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Russia: Illegal Immigrants See Little Hope Of Gaining Official Status

Russia's legislation on refugees is fully in accord with international regulations, but its implementation of them in regard to non-CIS countries' immigrants is very limited. At a round table in Moscow yesterday, experts cited not only financial and bureaucratic difficulties but also widespread lack of tolerance toward foreigners as reasons for a situation that dooms tens of thousands of immigrants to illegality. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini attended the meeting and files this report.

Moscow, 24 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Officially there are less than 600 refugees from non-CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries in Russia.

That means that the estimated 700,000 and 1.5 million other residents from non-CIS nations have no legal status, and little chance of legitimizing their presence.

Russia has excellent laws on its books regarding asylum-seekers from non-CIS countries that were adopted by Moscow in accordance with the 1951 United Nations Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees.

But Jean-Paul Cavalieri -- who is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, representative in Moscow -- says that potential refugees do not in fact benefit from these laws.

Cavalieri expressed his view at a Moscow roundtable yesterday -- sponsored in part by UNHCR -- that brought together Russian immigration officials, asylum-seekers and representatives of organizations concerned with refugee problems.

The reasons, the roundtable's participants said, are multiple. They include cash-strapped Russian immigration departments, impenetrable bureaucratic procedures, and an overall national mentality that is suspicious of foreign residents.

Of the illegal residents from non-CIS countries living in Russia today -- Chinese, Afghans, Koreans, Somalis, Ethiopians and others -- many left their homelands for economic reasons in the hope of finding a better job in Russia. This is especially true of Chinese illegal immigration in Russia's Far East regions.

But other non-CIS residents are potential candidates for genuine refugee status, either permanent or temporary, and they very often find themselves banging their heads against a wall. Those seeking permanent asylum -- that is, refugee status -- because they have reason to fear persecution on political, racial or religious grounds are often victims of bureaucratic slowness.

Most of the 595 official refugees from non-CIS nations in Russia today are Afghans. They are largely those who had collaborated with Soviet authorities and, fearing persecution, fled their country after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.

Wahid Ulla, a 23-year-old Afghan, is still hoping to obtain refugee status. He left Afghanistan five years ago with his mother, sisters, brothers and cousins after his father, who had worked for the Soviet authorities, was kidnapped in Kabul.

Ulla hopes to become one of the half-percent of the estimated 10,000 Afghan nationals now in Russia seeking recognition by the authorities as refugees. That status would provide him with official papers and welfare payments.

Ulla told his family's story to our correspondent while waiting for his turn at the headquarters of Equilibre-Solidarite, a French humanitarian organization that has set up a consultation and humanitarian aid program for immigrants to Russia.

"They took my father. We were told that we would be killed as well if we went to look for him. My cousin also worked in the [Soviet] militia then, and we thought he would also be killed. Then a rocket fell on our house. And he [the cousin] was hit by a fragment. So where could we go after that? We came here in 1996. We [wanted] refugee status. We didn't know about [the need to request refugee status officially until] we were told to go [to the government office concerned]. We went on 30 March 1999. I went back again later, but they said: 'It's not your turn yet. We'll call you.'"

Vladimir Rucheykov, head of the migration department at Russia's Federation Ministry, admits that asylum-seekers have to wait up to two years from the moment they request refugee status until they are allowed even to submit their applications.

During this time, illegal migrants receive no document defining their status. If they get caught, they risk both the legal consequences of breaking the law -- such as fines -- and the illegal ones, such as corrupt practices and xenophobic persecution. Bribe-taking by police and immigration officials is often mentioned by the migrants. As a result, many don't even bother to ask for the hard-to-obtain official status and simply try to set up a life unnoticed by Russian law-enforcement organs.

According to Rucheykov, a more basic problem is whether Russia should accept refugees at all, given its acute economic problems. He told RFE/RL:

"The Russian Federation carries a certain burden -- which is in no small part economic -- in regard to those people who have been recognized as refugees. The law provides for certain socio-economic [benefits] that the Russian Federation must guarantee to those who receive asylum status. Is the Russian government ready [to do this]?"

Rucheykov also notes that the number of applications for asylum so far -- about 5,000 -- is far less than the estimated number of illegals. He concludes that many of the migrants actually enjoy their illegality.

As for those who flee wars or other humanitarian catastrophes -- and constitute the great majority of asylum-seekers -- they don't stand any chance of legalizing their status as temporary refugees. UNHCR's Cavalieri explains why:

"This temporary asylum regime was thought of primarily to address the situation of many Afghans who, because of the civil war in their country, may not be in any position to return. So far this temporary asylum regime is not yet available. Although it is provided for by the law, there has been no governmental provision to implement it. This is why we still have a [large] number of Afghan asylum-seekers who are under unclear status in the Russian Federation."

Rucheykov, who deals daily with migrant problems, confirms that temporary asylum requests are not even being processed.

Mikhail Rudnikuyev, one of the authors of Russia's liberal law on refugees, argues that widespread prejudice against foreigners is more to blame for Russian officials' poor handling of the refugee problem than economic, bureaucratic, and legal problems. Rudnikuyev concludes that only important modifications in state policies and a fundamental shift in popular attitudes can bring about changes in refugee policy.