize. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Russian Federation has become the world's largest source of refugees seeking permanent asylum in the European Union and future member states, beating "traditional" leaders such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Diederik Kramers, spokesman for the UNHCR's EU regional office, gave RFE/RL the details: "We see that in the first three-quarters, from January to September 2002, there were 14,107 asylum applications from Russian citizens. And in the same period of time, January to September 2003, it's 23,465. So that looks like a 66 percent increase."
The UNHCR statistics do not include one of Europe's largest refugee havens, Britain, so the total number of Russian citizens claiming asylum this year alone in Western and Central Europe may be closer to 25,000 or more.
Since economic reasons are not accepted as valid justification for seeking asylum in Europe, as Kramers explained, the overwhelming majority of applicants seeking refugee status from Russia are basing their claims on alleged persecution. "The basis for the whole international system of refugee protection is the 1951 Refugee Convention, which gives as a definition of a refugee a person who is outside his or her country because of persecution due to membership of a certain social group, political beliefs, religion, race, and so on. Those are the strict 'convention criteria,' as we call it," Kramers said.
The UNHCR does not keep ethnic statistics, but evidence from nongovernmental organizations that work with refugees and individual governments suggests most of the asylum seekers are, or claim to be, from Russia's war-torn republic of Chechnya.
Austria is one EU country that has seen a tenfold explosion of asylum claims this year from Russian citizens -- most of them claiming persecution by the authorities in Chechnya. Michael Girardi, chief spokesman for the Austrian Interior Ministry, told RFE/RL: "We have had, up to 31 October, nearly 6,000 asylum seekers from the Russian Federation and last year we had below 700 asylum seekers [from Russia]. So it's indeed a large increase in the number of people from Russia."
Many asylum seekers who initially file a claim upon arrival in Austria move on to other European countries where there are more established immigrant communities, such as Germany. But this year, a record 62 percent of Russian citizens who stayed for the duration of the legal procedure ended up with full-fledged, permanent asylum in Austria.
That means that as far as the authorities in Vienna are concerned, although no one at the Interior Ministry will say it outright, claims that the Russian authorities persecute their own citizens -- in this case Chechens -- are well-founded and true.
"Most of [the Russian citizens] have very good reasons for why they are seeking asylum in Austria. So it's true that they are coming to us, and they will of course receive some aid, and most of them will receive asylum too, yes," Girardi said.
Compare that to an acceptance rate in Austria of just 0 percent for Indian citizens this year or 1 percent for Nigerians.
Not all European countries share this open-door policy to Russian nationals. The European Union has yet to implement a harmonized immigration policy, so big differences exist in asylum policies among EU states.
The Russian Interior Ministry, in a statement released earlier this month and quoted by "The Moscow Times," said most Russian asylum seekers claiming refugee status in Europe were fakes -- motivated only by economic reasons.
Marc Van Lint, legal officer for the Belgium Committee for Aid To Refugees, told RFE/RL that indeed, many people claiming to be Chechens arriving in Belgium turn out not to be residents of the republic. "Most people arrive without papers, and we have the impression that a lot of people who say they are Chechen actually come from neighboring republics -- Ingushetia or Daghestan."
Establishing the identity of asylum claimants is the hardest task facing local immigration authorities across Europe. Unlike Austria, Belgium ends up turning most applicants away. From an average of 80 to 100 Russian nationals seeking asylum in Belgium every month, only eight have been granted permanent refugee status so far this year.
Van Lint's organization recently filed suit against the Belgian government, alleging investigators were doing too perfunctory a job in quizzing applicants before rejecting them.
Van Lint told RFE/RL that until 18 months ago, Belgian immigration authorities interviewed asylum seekers claiming to be from Chechnya in Chechen, giving them a better opportunity to determine the validity of someone's claim. But after suspecting that its Chechen-language interpreters were helping applicants improve their tales of woe, the Belgian authorities switched to conducting interviews in Russian.
Van Lint says this makes identifying genuine Chechen refugees more difficult. It can also prove intimidating for the asylum seekers. "The difficulty is that Chechens who come here are fleeing the Russian military -- most of the time," he said. "So they don't really have good experiences with Russians and there are rumors circulating that some of the interpreters working for the authorities, who are native Russians, are working for the KGB -- or FSB, as it's now called -� and that they pass on information to Russia about the things that Chechen refugees say in Belgium to found their asylum claim."
There is, of course, no proof to substantiate the rumor. Ann Publie, a spokeswoman for the Belgian Office For Foreigners -- the Interior
Ministry's immigration division -- told RFE/RL that the Belgian side does not contact the Russian authorities during an asylum seeker's identification procedure.
Only after an asylum seeker's claim has been rejected and that individual is prepared for deportation to his or her home country do the Belgian authorities sometimes contact Russian officials for help in identifying individuals. "We have a whole bureau that is doing identification. We try to get more and more information from them and afterwards we can find out -- it's a long procedure, but we contact the consulates in Belgium from Russia and they can say yes or no, these people are from Russia," she said. "But we send a lot of people back to Russia."
Regardless of the strategy each European country employs to cope with the new flood of asylum seekers from Russia, it has become an uncomfortable problem that is becoming harder to diplomatically sweep under the carpet. Asylum seekers are one commodity Russia would rather not export.