With Europe facing its biggest refugee crisis in recent history, both refugees and the organizations aiding them are asking the question of whether Russia should play a greater role in alleviating the problem. 

Syrian displaced children play in a refugee camp near Atma, Idlib province, Syria. Photo: AP

East or West, home is best. This proverb seems to have lost its relevance and allure for many Syrian refugees flowing to Europe and, particularly, for Ahmad, 40, a robust and stout Syrian and Shia Muslim, who — after the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 — found himself living legally in a cozy apartment in the southwest of Moscow.

When he witnessed how bombs flew over “their heads, houses, schools and killed peaceful civilians,” in no time he decided to flee to save his family – a wife and two children. 

“I didn’t care about myself, but I did care about my family and wanted to find them a safer place,” he told Russia Direct. “So, we came to Moscow. We applied to the United Nations [Refugee Agency] and it gave recommendation letters.”

In Syria, before the civil war started, he lived in the town of Al-Malihah, about six kilometers from Damascus. He had been involved with clothing and poultry businesses and owned a chicken company, while his wife worked as a teacher in Damascus.

As result of political instability, bombings and shootings that started in 2011, his poultry shop was destroyed, with the property confiscated by radicals who viewed him as infidel. He had to move to Damascus, but then the bombings started.

Ahmad fled to Russia in 2013 via a tourist visa, received temporary asylum and worked like a normal citizen at a Moscow restaurant. However, in 2014, Russia’s Federal Migration Service refused to prolong his status, probably, because Russia had to counter the huge flow of refugees from Eastern Ukraine, which came to Russia after the Donbas conflict started.

He is now waiting on a court decision on his status, and continues to live legally within Russia. Ahmad and his wife assimilated with Russians very easily, because “they are very nice and friendly people, who respect ordinary Syrians and I respect Russians very much.”

Ahmad, 40, fled to Russia after the start of the Syrian war. Photo: Russia Direct

Likewise, his children have been successfully adjusting to life in Russia. Although they have been living in Moscow for two years, they speak Russian very well, almost without an accent. They can attend school and talk to their Russian peers as well as play with the Russian children of their neighbors.

“Me and my wife don’t speak Russian well, so our children talk in Russian with each other as a tactic to play jokes on us,” laughs Ahmad. “I wanted my kids to study Russian. Maybe, we will [live] here forever.”

The primary trouble Ahmad is having in Russia is the problem with documents. With his status of refugee in limbo, his documents are not completed. That’s why he can’t move freely in Moscow or find a reliable, stable job just to be on his own.  Recently, Ahmad found a job in a Russian city in a good restaurant, but he couldn’t work there. The Moscow office of the UN Refugee Agency warned him against doing any business in Russia without documentation. The risk of being arrested is very high.

Currently, he relies on the help of his Syrian friends based in Moscow.  But what he does care about most is stability, independence and the future of his children.

“My documents are a big problem for me,” he said. “I want to get all the documentation, be independent, so that I can live here like a normal person. I just need stability, do business here, open a coffee shop and provide safety and a decent future for my children. But without documentation, there is no certainty. I even can’t get medical assistance if I have problems with my health.”

Unpredictability with his status is psychologically difficult to overcome, he confesses.  “I hope one day I will get these documents to move and work freely,” he said.

The sense of feeling unsecure haunts Ahmad and will haunt him as long as his status of refugee is in limbo. If he could get asylum in Europe or elsewhere, he would happily leave Moscow for the United Kingdom just to find a stable and reliable income and, most importantly, confidence in the future. After all, previously, he lived and worked in London and had a lot of friends there.

The risk of being deported from Russia makes him very puzzled and a bit discouraged. It cannot be otherwise, because in the case of deportation he and his family would lose a safe and comfortable ground: His children will lose a secure place and have to adjust to a new life once again.

And Ahmad’s fears seem not to be unfounded. Another Syrian citizen, Hassan, 40, has a less inspiring example. As he told Russia Direct in a telephone call, after his woes in Russia he was going to travel to Europe through Turkey, but was trapped in the transit zone of a Russian airport, because no single country wanted to take him. He has spent more than one month in a Russian airport, he claims. 

Syrians in Russia: Another side of the coin

Muez Abu Al-Jadael, a Syrian journalist for the Open Dialogue media outlet and human rights activist, looks at the refugee crisis from a different angle. He himself is a political refugee who got shelter in Sweden. He graduated from the Russian University for People’s Friendship and tried to get asylum in Russia several times, but failed.

Muez Abu Al-JadaelNow, as he claims, he helps Syrians to assimilate and adjust to the life in Russia and, particularly, to life in the Moscow region by giving legal assistance to his compatriots.  He contributes to resolving this humanitarian tragedy through such human rights organizations and NGOs such as the Moscow-based Civil Assistant Charity Committee.

“Before the civil war most Syrians were just migrants in Russia or elsewhere, but since the onset of the war, we all became refugees,” he told Russia Direct.

According to him, one of the most difficult challenges for refugees is getting temporary asylum: It does have a very high price that has been changing since 2012. For example, in 2012 it was required to pay between 70,000 and 100,000 rubles to get asylum (at today's exchange rate about $1,070-1,500). In 2013-2014, Russia’s Federal Migration Service issued the order to accept Syrian refugees and the price for sanctuary plummeted to 20,000 rubles in 2014, Abu Al-Jadael said.

However, after the rumors that Russia wouldn’t accept refugees anymore, the prices increased once again. In 2015, refugees have to pay between 10,000 and 15,000 rubles just to register with Russia’s Federal Migration Service.  The cost for getting temporary asylum increased to as high as 40,000 rubles, Abu Al-Jadael claims.

Two of the major challenges he faced were corruption and bureaucracy. In addition, there’s the risk of human rights abuses of Syrian refugees, who, according to him, might be exploited by some employers in Russia. What he does is try to talk more to Syrians about the Russian immigration legislation, so that they could easily adjust to living in Russia and avoid trouble.

“Not only does Russian bureaucracy have a pressure on refugees, but they themselves are having a negative experience in Russia. They are in another cultural atmosphere, which some see as hostile because of their encounters [with locals and employees],” Abu Al-Jadael said. “What does matter is the lack of cultural and civil code of the Syrians, so they don’t even know their own rights and the rules of behavior. This lead to misleading interpretation and misunderstanding that Russia is against them.”

That’s the reason why Syrians are not eager to stay in Russia, said Abu Al-Jadael. To this extent, they can only compare Russia with the Syrian regime, because their expectations didn’t come true. They tried to find a safe shelter and save their families from famine and the civil war, but finally got a cold rejection or humiliating negligence.  

In fact, refugees prefer to use Russia as a transit point to Europe and, in particular, Finland or Norway.  They chose Russia because going through St. Petersburg to Northern Europe is cheaper and sometimes safer than reaching Europe through Turkey, Greece or Belarus and Ukraine.

Russia's experience is not in demand in Europe,” said Dmitry Polikanov, a board member of the PIR Center think tank and political analyst. “Again, the refugees themselves hardly seek shelter - they seek good living standards and benefits of being in Europe, so they don't need other destinations.”

And the official statistic from Russia’s Federal Migration Service seems to confirm this trend: In 2015, 7,103 Syrians have come to Russia, while 7,162 left the country.

Legal issues for Syrians in Russia

Elena Burtina, deputy head of the Civil Assistance Committee on Refugees, argues that the current Russian legislation is favorable to refugees and can help them to get asylum for humanitarian purposes.

Also read: "The inconvenient truth about Russia's Ukrainian refugees"

In fact, the migration agencies can grant the status of political refugee because of various reasons, including domestic and international conflicts, famine, epidemic, man-made catastrophes or any threat to health. So, according to Burtina, Russia is reluctant to accept refugees not because of ineffective laws, but because of its policy.   

"It is not a matter of the law, it is just a matter of governmental policy why Russia doesn't accept refugees," she told Russia Direct.

Regarding the new law on refugees that is expected to be discussed by authorities soon, Burtina has mixed feelings about it. According to her, it has both advantages and disadvantages, like any law. But she warns that the new law might complicate the life of refugees in Russia.

For example, it will be much more difficult to get temporary asylum because only those who face the risk of torture, death or other human rights abuses will be able to get the status of political refugee. In addition, refugees find it more challenging to find housing and will have fewer opportunities to appeal any court decision that turns down the refugee request for asylum.

Why is Russia reluctant to take Syrians?

Today there are almost 4.1 million Syrian refugees scattered around the world, with about 430,000 applications submitted to Europe between 2011 and 2015. According to the UN Refugee Agency forecast, the upcoming two years will see a two-fold increase in a number of Syrian refugees in Europe to 850,000 refugees. Most of them will settle down in Germany and other European countries that accept the greatest share of the refugee burden.

According to Russia’s Federal Migration Service, 12,000 people have arrived to Russia from Syria since 2011. But only 2,000 of them managed to receive temporary asylum in Russia.

In fact, this is a drop in the ocean in comparison with other European countries that receive requests from refugees and consider them from April 2011 to August 2015 — Germany (more than 100,000 refugees), Sweden (about 65,000), France (about 7,000), the UK (over 7,000), Denmark (more than 12,000) and Hungary (about 54,000).

Source: The UN Refugee Agency / CNN

Meanwhile, in Russia, less than a dozen received actual refugee status, which allows for tangible benefits, argues Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director and a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, based in Moscow.

Russia could really do so much more to help those fleeing from Syria - and to alleviate the European burden - but it appears to be reluctant to do so,” she told Russia Direct. “Also and most importantly, Russia should've long contributed to the resolution of the Syria crisis by stopping to block the UN Security Council from taking meaning action, by stopping to provide weapons to the Syrian government and by exercising its significant leverage with Assad to put an end to the use of barrel bombs, an infamously indiscriminate destructive weapon, in densely populated areas.”

Huseyin Oruc, vice president of the Turkey-based Human Development Foundation (IHH), an agency that has extensive and diverse experience in providing humanitarian relief to refugees, echoes Lokshina. 

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“The Syria problem is not only a problem of Syrians, it is a problem of the whole world,” he said. “The refugee problem is a result of the political and armed conflict in Syria. Russia is one of the important actors for a political solution. If Russia works for peace in Syria, it is best for the refugee problem.”

Likewise, Amnesty International, a non-governmental organization, calls on Russia to be more vigorous in accepting refugees from Syria and other Middle East countries. The head of the Russian branch of the organization, Sergei Nikitin, told Russian media that Russia should be more active as a one of the important global players. He is discouraged by the fact that Russian courts are reluctant to provide a shelter to refugees.

Robert Legvold, professor emeritus of Columbia University, is very doubtful that Russia will begin receiving “the flows of migrants that are coming out [of] Syria and North Africa.” However, he believes that, “It is the responsibility of most of the major developed countries, not only in Western Europe,” but also the United States, which agreed to take a small number of refugees: 10,000.

“It is a matter of ethics and principles,” he told Russia Direct. ““It would be very good if Russia was able to assist what is [called] an international migration crisis. It is not just a Western European crisis, it is a human crisis; and any country that is able to assist, they should.”

Although Russia can’s accept as many refugees as European countries do, Moscow can share its experience of dealing with Ukrainian refugees, since “the country was extremely efficient and quick in accommodating a large flow of them and within a short period of time,” argues Polikanov. At the same time, Russia has its own practice of coping with people who come from Central Asia and dealing with Muslims from that region.

Misleading exaggeration about the scope of the Syrian problem?

Meanwhile, Deputy Head of Russia’s Federal Migration Service Nikolai Smorodin says that the claims about Russia turning down Syrian refugees’ requests in large scale is misleading.

“There hasn’t been any toughening of the Federal Migration Service’s position in providing asylum to Syrian citizens in Russia,” he told the Interfax news agency, adding that Russia is ready to receive Syrians taking into account the situation in their own country.

Also read: "Russia faces tough choices on what to do with Syria and ISIS"

Russia’s Federal Migration Service claims that the number of Syrian refuges coming to Russia is exaggerated. It states the requests come from primarily those who are married to Russian citizens and returned to Syria after the war started. 

At the same time, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said that Syrian refugees can use Russian territory as a transit point, but the question about accepting refugees is irrelevant for Russia because he believes the burden of the current humanitarian crisis should be shouldered by those countries whose policy led to the civil war in Syria and what he calls “the catastrophic situation.”  Another argument he uses against accepting the Syrian refugees is the risk that terrorists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) might come to Russia under the guise of refugees.

Some Russian experts, like Alexei Grishin, the president of the Russian think tank Religion and Society, agree. “ISIS has been actively using the migration flows for their own purposes,” Grishin told Russia Direct during his Sept. 16 speech at Carnegie Moscow Center.

According to him, extremists could do recurring harm in a host country or secretly conduct informational campaigns. The fact that many refugees come with about $3,000-4,000 in their pockets looks very suspicious to him.

Grishin also raised eyebrows at what he sees as "a big Sunni contingent" among refugees. He finds this fact suspicious, because ISIS is comprised of Sunni Muslims, who are hardly likely to pursue and drive their religious and ideological peers out of the country.

UPDATE: Two weeks after the interview that took place on Sept. 16, Ahmad and his family left Russia for the EU.

Flora Moussa, the senior editor of Russia Beyond The Headlines-France, contributed to the story.