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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Search Of Safety




Harassed by police and abused by local thugs, refugees seeking protection in Moscow face some harsh realities. After surviving wars and other horrors in their home countries, many have been living in limbo for years while Russian authorities decide their fate.


PUSHKINO, Moscow Region - In the assembly hall of the Zelenogradsky sanatorium, his home of the past six years, Hadi Kolam told visitors what life is like for some 10,000 asylum seekers in Russia.


"It is slow death," Kolam, a Kurd from northern Iraq, told representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the donor countries that help finance the UNHCR's work.


Kolam and others have been waiting for years for Russia to process their requests for political asylum. Meanwhile, they are prevented from working at decent jobs and live in fear of the police, who consistently harass them and demand bribes, refusing to distinguish between asylum seekers and other illegal immigrants.


Residents of Zelenogradsky, where since 1993 the UNHCR has run a refugee camp - or "collective center," as it is officially called - say their situation is about to get worse when this camp north of Moscow closes in September.


Kolam gave his speech on Aug. 6 against a backdrop of handwritten posters urging the UNHCR to reconsider.


"The closing of the camps means death for our children," read one plea.


But the UNHCR says the centers, which serve only 2 percent of UNHCR-registered asylum seekers, have already served their function. The agency says they were created not simply to fulfill humanitarian needs, but to facilitate the processing of their asylum requests. Now that most of the people have received an official answer, it says it cannot afford to maintain the camps.


While the UNHCR is the immediate object of the refugees' rage at Zelenogradsky these days, the residents stress that it is Russia that has fundamentally let them down.


In 1992, Russia became a signatory to the 1951 convention on refugees, obligating it to accept asylum seekers. But that commitment existed only in theory until 1997, when the country's far-from-perfect law on refugees was amended. The new law finally put in place a mechanism for processing asylum requests.


Since then, the rejections have started pouring in.


"Russia is well-known as a country that doesn't accept refugees," said Yevgeny Grabko, deputy director of Equilibre-Solidarity, the UNHCR's partner organization in Moscow, which runs the camps and other social programs for asylum seekers.


"Seven years have passed. They are lying to you and me," Kolam said.


The Federal Migration Service has granted refugee status to about 47,000 families, only 168 of which are not from the Commonwealth of Independent States. Vladimir Volokh, deputy head of the FMS, estimated that between 80 and 90 percent of asylum requests are rejected.


The migration service is currently processing some 30,000 applications for asylum, including requests from people fleeing to Russia from the CIS. The UNHCR, on the other hand, assists only asylum seekers from the "far abroad" and only those who choose to register. In total, 34,714 have registered with the UNHCR, of which 10,378 are still in the country awaiting status.


"I think probably the number of rejections is less than in other countries," Volokh said in an interview last week.


Volokh described his job mainly in terms of keeping illegal immigrants out of the country, rather than aiding asylum seekers, but he defended Russian regulations as being consistent with "all the norms of international law."


"There are, of course, certain difficulties. The difficulty is that we still don't have that many employees," Volokh said, adding that of the 1,500 employees working for the FMS, less than 300 handle asylum applications.


Residents at the Zelenogradsky camp, however, don't share Volokh's confidence in the fairness of the procedure. Most of them have received negative replies and are now in the middle of a long appeals process - first through the Federal Migration Service's own appeals commission and then through the Russian courts.


Djamal Zamoum, director of UNHCR's Refugee Reception Center, says that while the 1997 law is good in that it established a procedure, it also contains some grounds for exclusion that may not be entirely fair.


For example, the law says a person who enters the country illegally is required to contact the migration officials within 24 hours unless "circumstances prevent him from doing so," a technicality that the FMS can use to reject almost any application.


Secondly, some asylum seekers have been rejected because the applicants have traveled through third countries, such as Pakistan or the Central Asian republics, before arriving in Russia. The FMS considers these places to be safe for refugees, and thus often argues that an applicant should have stayed there.


"None of these countries can be considered safe in the real sense of the word," Zamoum said. "We have proof of people being deported from Uzbekistan back to Afghanistan."


Zamoum said the UNHCR is fighting what it considers unfounded exclusions by helping the asylum seekers appeal in court. Two recent victories in Moscow - which is notoriously less hospitable than other regions - have provided a glimmer of hope. For the first time in Moscow, the court overturned the FMS decision and granted refugee status.


At the moment, none of the asylum seekers have exhausted all of their options to appeal. But soon many may face the prospect of returning to the danger zones they fled.


The 225 people who live at Zelenogradsky and the other UNHCR-funded center at Verbilki, also in the Moscow region, are frightened at the prospect of having to live outside the camps, where they will be even more vulnerable to cruel police treatment and unsympathetic landlords. For however tough the refugees' lives may be, the camps offer the support of a cohesive community.


ABDI ABAILE - SOMALIA


Abdi Abaile, a refugee who fled war-torn Somalia eight years ago, knows only too well the harsh realities of living on his own in the city.


Last week, lying on a mattress on the floor of a one-room flat in southern Moscow, Abaile wailed in agony as he pointed to the egg-sized bump on his forehead. His cheek - slashed the night before in a brutal assault - showed a row of 12 fresh stitches.


The attack on Abaile - committed, he said, by racist hooligans - was the second in less than a month. After a similar incident in July, Abaile ended up in the hospital for nine days. He had been released less than 10 days before he was beaten up again.


"It's better to die," Abaile said through his tears.


He had reason to be despondent. Not only is he the target of frequent attacks and harassment by the police, but his request for refugee status was recently turned down by FMS. His case is currently pending with the FMS appeals commission.


As he lay on the floor moaning, it seemed things couldn't get worse for him.


But they did. As Abaile was being interviewed by The Moscow Times, the Russian owner of the one-room apartment Abaile shares with a fellow refugee from Somalia stormed into the apartment and told Abaile and the friends who had gathered to comfort him to leave. She said she had never seen Abaile before.


Abaile later learned that the landlady evicted his friend, the official renter of the apartment, along with his 3-year-old daughter.


Abaile had moved in with his friend because he needed help looking after the child. Before that he had shared a two-room apartment with seven other refugees in a Moscow suburb.


Once out in the street, it was clear Abaile needed further medical attention. He was having trouble walking and could not speak coherently. With nowhere else to go, he was taken by this reporter to Equilibre and later to the Red Cross, which works with the aid organization providing medical care to refugees. By the end of the day he was admitted to a hospital, where he is now recovering from a concussion.


Abaile was reluctant to show his bashed-in face at Equilibre because of his prominent place in Moscow's small Somali community. Because he speaks fluent English, he is often called upon to help other asylum seekers in their dealings with UNHCR, FMS and embassies.


Ten years ago, Abaile had a successful career as an electrical engineer and a big house of his own in Mogadishu. He had also traveled extensively, his passport bearing the stamps of Britain, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.


But Abaile left Somalia for the last time in 1991, fleeing when warring factions plunged the country into chaos after the overthrow of Mohammed Siyaad Barre, who had controlled the country since 1969.


His wife, a relative of Siyaad Barre's, left first - without saying goodbye. "I was away from my house, visiting some relatives in downtown Mogadishu," Abdi recalled. "When I came back, my neighbor told me she had gone to her uncle's."


The last he heard, in 1994, she was in Kenya.


Abaile himself fled to Syria, where technically a visa was not required for Somalis. But because of the flood of refugees that was pouring into the country, the Syrian authorities started to crack down. They let Abaile into the country only when he called a friend, a student in Damascus, to vouch for him.


But it seemed dangerous to linger in Syria. "They were picking people up on the street," Abaile said.


The only country that would give him a visa was Russia - and then only through an agency, which charged him $950 for a 14-day tour. His plan was to appeal to the authorities during that time, but if nothing worked out he would return to Syria.


But after taking his money and obtaining a visa for him, the agency refused to return his passport or give him his return ticket.


"They said, 'Don't worry. We'll give it to you after the 14 days are up,'" he recalled from his hospital bed last week.


On Nov. 7, 1991, Abaile and a group of tourists from Somalia flew to Sochi, where they spent seven days. From there, they flew to Moscow.


On the last day of the tour, a representative of the agency came to their rooms at the Molodyozhnaya Hotel - not to give them their return tickets, but to tell them that their visas had expired.


"He said tomorrow is the last day. Before they catch you, you must get out," Abaile said.


But Abaile kept a low profile until 1993, when the UNHCR opened an office in Moscow. He immediately applied to them for help, and first applied to the Russian authorities for refugee status in 1994.


Although the FMS has denied his request, he says repatriating to Mogadishu is not an option.


"Do you think I would stay here if it was safe?" Why should I remain in this cold weather? Why should I die in a foreign country?"


The local police also contribute to the inhospitable nature of the Moscow climate. He and his friends are frequently stopped by police who regularly check the documents of dark-skinned residents. The identity cards that the UNHCR issues to these refugees in limbo, however, are not enough to protect them from a night in jail or a hefty fine for not having a Moscow registration stamp.


"'This is bumaga,' the police say" Abaile said, using the Russian word for paper and mimicking the police's look of contempt.


The UNHCR is expecting new FMS documents to be issued to the asylum seekers soon. These passport-like documents have been approved by the government and therefore should be accepted by police and give asylum seekers the right to work.


But for some reason the FMS has not yet issued the documents to the refugees and it is unclear when they will be available.


The documents should greatly ease the lives of Abaile and other refugees in the city, who must scrape together rent on minimal assistance and constantly dodge the police. While the overwhelming majority have lived that way for years, the lucky 2 percent who live in the relatively protected camps are frightened at the prospect.


Representatives of UNHCR and Equilibre-Solidarity have assured the refugees that when the camps are closed they will not be abandoned. The aid organization will continue to offer cash assistance to refugees who are otherwise unable to work. Educational, medical and legal support will also continue.


ABDUL AND ZARMINA - AFGHANISTAN


Nonetheless, Sept. 30 is a date that Abdul and Zarmina Ahmadzai are dreading.


"We had hoped that at least we would [be able to] live in the camp," says Zarmina Ahmadzai, who fled her native Afghanistan with her husband, Abdul, and their two small children.


Sitting in the tiny room at the Zelenogradsky camp that he shares with his wife, two children and a pet rabbit, Abdul wistfully recalls his home in Kabul, the Afghan capital.


"It was a palace," he says, a smile spreading across his face. "Eight rooms, two floors."


But they decided to leave that all behind a year and a half ago after getting "a warning" from the Taliban.


It happened early one morning when their daughter Grana, then 9, went to the bakery to buy some bread for the family's breakfast. Some policemen called her over and asked why her head was bare.


"That's for your father," they said as they hit her in the face.


They asked her if her father went to mosque regularly.


"Yes," she lied.


When Grana got home, the family began preparing to flee.


More than 85 percent of the UNHCR-registered asylum seekers are from Afghanistan. Even after the repatriation of 4.2 million, Afghanistan is the largest single source of the world's refugee population, with 2.6 million people currently in exile.


Many of the Afghans in Russia are members of the former Communist elite in that country, where the Soviet Union waged a war from 1979 to 1989. Most of the refugees arrive in Russia from Central Asia by paying smugglers to sneak them across the border, says Isabelle Misic, of the Refugee Reception Center.


Zarmina, 31, and Abdul, 38, former members of the Communist Party who studied in the Soviet Union, say they feared the Taliban, the religious army that controls most of the country, was learning too much about them.


"If they found out that I, a woman, had studied in Russia and on top of that was a party member, my life would be in danger," Zarmina says.


And so they made their way to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.


"Through the forest, by foot, by water, on a tractor," Zarmina recalls. "I'll never forget it. ... On the road, I prayed."


They spent their last money on the trip to Moscow, where they met some Afghans who sheltered them in a shoe store at night for the first five months. During the day, they wandered about the city, waiting for time to pass.


Eventually, they found their way to the UNHCR and Equilibre, where they were given financial assistance. A friend helped them get a room at Zelenogradsky. They live there "unofficially," that is, they pay the 1,000-ruble monthly rent themselves.


However, since Equilibre cut off their financial aid four months ago, they say they have been unable to pay the rent and have accumulated a 4,000-ruble debt.


"Who gets aid depends on the individual situation they find themselves in," says Oksana Kharitonova, director of Equilibre-Solidarity. "The assistance is meant to be temporary."


Abdul says he was told their aid was cut because he speaks Russian and thus should have an easier time finding work. He also has a relatively small family to support.


"But what does Russian give me?" says Abdul, who owned an auto-parts store in Kabul. Without legal documents, the only work he can secure is occasionally selling shoes at a nearby market.


Other strains on the family budget, Abdul says, come about once a month when the police raid the camp. They gather up everyone's UNHCR documents and collect 100 rubles for each card.


Zarmina, an outgoing woman who wears a hopeful smile even as she describes the tragic twists her life has taken, says the tough conditions of life in the camp - however easier than hiding out in a shoe store - have worn her nerves and taken a toll on her health.


Just trying to live in sanitary conditions is a trial. Keeping their small room clean involves washing the floor several times a day. The cold water that comes out of the tap is not fit fordrinking even when boiled, and Zarmina says most of the residents buy water that is sold in jugs at the camp.


"Mothers here are in no shape to raise children," Zarmina says. "I told the other mothers, let's write an appeal from all the women to all the embassies to ask that they at least take our children [out of Russia]. ... Our lives are nearing the end anyway."


The Ahmadzais had their FMS interview in March, but they haven't received an answer yet. In the meantime, they applied for asylum in Australia, where they have relatives, but were refused.


"There was a war in Yugoslavia and very fast, you could say in a week, their [the refugees'] problems were taken care of," Zarmina says. "The world has forgotten Afghanistan, the world has forgotten Kurdistan."


And what about the Communist beliefs that forced them to abandon their home?


"From what we read in books we believed, but here we don't believe because it was all a fairy tale," Abdul says. "They deceived us for many years."