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Explainer: How Do You Get Asylum In Russia?

Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has applied for a type of asylum that is most commonly issued in Russia.
Former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has applied for a type of asylum that is most commonly issued in Russia.
Fugitive U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden has applied for temporary asylum in Russia and is expected to soon be given a document that would allow him to leave the transit zone of Sheremetyevo Airport -- where he has spent the past month. RFE/RL takes a look at the procedure for getting asylum in Russia.

What kinds of asylum are there?

There are three types of asylum in Russia: political asylum, refugee status, and temporary asylum.

How does political asylum work?

Political asylum, which is very rare, is issued via a presidential decree that takes into account multiple factors including whether it is in Russia's political interest to grant it. The process is regulated by a separate government resolution rather than Russia's Law on Refugees. It is issued to those seeking "asylum or protection from persecution or a real threat of becoming a victim of persecution" in their home country for "social-political activities or convictions that do not contradict the democratic principles recognized by the international community and norms of international law."

Only 14 people applied for political asylum in Russia in the last five years and the Federal Migration Service (FMS) does not report any successful applications on its website.

Political asylum is granted so rarely it is not even clear what rights one gets with it.

What about refugee status?

Refugee status is issued more often, but is still fairly rare. The decision to grant this status is made by the Federal Migration Service in accordance with Russia's Law on Refugees. Russian law defines a refugee as a non-Russian citizen living outside their country of nationality or normal residence who fears becoming a "victim of persecution due to their race, religion, citizenship, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political belief." In practice, the process is slow and often unsuccessful with only a small portion of applicants being granted refugee status in the last five years.

The status is conferred for a period of up to three years, but it is reviewed every year. Refugees have the right to urgent medical assistance, the right to be housed in temporary accommodation, the right to work without a permit and the right for their children to be educated. They receive almost all the rights of a normal Russian citizen -- except for voting rights. They carry a book which looks like this.

So what did Snowden apply for? And how does it work?

Snowden applied for temporary asylum. This kind of asylum is equivalent to Europe's "humanitarian status" and is given out on compassionate grounds. That is to say, if an asylum seeker does not meet the criteria for full refugee status, but cannot be extradited back to his country of origin for "humanitarian" reasons, then he is eligible for temporary asylum status. There are many "humanitarian" grounds such as the risk of a person experiencing inhumane treatment in their country. There were 8,952 applications for temporary asylum in Russian between 2008 and March 1, 2013. Temporary asylum was granted to 5,728 people between 2007 and 2012.

This status allows the bearer to move around Russia without impediment, although there are slight restrictions as to where one can live. A person who has been granted temporary asylum is registered to live in the place where he filed his application. In the case of Snowden -- who applied to the Moscow Federal Migration Service -- he would have to live in Moscow (unless he applied to change the location). Temporary status allows the bearer to work in Russia, which could be good news for Snowden if -- and that sometimes seems a big if -- his lawyer is to be believed. Lawyer Anatoly Kucherena said on July 24 that Snowden is hoping to learn Russian with a view to working. Snowden would also get the right to basic state medical insurance.

Temporary asylum is valid for one year after it is issued. Provided conditions of asylum have not been violated, seekers can reapply for it one month before it expires.

Who are the usual asylum seekers? What are their rates of success in appealing for asylum?

Asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Syria, Central Asia, and Georgia currently make up the lion's share of applicants. Between 1997 and July 2007, 8,683 out of 25,931 (33 percent) applicants received refugee status. Between 2001 and July 2007, 2,446 out of 5,637 (43 percent) applicants got temporary asylum. Political asylum does not figure in the FMS statistics.

But the process to get refugee status appears to be getting harder if FMS statistics are correct: From 2007 to April 2012, only 961 people received refugee status in Russia out of over 12,500 who applied. That equates to a meager 7 percent application success rate.

So Snowden has applied for the most commonly issued type of asylum. What comes next?

Initially, there was a bit of confusion. Early reports seemed to suggest that the FMS had issued Snowden a document on July 24 certifying that the agency is officially considering his application for temporary asylum. However, it turned out later that this was not the case. After speaking to Snowden on July 24, lawyer Anatoly Kucherena said: "The Federal Migration Service confirmed to me today that [Snowden’s] papers are being examined. Because there is a specific procedure, there are a series of questions that the migration services must deal with correspondingly. Edward is understanding about this, and he hasn’t been refused [asylum], the process is simply being drawn out somewhat."

Strictly speaking, the document should have been issued immediately when Snowden applied for temporary asylum. In practice, however, there is a lot of variance on how long this initial process takes. On average, the Moscow Federal Migration Service takes about two weeks to issue such certificates, according to Yelena Ryabinina, the Central Asia political refugee program director for the Moscow-based Civic Assistance Committee.

Will Snowden be able to leave the airport if he gets this document?

Yes. This document allows the bearer to legally reside on the territory of the Russian Federation -- even though the United States revoked his passport earlier this month. The document officially acts in place of identity documents since asylum seekers' identity documents are transferred to the Federal Migration Service during application. He will not have to live in a particular refugee center; asylum seekers in Russia are not typically given somewhere to live. According to Ryabinina, there are centers for temporary asylum seekers but they are too few in number.

What happens if Snowden gets that document?

The Moscow Federal Migration Service -- where Snowden has applied -- would then have up to three months to consider whether or not to grant Snowden temporary asylum. Ryabinina says that if the response is positive, then he will know within the next three months. But she is unsure how the situation could evolve.

"I won’t even try to guess how the events are going to develop regarding how he will receive temporary asylum," she says. "A positive response could be extremely quick because the three-month deadline doesn't mean that the three months have to be used.”

If Snowden is denied asylum, he will technically be able to appeal the decision -- either in a court or directly with the FMS and then subsequently in a court. This appeal process -- should the migration authorities repeatedly decide against issuing asylum -- lasts roughly one year.

Is it common to apply for asylum from an airport transit zone on Russian territory?

Absolutely not. This was one of the irregular things about Snowden's case. The majority of asylum seekers apply from within Russian territory. This is because the majority of them are able to enter Russian territory with their travel documents -- or have entered illegally.

As a rule, Ryabinina says, people who apply from transit zones tend to be unsuccessful. Their applications are either ignored or rejected. Ryabinina has cited the case of an Uzbek man who arrived at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport one month ago. He was not allowed into Russia but applied for refugee status. His documents were not even received by migration authorities -- a blatant violation of the law, she said.

So what does all this mean for Snowden?

It's hard to say. Although applying for temporary asylum is nominally apolitical and technical, politics are crucial here, according to Ryabinina.

"The situation will develop in a completely usual way because this is a resonant case," she says. "The Russian authorities have a clear interest [in this case], although I won't speculate on how it will impact on Snowden. I may be mistaken, but in my opinion Snowden, whether knowingly or not, has ended up a pawn in a big geopolitical game."