Russian refugees: What changed after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine

Asylum seekers are waiting day and night in front of refugee center in Ter Apel, which has no available space. August 2022. Author: Konstantin, used by Global Voices with permission

After February 24, 2022, hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens left Russia and settled in countries ranging from Armenia to Argentina. Some of them sought asylum, officially becoming refugees.

Russian refugees have always constituted a small percentage of the total number of asylum seekers in the world. Even after the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine and beginning of the military draft, this proportion remains insignificant. Nevertheless, in the U.S., the number of asylum requests from Russians increased almost 50-fold last year, and it has more than doubled in the  EU. The composition of applicants has changed, too. Whereas previously it was mostly persecuted residents of Chechnya, political activists from Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, now Russians persecuted for their anti-war stance, or deserters and potential soldiers are also among asylum seekers.

Oksana and her son left Russia in 2014 and, due to a complicated case, until recently lived in a camp in Dronten, the Netherlands. For a long time, they were the only Russians. “The first Russians in my memory showed up at our camp around 2017-2018. They were LGBTQ+ refugees. The first to arrive was just one family with children. Later, singles and couples started showing up, but no more than ten people. In 2021, political refugees from the prosecuted Anti-Corruption Foundation began to arrive. Young men. I remember only one woman who came because of possible arrest as Jehovah's Witnesses were declared extremists. Again, no more than 10 people. After February 24, 2022, not a single Russian who had fled from mobilization appeared in our camp. Today,  there are about 16 people from the LGBT+ community, three families from the Caucasus, and one girl political refugee of the 1,300 people in our camp. This is the largest number of Russians I have met in this camp in eight years.”

Despite the lack of a land border, the difficulty of boarding planes with connecting flights in Amsterdam, and the ban on issue of short-term visas inside Russia, three times as many Russians sought asylum in the Netherlands last year. And a new category emerged: opponents of the war.

Opponents of war as refugees: Konstantin's story

Konstantin can’t be called a typical political activist but has always been against the current Russian regime and openly expressed his position. Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine prompted him to be active. He started looking for an opportunity to help Ukrainians. Konstantin got a message from a man who planned to volunteer at the Poland–Ukraine border. So, Konstantin got a 30-day Spanish visa and, on July 12, also went to Przemysl in Poland. Konstantin told Global Voices:

При всём неуважении к телевизору, видя столько людей за войну, думалось, может, это я ошибаюсь, не могут же ошибаться все. И хотелось лично увидеть беженцев, поговорить с ними. Что и делал потом. К сожалению, прав оказался я, война скотская, Россия оказалась в роли убийцы и насильника. В Пшемышле на вокзале меня встречал волонтёр, который отрабатывал последний день и возвращался в Америку. Он сразу сказал, что скорее всего в РФ меня ждёт тюрьма. Раз за перепосты в соцсетях дают сроки, то за реальную помощь украинцам посадят однозначно. Через некоторое время я узнал, что организация, в которой я работаю (Russian for Ukraine — прим. Global Voices) добавлена в список нежелательных организаций РФ. И хотя документально я никак не устраивался, но для суда это не имеет значения. Для него реальные дела в кои то веки перевешивают бумажку. Поэтому я начал подумывать в какой стране податься на беженство. Польша для меня не была вариантом. У меня сложилось мнение что россиян здесь не особо любят. Нам несколько раз отказывали в регистрации на вокзале, мол волонтёров достаточно, но регистрировали японцев, которые пришли сразу после нас. Случайная украинка, которой помогал с чемоданами на вокзале узнав мои проблемы активно агитировала в пользу Нидерландов. Поговорив с другими волонтёрами, также услышал массу доводов за этот вариант. В общем решил остановиться на нём».

With all due disrespect to [Russian] television, seeing so many people being pro-war, I thought, maybe I'm the one who's wrong, can't everyone be wrong. And I wanted to see the refugees myself, talk to them. Which I did later on. Unfortunately, I was right: The war’s brutal, Russia’s a murderer and rapist. At the train station in Przemysl, I was met by a volunteer who worked his last day and was returning to America. He told me right away that I’d most likely end up in jail in Russia. If you get jail time for reposting on social media, then you'll definitely go to jail for really helping Ukrainians. After a while, I found out that the organization where I worked [Russians for Ukraine] had been added to the list of undesirable organizations in Russia. I began to think about what country to apply for asylum. Poland was not an option for me. I had an impression that Russians are not particularly liked here. Several times they refused to register us at the station, saying there were enough volunteers, but they registered Japanese, who came right after us. A random Ukrainian woman, whom I helped with the bags at the station, hearing about my troubles, actively agitated for the Netherlands. I also heard a lot of arguments for this option from other volunteers.

When Konstantin’s visa expiration date was a few days away, he took a bus to Amsterdam. He spent the last of his money buying a local SIM card, then found a chat group of the local Russian-speaking community and asked for help. He was assisted with a one-night stay, and the next day went to the refugee center in Ter Apel. Konstantin's wife and two children came to the Netherlands later on, and the family reunited at the refugee center in Echt. There are about 10 Russians there besides Konstantin’s family. Someday, Konstantin might go to Russia to sell his apartment and pick up expensive bicycles, but he has no plans to return permanently, even when Putin is gone.

I used to work as head of production at a small furniture factory. And whenever anyone came in for work, the topic of Ukraine was always brought up. Engineer colleagues said I was naive and listened to the wrong propagandists. The workers reacted more sharply. One of them said he wouldn't be surprised if someone hit me on the head with a pipe on my way back from work.

Я работал начальником производства на небольшой мебельной фабрике. И когда кто-либо заходил по работе, всегда заводил разговор на тему Украины. Коллеги-инженеры говорили, что я наивный и слушаю не тех пропагандистов. Рабочие более резко реагировали. Один сказал, что не удивится, если по дороге с работы мне кто-нибудь даст по голове трубой.

Hiding from the military draft: Ulyana's and Egor's story

In the fall of 2022, another new category of Russian refugees appeared— those hiding from the military draft. According to various estimates, between 500,000 and one million men fled Russia because of the draft. Two men even sailed to Alaska.

In June 2022 the Netherlands imposed a moratorium on asylum requests from Russian men aged 18–27, conscripts, and deserters. Ulyana and Egor came to the Netherlands and applied for asylum in May 2022. “The IND (The Immigration and Naturalization Service) placed us under the moratorium because my husband was within two months of 27 when we applied for asylum,” Ulyana said. “We’re trying to challenge this decision because our case has nothing to do with the army, but only with political persecution. The lawyer thinks there is no point in arguing with the IND, they won't change their decision.”

Ulyana and her husband are being helped by Free Russia NL, a community of Russian-speaking residents of the Netherlands. “Over the past year we had several meetings with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote open letters and got answers. Recently the ministry published a document describing the situation in Russia, with realistic understanding of how dissent is persecuted there,” said board member Ira Heuvelman. She adds that political activists and LGBTQ+ people are still getting positive decisions — residence permits — but it takes a long time. “Some people think of a refugee status as a quick and easy way to legalize themselves in Europe. It is not. Procedures might take years, and asylum seekers have to be in very difficult conditions.”

The new conscription law that has come into force — “electronic serfdom,” as it has been nicknamed in Runet (the Russian segment of the internet) — deprives Russians of the opportunity not to accept a draft invitation letter. Conscripts are simply added to a special register, and, after 20 days, if a man fails to show up, he is automatically deprived of the ability to leave the country legally, his driver's license is revoked, and his right to dispose of property is restricted. For this reason, it is very likely that Europe and America will face a new wave of Russian refugees.

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