EU countries are accused of leaving asylum seekers from the Russian Federation vulnerable to the repressive reach of the Russian state.
In the early hours of 17 January 2013, 36-year-old Aleksandr Dolmatov, a Russian engineer, was found dead at a Rotterdam deportation centre. Dolmatov, an activist linked to the opposition Other Russia movement, fled Russia in June 2012 following his arrest after a protest in Moscow on 6 May 2012, the ‘March of Millions’, to mark the re-inauguration of President Vladimir Putin, turned violent and led to hundreds of arrests.
Dutch accused of complicity in death
Once in the Netherlands, Mr Dolmatov applied for asylum, citing harassment by the Russian security services and fear for his life. He was given a place at the asylum seeker centre at Gravendeel in the southern Netherlands.
In mid-December 2012, he learned that his asylum application had been rejected as the Dutch government accepted the Russian government’s assurances that he faced no risk if returned to Russia and only a fine of 500 roubles (around £10). This is in spite of concerns raised by human rights organisations about the opposition crackdown. In the months prior to his death, Dolmatov is reported to have cut himself off from contacts both in the Netherlands and Russia. He last met his lawyer in mid-November, and according to other residents at the asylum seeker centre he became increasingly isolated. Friends, family and his lawyer claim he was subject to threats and coercion by the Russian security service, who may have visited him.
A week before his death, his lawyer lodged an appeal. Around that time, although he could not be deported due to the pending appeal, he was moved to a deportation centre in Dordrecht and two days later, on the evening of 16 January 2013, was taken to the Rotterdam Airport detention centre, usually the last stop before deportation. He was subsequently found dead in his cell. His lawyer, who was informed later that day, had not been told about a series of other events leading up to his death. His family learned of his death through the media.
Dolmatov left a suicide note; while it is accepted that he wrote it, his family and friends dispute whether he wrote it voluntarily or was coerced into doing so. As well as raising questions about the extent to which the Russian authorities will go in order to crack down on dissidents, Dolmatov’s death raised issues about the Dutch-Russian relationship and possible Dutch complicity in his death, as well as asylum policy in the country, which left a vulnerable man to die.
Russia blamed Dutch asylum policy for the death. The official report into Aleksandr Dolmatov’s death, published shortly after a visit by Putin to the Netherlands in early April 2013, identified a series of failings in the Dutch asylum process and inadequate medical care given to Mr Dolmatov.
Clampdown on dissidents
Dolmatov is not alone in allegedly being harassed by the Russian state beyond its borders. In October 2012, Leonid Razvozzhaev, a government opponent seeking asylum in neighbouring Ukraine, ‘disappeared’ briefly, only to resurface in Russia days later. The authorities claim he turned himself in and confessed to plotting against the state and accepting funds from a Georgian businessman. But Razvozzhaev claims he was kidnapped, smuggled back into the country and tortured into making his ten-page confession. The UNHCR has expressed concerns about his case and the failure to comply with Refugee Convention obligations by both Russia and Ukraine.
The Russian Federation is one of the main sources of refugees and asylum seekers in the European Union, pipped into third place last year by the recent refugee crisis in Syria, with a 6 per cent share of applications. Over the past year or so, civil liberties have suffered a particularly severe clampdown in Russia. A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report documents some of the new laws and measures that have been introduced to restrict civil liberties and crack down on civil society. These include the recent ‘Foreign Agent’ law which requires all Russian NGOs to register as foreign agents if they receive funding from abroad. The European Union has expressed concerns about this law and the fines imposed on non-compliant organisations. One of these, having failed to register and facing other charges, is Memorial, a leading Russian anti-discrimination and minority rights NGO, which contributed to last year’s UN Committee Against Torture country report on Russia. HRW has described this package of measures as the worst human right climate in the post-Soviet era and ‘unprecedented in the country’s post-Soviet history’.
Unanswered questions about Glasgow suicides
These concerns and fears, however, are not new. In March 2010, the Serykh family, father and mother Sergei and Tatiana and Tatiana’s 20-year old son Stefan, all plunged to their death from their fifteenth floor flat on the Red Road estate in Glasgow, shortly after their asylum application in the UK was rejected and they were asked to move. They had been sent there weeks earlier from London under the government’s dispersal programme for asylum seekers. The family had moved to the UK in 2007, having previously lived in Canada from 2000 to 2007, where they had been granted asylum but were refused citizenship. Sergei Serykh is alleged to have worked for Russian intelligence before fleeing the country. In view of claims he made concerning both Russia and Canada, the Home Office tried to blame psychological problems for his death. However, asylum seeker supporters and campaigners pinned the blame on government asylum policy.
In spite of the suspicious circumstance of the triple suicides – the Serykhs were not facing deportation – and public pressure, in 2012 it was decided that it was not in the public interest to hold an inquiry. The lack of clear investigation into all of these suspicious deaths instead allow conspiracy theories to flourish as well as stereotypes of Russians involved in espionage and crime, without mention of better known British cases.
Torture in the northern Caucasus
Human rights violations in Russia are reported to be widespread. In its November 2012 periodic report on the state of human rights and the use of torture, the UN Committee Against Torture criticised the Russian Federation for ‘persistent reports of the widespread practice in the State party of torture and ill-treatment of detainees, including as a means to extract confessions’, and noted ’the discrepancy between the large number of complaints of torture and ill-treatment and the relatively small number of criminal cases brought in response leading to prosecution’. The report mentions two prisoners who died as a result of torture in Russian jails in 2012.
One particular area of concern also mentioned is the harassment and attacks on human rights defenders in the northern Caucasus, ‘including the Chechen Republic, including torture and ill-treatment, abductions, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. It is further concerned at the State party’s failure to investigate and punish the perpetrators of such abuses, despite the establishment of Agency No. 2 of the Chechen Republic investigation department for particularly important cases.’ This is an area of human rights concern also raised in the latest Foreign Office Human Rights Report.
One of the lawyers, Sapiyat Magomedova, whose uninvestigated 2009 beating by police in Dagestan is cited, also features on the front cover of a recent Amnesty International (AI) report on the intimidation and harassment faced by both lawyers and their clients in the North Caucasus. The climate of fear, violence and harassment is perhaps exemplified in the current ‘Nalchik trial’, Russia’s longest running trial in modern history, of almost eight years, involving an unprecedented fifty-nine defendants who were beaten and tortured into confessing involvement in an attack on military installations in 2005 in the southern Kabardino-Balkaria Republic.
As with others from Russia, these concerns can follow them abroad. The treatment of Chechen refugees elsewhere in Europe has been the subject of particular concern. Since the mid-2000s and particularly following the end of ‘counter-terrorism’ operations by the Russian army in 2009, many European countries have changed their policy towards Chechen asylum seekers. According to AI, the situation has not improved significantly and has actually worsened in other parts of the Caucasus. In addition, ‘counter-terrorism’ operations continue which involve torture and extrajudicial killings: ‘The nature of these activities is highly secretive, and the law enforcement agencies are not publicly accountable for the way in which these activities are conducted.’
EU extradition and ‘voluntary returns’ policies
Many Chechen asylum seekers enter the European Union through Poland via Ukraine; however, they do not wish to remain there for numerous reasons, including the threat of forced return to the Russian Federation and being found there by agents of the Russian and Chechen governments. As a result, when they seek asylum elsewhere, they are subject to the rules of the Dublin Regulation and are often sent back to Poland for their asylum claim to be processed in the country in which they first entered the European Union.
According to a 2011 report by the European Committee on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), ‘In several of the main European countries where Chechens seek asylum (Austria, Norway, Poland), there are now significantly fewer Russian nationals being granted refugee status or subsidiary protection.’ This is further complicated by a 2007 agreement on readmission between the EU and the Russian Federation which favours voluntary return, for which adequate advice and information is not always given. Some have been persecuted following their return.
Extradition requests made by Russia for asylum seekers from the Caucasus are often acquiesced in as well by EU states. On 31 December 2008, Murad Gasaev, an ethnic Chechen who fled Ingushetia in 2005 fearing for his life, was extradited from Spain, where he had sought asylum. His asylum claim was rejected on the basis of secret evidence withheld from him and his lawyer and he was extradited in reliance on diplomatic assurances given by Russia, a state well known for its use of torture. Arriving in Moscow, he was detained. He was released in August 2009, but threats and harassment against him and his family continued. He was able to leave Russia at the end of 2011 and this time received asylum in the EU.
AI has also raised concerns about the ‘internal flight alternative’ (IFA), relied on by some EU states to refuse asylum to Chechens and others from the North Caucasus on the basis that they could move to other parts of the Federation to avoid persecution. However, AI believes that this option ‘is not available to Chechen refugees and others with ethnic roots in the North Caucasus … A person facing risk related to actions or intentions of agents of the state, or persons acting with acquiescence of the state, would not be able to benefit from truly effective and durable protection anywhere in the Russian Federation, both within and outside of their region of origin. The relevant risk would apply to them throughout the territory of the Russian Federation, and in certain cases beyond.’
There have also been reported deaths of Chechen asylum seekers in immigration detention in the EU. In September 2012, 35-year-old Zelimkhan Isakov, who had spent several years in prison in Russia where he was beaten and tortured, died suddenly in an Austrian detention centre two days before he was due to be deported to Russia. His friends and family report that he was healthy but died as a result of stress and depression caused by previous persecution in Russia as well as his fear of being returned there. Before his arrest (for failing to produce his ID card) he had been awaiting the outcome of an asylum appeal. Austrian officials provided no stated cause of death and the Austrian media did not report it.
Earlier, in August 2010, another asylum seeker in Austria, Arslan Duzhiev, hanged himself at a detention centre after his asylum application was turned down twice and he and his family faced return to Poland. Having heard that families were being forcibly returned from there to Russia, where he had been imprisoned in the early 2000s and tortured, requiring long-term medical care thereafter, he had expressed many times his fear of return and his preference to die rather than return to Russia.
In October 2012, served with notice to return to Poland, through which he and his family had entered Germany in 2011 and claimed asylum, a 38-year-old asylum seeker slashed his arms in front of his pregnant wife and four children in an attempted suicide. The man stated that if returned to Poland, he and his family would be forcibly returned to Russia where he would suffer persecution and possibly death.
In some recent good news from the European Court of Human Rights, in the case of I.K. v Austria (2013), in which judgment (which can still be appealed by Austria) was handed down at the end of March, the court ruled against I.K.’s removal to Russia, holding that it would violate Article 3 (prohibition of torture) of the European Convention on Human Rights. It also acknowledged that ‘there were recent reports documenting the practice of collective punishment of relatives and suspected supporters of alleged insurgents’. His mother had previously been granted asylum. However, with a worsening human rights situation and continuing backhanded relations between the Russian Federation and European Union states, the overall situation is unlikely to improve for asylum seekers any time soon.