As Russia prepares to resume, and probably intensify, its war effort in Syria, human rights groups have increasingly condemned the nation for exacerbating the violence while not taking in Syrian refugees.
Human Rights Watch has criticized Russia for making only a “negligible” contribution to the Syrian refugee crisis and not welcoming enough Syrian asylum seekers.
“Russia is extensively involved in the Syrian conflict but has done virtually nothing to help the 11 million people who have lost their homes and livelihoods as a result. Russia has the resources to do much more, but it has yet to show any inclination to pull its weight,” said HRW refugee rights program director Bill Frelick.
Human Rights Watch cited a study by Oxfam International, which argued Russia has only contributed about 1 percent of its $717 million “fair share” of humanitarian funding for Syria, the lowest percentage out of 32 donor countries surveyed.
While countries like Germany have taken in thousands of refugees per month, critics argue Russia has rigged its asylum rules to accept virtually no Syrian asylum seekers. In May, Sky News found that Russia had only granted two Syrians full asylum status since 2011.
“It may be the principal military backer of the Syrian regime but that does not mean Russia is willing to accept its citizens fleeing war and terror,” Sky News wrote, after talking with one of the very few lawyers willing to help Syrian refugees.
According to this lawyer, Shamil Magemadov, Syrians who make it to Russia tend to end up in detention centers and are often quietly returned to Syria, in contravention of international conventions on refugees. Observers described some of these asylum-seekers as “depressed” to the point of suicide.
One example reviewed in the Sky News article was that of Aleppo native Sabri Koro, who actually had a Russian wife and child. Russia nevertheless rejected him for asylum because he failed to provide “manly and fatherly care” to his family and used his marriage registration against him as “proof of paternal negligence.”
Magemadov said the Russian government essentially rejects Syrian asylum requests with a form letter that bizarrely assures them Syria is safe for them because the regime of Bashar Assad is “in control of about 50% of the territory.” Imagine getting one of those letters if you just escaped from Aleppo.
Voice of America News interviewed some refugees from the Aleppo area at the end of October. They noted Russia seemed like a natural choice for asylum, given the solid relationship between Damascus and Moscow, but instead most of the refugees in Russia are overstaying temporary visas and hoping they don’t get deported.
“Women and children are turned down in getting temporary asylum during the war period, while all the mass media report that we keep bombing Aleppo and the majority of the refugees come from Aleppo,” said Laila Rogozina of the Civil Assistance Committee charity. Her group has been helping to organize classes for refugee children because they are barred from Russian schools.
“The people among themselves don’t complain and take it all for granted, but the officials treat them badly. In a word, it is hard to be a Syrian here right now,” said Arabic translator Khadizh Ismail Muhkamed Basil Adib, who lived in Russia for the better part of 20 years before receiving citizenship.
“Unfortunately the migration service here is very corrupt and in Moscow they don’t receive Syrians at all. If Syrians go to apply [for legal status] they say they’ll deport them out of the country,” Adib testified.
There could be more than corruption and bureaucratic inertia at work. NATO commander Philip Breedlove made waves in February by accusing Russia and the Assad regime of “deliberately weaponizing migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.”
In testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Breedlove actually accused Russia and the Syrian government of deliberately causing civilian casualties, in order to terrorize Syrians into fleeing for Europe.
“These indiscriminate weapons used by both Bashar al-Assad, and the non-precision use of weapons by the Russian forces – I can’t find any other reason for them other than to cause refugees to be on the move and make them someone else’s problem,” said Breedlove.