WASHINGTON -- U.S. asylum applications from Russian nationals have jumped 15 percent for the second straight year, a rise that asylum seekers and attorneys attribute to Russians fleeing their homeland due to fears of persecution and antigay violence.
The United States received 969 new asylum applications from Russian nationals in the 2014 fiscal year ending September 30, up from 837 the previous year and a 34 percent increase compared to 2012, according U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statistics obtained by RFE/RL.
The U.S. government does not disclose the basis of the petitioners’ asylum claims. But applicants and immigration attorneys said the rise is almost certainly linked to an exodus of Russian gays following President Vladimir Putin's signing of a law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships" last year and violent guerrilla attacks by antigay groups in Russia.
The loosely worded law was portrayed by Putin and other Russian officials as aimed at protecting children and encouraging Russia’s birthrate, while Western governments and rights groups decried it as discriminatory toward gays.
Gay people in Russia “are already getting impatient, and they see that there’s no future for them there. And they leave,” says Anatoly Kazakov, a 24-year-old gay Russian who was granted asylum in the United States earlier this month.
The issue sparked another rift in U.S.-Russian relations this month when a Russian teenager remained in the United States after completing a U.S.-Russian exchange program and subsequently applied for political asylum. The boy, 17, cited fears of persecution in Russia because of his sexual orientation.
The Russian government cited the case in its decision to cancel its participation in the decades-old program, known as the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX).
Immigration Equality, a New York-based lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights advocacy group, has seen the number of inquiries it receives from Russians seeking U.S. asylum based on sexual orientation “skyrocket” since January 2012, when it fielded just three such queries, spokesman Diego Ortiz says.
Ortiz says his group fielded 25 inquiries in August 2013 after Putin signed the “propaganda” law, and that the average monthly figure has remained in the “mid-teens” ever since, with spikes earlier this year around the time of the Sochi Winter Olympics in February.
The prospective asylum-seekers can be placed in two categories, says Aaron Morris, legal director at Immigration Equality. The first, smaller group consists of LGBT families who “actively felt that the Russian government was going to come and take their children away,” he says.
Most of the inquiries, however, come from gay Russians under the age of 30, many of whom fear physical attacks and humiliation by violent antigay groups that in recent years have abducted and beaten gays and posted videos of the assaults on the Internet, he says.
“For that population, it really does tend to be more a fear of vigilante groups or skinheads, community members that the government won’t stop or even condones in their attack of gay people,” Morris says.
Immigration Equality is currently representing six Russian petitioners seeking asylum based on fears of persecution due to their sexual orientation, and it has placed 37 other cases with outside counsel through the organization's "Pro Bono Network" program, Morris says.
Larry Poltavtsev, president of the Virginia-based advocacy group Spectrum Human Rights, says the number of queries received by his organization from Russia’s LGBT community has “doubled” since last year. The group is currently handling five cases, he said.
“We cannot possibly serve as many people as are calling,” he says.
While antigay sentiment and legislation in Russia has been a key driver in the rise of Russian asylum seekers in the United States, Russians are also leaving the country due to fears of political persecution, says New York-based immigration attorney Alena Shautsova.
Shautsova says that she represented two clients this year who were granted U.S. asylum because they feared prosecution in Russia due to their participation in a May 2012 protest on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square.
More than 400 people were arrested after violence erupted at the protest against Putin’s return to the Kremlin after he served four years as prime minister. Dozens have been prosecuted and several sentenced to prison, including prominent opposition activist Sergei Udaltsov.
The U.S. State Department criticized the prosecution of the protesters as “politically motivated.” Shautsova says her clients were granted asylum based on their interview with U.S. immigration officials and did not have their cases referred to the courts.
“It means that the official United States policy [is] to treat these people like they are legitimate refugees,” she says.
'Danger' On The Streets of Russia
Kazakov says he expects members of Russia’s LGBT community -- including many of his friends -- to continue seeking refuge in the United States.
“A year ago they thought, ‘Why should we leave when we have jobs here, and in America we’ll be doing low-level work?’ Now they say, ‘No. It doesn’t matter. We have to leave,’” says Kazakov, a native of the Russian city of Chelyabinsk who applied for asylum in April.
One of the gay Russian asylum-seekers for fiscal year 2015 is Artem Gorbunov, 27, who submitted his application earlier this month.
Gorbunov says that he had considered leaving Russia earlier due to widespread antipathy toward gays but that he made up his mind for good in January. The “propaganda” law signed by Putin was the last straw, says Gorbunov, who arrived in the United States in July.
“Maybe tomorrow I’ll be walking down the street dressed in such a way that someone considers it propaganda,” Gorbunov says. “How can I know what that is? If I put on a rainbow-colored button, that could already be dangerous for me to walk on the streets in Russia.”