Moscow, 13 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, former Soviet countries were quick to declare sovereignty and to raise barriers to travel and migration. But fifteen years on, most of these countries still have no consistent migration policy.
As a result, complex immigration rules, combined with endemic corruption, are barring millions of migrants and asylum seekers across the former Soviet Union from obtaining legal status.
In Russia, for instance, the most cautious estimates put the number of illegal migrants at 4 million. For these migrants, who hail largely from ex-Soviet republics, their lack of legal documents usually translates into tough working and living conditions, mistreatment, and routine extortion by police.
The Russian government is, however, slowly recognizing the urgency of offsetting the country's dramatic population decline and is taking its first, albeit timid, steps toward opening the door wider to migrants and immigrants. Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin recently said that Russia, which has a population of 143 million, would lose about one million people annually over the next 20 years.
Corruption “is the solution if you want to be released from detention or if you want your asylum application to be transferred to the migration service."
In November, the Federal Migration Service announced plans to legalize about one million immigrants next year. And in early December, Russian President Vladimir Putin submitted to parliament a bill that would slightly ease the process of naturalization for immigrants from former Soviet countries.
Experts say the government is on the right track, but many argue that much more needs to be done, and faster, to ease immigration.
Yelena Tyuryukanova, a migration expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Socioeconomic Problems, believes the government’s reluctance to take more decisive measures betrays its ambiguous approach to immigrants. Russia’s position is, she says, "strange; it is not thought through. On the one hand, [the authorities] are afraid of opening the door, of easing the process of obtaining citizenship, but obviously very strict measures cannot be taken either, since the policy is -- in principle -- directed toward accepting migrants. There is no government conception yet. This is why fragmentary measures are taken, and so far the whole [immigration] policy consists of these fragments, like a scattered mosaic."
"Warehouses For Migrants" On The EU's Borders
The European Union's eastward expansion last year has put additional pressure on Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, all of which now share a border with new members of the European Union.
Growing numbers of asylum seekers and illegal migrants are pouring into these countries from a range of troubled regions -- such as Iraq, Chechnya, and Afghanistan -- in the hope of crossing into the newly extended Europe.
Those who are caught end up in the temporary detention camps that dot the border of Eastern Europe, from Estonia and Latvia down to Romania. There, they wait to be either legalized or deported.
But sketchy migration laws and a failure to enforce regulations leave these people vulnerable to corruption and abuse.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based nongovernmental organization, in November issued a report documenting serious violations against migrants and asylum seekers stranded in border camps in Ukraine.
Romanita Iordache, who authored the report, lists problems such as "overcrowding, inadequate bedding and clothing…no access to fresh air, no access to exercise, no access to medical treatment. We also documented physical abuse, harassment, extortion.”
The report says detainees are often denied the right to see a lawyer, or even apply for release.
In such circumstances, corruption emerges as a major feature. It is “one of the issues that come again and again,” says Iordache. “It is the solution if you want to be released from detention or if you want your asylum application to be transferred to the migration service."
Human Rights Watch, however, does not pin all the blame on Ukraine; it also accuses the EU of fuelling the abuse by pressing Kyiv to take back migrants who enter the EU illegally via Ukraine, regardless of their origin.
The EU has made readmission of illegal migrants a condition for Ukraine to be granted a simplified visa regime with European countries.
Human Rights Watch advised the EU to give Ukraine two years -- if it agrees to sign a readmission treaty -- to get its legislation into shape and improve detention conditions for migrants.
Otherwise, Iordache warns that Ukraine will become what she calls a "warehouse for migrants."
There has also been criticism of the EU from the authoritarian republic of Belarus, another key transit country for migrants heading for Europe.
Stepan Sukhorenko, the head of the Belarusian secret service, the KGB, recently lambasted the EU for failing to offer Belarus any help in dealing with the sudden flow of migrants trying to reach Europe without proper documents.
According to Sukhorenko, their number in Belarus has more than doubled since three of its neighbors -- Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland -- joined the EU.
The deputy head of the department for migration and citizenship in Belarus' Interior Ministry, Aleksei Begun, says the EU is currently working with Belarus on strengthening their common border.
But he says this is not enough. "The republic of Belarus itself also has to be helped. We don't feel this kind of help [is being offered]. Illegal migration is a transnational problem: we are the country of transit, the European Union is the country of delivery. If the country of transit doesn’t work together with the country of delivery, then our efforts will not be enough to fully stem this flow. There needs to be a totally different approach if the EU wants to solve this issue,” Begun maintains. “We are making efforts, but sometimes our efforts are simply not enough. So help us."
Human rights campaigners have been vocal in denouncing abuse and discrimination of all types of migrants in former Soviet countries. But, before mentalities can change, migration laws probably need to become more transparent.
Until they do so, migrants will remain vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. And, as long as the EU refuses to shoulder some of the responsibility, asylum seekers will continue to be forcibly returned to transit countries and to the countries they are seeking to escape and, in some cases, from countries in which they face persecution and violence.