Since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military draft on September 21st aiming to mobilise around 300,000 Russian men to fight in the war in Ukraine, an estimated 400,000 Russians have fled the country, possibly even more. They are fleeing Russia in all directions, with over 20,000 in Georgia and thousands more entering every day, possibly as many as 200,000 in Kazakhstan – with many moving on to Kyrgyzstan – and thousands in Turkey and in Armenia. There are queues of thousands of citizens at land borders, prices for accommodation are soaring and flight tickets out of Russia simply not available anymore or only at sky-high prices.
Compared to the numbers in some of the Central Asian countries, the number of Russian refugees coming to Europe is still relatively low. But it does raise an important question for European countries, a question already raised shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine: what about Russian refugees?
Mixed responses to Russians fleeing conscription
So far the response has been somewhat mixed. Some countries, like the Baltic countries, were fast in saying they will not accept asylum claims from Russians. For example, Latvia’s Foreign Minister said that since Russians were fine with killing Ukrainians, it is not right to consider them conscious objectors, adding that admitting them is a security risk and there are plenty of countries outside of the EU to go to. Lithuania’s Foreign Minister said they will not be granting asylum to those who are simply running from responsibility and added that Russians should stay and fight, against Putin. Germany’s Justice Minister, on the other hand, said that anyone who hates Putin’s path and loves liberal democracy is warmly welcomed in Germany.
European Council President Charles Michel said, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly that Europe should allow in Russian citizens seeking to flee the country. While the EU already agreed to suspend a visa facilitation agreement with Russia earlier in September, many countries, most notably Finland essentially shut their borders to Russians after the draft announcement by Russia. Shortly after these initial reactions, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Johansson announced an EU-wide policy towards those fleeing conscription, saying member states should do a thorough security assessment before issuing visa, that visa should not be issued to anyone intending to stay for more than 90 days and that the right to apply for asylum is a fundamental right, which also applies to Russians.
What would be the right approach?
First of all, Europe has been rather united in their responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and it would be important European countries remain united on the issue of Russian refugees as well. The emotions around this issue, however, are very understandable, in particular in Eastern European countries, given their history and proximity to Russia, and given that it is clear who the aggressor is in this unjustified war.
Of course, it is also understandable that Ukrainian refugees evoke far more empathy than Russian refugees, but decisions about asylum should always be based on objective criteria and individual assessments. It is crucial that emotions are set aside when it comes to defining who is a refugee and who isn’t. All EU countries signed up to international refugee law and European conventions, and there are objective criteria to decide whether someone is a refugee or not.
On a general note, it is highly concerning if decisions on whether we grant refugee status or other forms of protection are increasingly based on whether we – as a population or as policy makers or politicians – feel for a certain group and whether we sympathise with them. We have also seen this in the striking difference in how Ukrainian refugees were welcomed across Europe, compared to refugees coming from further away. This should never be the case.
It will be challenging, and there will not be a whole lot of empathy among European populations towards Russian refugees. But that is actually the moment where we require and expect from our European leaders to stand up, be rational and objective and lead by example, saying Europe is a safe haven, for anyone who has good reasons to flee their home country, no matter which home country. The EU’s announcement of its policy towards Russian refugees, as mentioned above, goes somewhat in that direction, though it also remains unclear how Russians – with basically all routes out of Russia to the EU closed – in practice could even apply for asylum.
What does the law say?
As for every asylum seeker, applications must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Fear of persecution or punishment for desertion or draft-evasion does not in itself or automatically constitute a well-founded fear of persecution under the refugee definition, according to UNHCRs handbook on procedures and criteria determining refugee status. However, the same handbook also provides several reasons where it does. For example, when the punishment would be disproportionate, or where it can be proven that soldiers would be forced to participate in war crimes, in this case in Ukraine, or when the type of type of military action, with which an individual does not wish to be associated, is condemned by the international community as contrary to basic rules of human conduct.
With these clauses in mind, it can probably be argued that many Russian men fleeing draft, might be persecuted as understood under refugee law. All European countries signed up to the Refugee Convention and European conventions, which means everyone has a right to seek asylum and have their case assessed. A straightforward refusal to assess claims would be a violation of international law. In short, all Russians fleeing draft should be treated as asylum seekers if they claim asylum, like anyone else, from any other country in the world.
Moreover, closing the borders and restricting access to visa for all Russians, is not a solution either. This would probably push even more Russians into the asylum system, which is already quite overburdened in many countries. And, as argued above, all these individual claims should then still be assessed. Of course, keeping borders open to Russians does not, and should not, mean anyone can come in unchecked. The concerns about Russian operatives joining these movements might be genuine, so it should be carefully checked who enters European countries. But again, that is all the more reason to conduct proper individual assessments.
What signal to send to Russia’s population?
Importantly, accepting Russians who are fleeing draft, also sends a clear signal to Russia’s population and leadership, and to the world. It signals that Europe takes the moral high ground, does not let its objective asylum policies be clouded by anti-Russian emotions. It signals that the EU values human rights and sticks to international agreements, no matter where refugees come from, and even, as in the case of Russia, if they come from the aggressor. It will send a signal to the world that what Russia is doing, is wrong.
Additionally, a large and growing Russian diaspora outside of Russia, with full access to more objective news coverage than what they had at home, could also become a powerful force of opposition to Russia’s leadership, working together from abroad and sharing what they hear and see about the war from outside of Russia, with family and friends left behind in Russia.
Furthermore, if Europe would completely close its borders to Russian men, whether through normal visa procedures of through the asylum process, that will only fuel Putin’s rhetoric about the West waging a war on Russia and might dishearten the many Russians who are probably opposed to this war; if the West opens up its borders to Russians fleeing their regime, that actually undermines Putin’s narrative. On a more practical note, the more men who are fleeing Russia, the fewer Russia will have to mobilise and fight in Ukraine, which is also why Ukrainian President Zelensky appealed to Russian men to defy the mobilisation and basically offer them asylum in Ukraine.
The need to support non-EU countries in receiving Russian refugees
Finally, as mentioned in the beginning of this article, the number of Russians fleeing to non-EU countries in Eastern Europe, Turkey and Central Asia are far higher than those fleeing towards the EU. The numbers might soon become overwhelming for some of these countries, with prices for hotels and other commodities soaring. In most of these countries, the general population is opposed to this war as well, some countries may fear a future Russian invasion or already have, like Georgia, part of their territory occupied by Russia. With such large numbers from Russia fleeing to these countries, it is a key moment for the EU to offer strong support and show that Europe is with them, as well as with the Russians who fled to these countries, who oppose Putin and refuse to fight his war in Ukraine.