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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Only More Iraqis Seek Asylum Abroad

More than 18,000 Russian nationals have applied for political asylum abroad so far this year, 56 percent more than last year's figure of 12,000. Only war-torn Iraq came ahead of Russia on this year's United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' list of countries whose nationals are seeking political asylum.

"The sharpest increase in asylum applications was from Russians, which rose 54 percent to become the largest group overall during the second quarter of this year," said Diederik Kramers of the UNHCR's Brussels office.

Among European countries, Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland received the most asylum applications from Russian citizens this year, according to the recently released UNHCR report.

But while government officials often focus on illegal migration by people seeking a better life in the West, human rights organizations estimate that a substantial number of these Russian asylum-seekers are Chechens or other people fleeing war in the North Caucasus region.

Alexander Petrov of Human Rights Watch said the exodus of asylum-seekers could be explained by a growing instability inside the country. "There was a massive wave of immigration in the early 1990s, when reforms were under way and the country was going through very hard times. Now we are seeing a second wave," he said.

But classifying those seeking political asylum into groups can be problematic, Kramers said, because "even if they are refugees from Chechnya, they are still Russian citizens, and we don't categorize them according to their asylum claims."

Dirk Van den Bulck, deputy chief of the Belgian Commission for Refugees, the government agency that decides whether to grant or deny political asylum, estimated that up to 70 percent of Russian citizens who applied for political asylum this year were of Chechen origin.

"But coming from Chechnya does not necessarily yield refugee status," he said. "Two main conditions must be satisfied: You have to prove that your life is under immediate threat, and that you don't have any feasible opportunities to settle elsewhere in Russia."

Other Russian citizens seek refugee status based on economic, religious and criminal problems they face at home, Van den Bulck said. "It is very rare that they have problems with the government. But a great many of these cases are simply fabricated and these people get deported," he added.

Sergei Kashentsev, who works at SFI International, a Moscow-based firm that consults on immigration issues, said that the most feasible ways for Russian citizens to settle abroad are via so-called "business immigration," whereby a would-be immigrant registers an enterprise abroad, or religious immigration for ethnic Jews.

"Fewer and fewer people are using the political asylum clause to immigrate these days," Kashentsev said. "When people show up at immigration services and tell the same stories that have been told by other asylum-seekers before, their chances of being deported are high."

But government officials tend to view the increase in asylum applications as a wave of illegal migrants rather than genuine refugees. "The democratic development of Russia has been accepted without doubt by the European Union," a statement released by the Interior Ministry said.

"Most of these people are economically motivated," said Nina Adamova, a project coordinator at the International Organization for Migration. "They are looking for a better life, better job, better housing and a better education abroad."

"These people fall victim to immigration firms that are engaged in a really organized criminal process," Adamova said. "For around $2,000 to $3,000 they prepare special documents and make up stories for these people, so that it looks like they were persecuted at home. But once people cross the border, none of these firms guarantees that their claim will be satisfied and that they won't be deported."

Rights organizations believe that the majority of Russian asylum-seekers are not fabricated by lawyers, but are seeking to escape problems related to the conflict in Chechnya.

"Chechens are being persecuted on the entire territory of Russia, both in and outside Chechnya," said Elena Burtina from the Civic Assistance NGO. "They are considered outcasts, nobody wants to hire them for jobs, nobody wants to register them."

"Based on my observations and experience, I can conclude that a substantial number of these asylum-seekers come from Chechnya," Human Rights Watch's Petrov said. "I have talked to over 1,000 Chechens and they say they don't see any future for themselves or their families there."

One such person is Maret Sultanova, a 39-year-old Chechen woman, who three years ago traveled to Germany on a tourist visa and stayed, applying for political asylum.

"After the second [Chechen] war broke out, we fled to Moscow, where we lived with our relatives for four years," Sultanova said. "But I couldn't live there any longer, I was being stopped by policemen several times a day and never felt safe there."

"It was a very painful decision to make, and the process itself was also very painful," Sultanova said. "I had to live in a special camp for asylum-seekers, where living conditions were horrifying and where we weren't fed properly. And it took them over half a year to issue a decision on my case."

Sultanova was not granted refugee status. "It happens very rarely in Germany, I know of only a few people who were recognized as refugees," she said. But for now she has a work and residence permit and is living in Hamburg, taking care of elderly and sick people.

Sultanova said her husband joined her in Germany, but couldn't adapt to life abroad and chose to return to Grozny.