Russian History


Issues and Procedures

In 1993 Russia signed the United Nations Convention on Refugees, which reclassified it as a "country of first resort" for foreigners fleeing countries outside the CIS. Under the 1951 United Nations convention, this status entails an international obligation to care for such individuals. At the same time, the decline in border security since the dissolution of the Soviet Union has made illegal immigration easier in many areas. In the early 1990s, the number of official refugees swelled when students from Third World nations, particularly Afghanistan, refused to leave Russia when their studies were completed. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 28,000 foreign refugees were living illegally in Moscow in 1994; figures for other parts of Russia are not available. The UNHCR's Moscow total was divided among 20,000 Afghans, 6,000 Iraqis, 2,000 Somalis, and smaller numbers of Angolans, Ethiopians, and Zairians. A 1995 Moscow press report, however, estimated that 100,000 illegal immigrants were living in Moscow, including 50,000 Chinese and 15,000 Afghans.

The first major influx of refugees into the Russian Republic occurred in 1988 and 1989, when Azerbaijanis and Armenians (mainly the latter) fled the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between their respective countries, and when Meskhetian Turks fled Uzbekistan following a massacre in that republic in 1989. However, only in 1992 did the Russian government establish its first agency for dealing with such conditions, the Federal Migration Service (FMS). That service monitors refugees and other migrants from both outside and within the CIS, but it is underfunded and understaffed. In 1994 UNHCR transit camps in Moscow had a capacity of 1,000, leaving a large number of Moscow's refugee population to live in primitive conditions. Given the FMS's limited resources, several international social and charitable organizations are active in aiding refugees and migrants, although their work has not been well coordinated with the FMS or among themselves. An additional complication in the early 1990s was the influx of tens of thousands of Russian military personnel withdrawn from former Warsaw Pact member nations and from other CIS nations.

In response to Russia's new status as a country of first resort, a series of laws on refugees and forced migrants were passed in 1993 and 1994. The laws define various categories of migrants, particularly refugees and forced migrants, according to the conditions and motivations that prompted their movement as well as the responsibilities of the state to care for them.

Local branches of the FMS conduct registration of refugees and forced migrants and are responsible for providing material support until they are classified. Individuals in both categories theoretically have some input in their new place of residence; the FMS provides a list of permissible urban destinations, or relatives may accept them elsewhere. Legally, the FMS is obliged to help find suitable employment, schools, and social security and to aid in compensation for lost property. FMS activities receive funding from the Russian state budget, other countries and international organizations according to bilateral agreements, and private donations. Russian citizenship is granted automatically to individuals who were permanent residents of the federation before the Law on Citizenship was passed in February 1992; migrants from elsewhere in the CIS (particularly the 25 million Russians in other former Soviet republics) also have a guarantee of Russian citizenship upon arrival, provided they are not already citizens of another state. A 1993 refinement of FMS regulations added compulsory annual reregistration and stricter requirements for proof of forced migrant status. It also modified the temporary housing guarantee.

As of mid-1996, however, little of the system for carrying out the laws' guarantees had been worked out. Transportation aid is available only in extreme cases, and financial support at the time of settlement is offered only to individuals and families below the poverty line. The FMS reported that, to comply with all aspects of the refugee law, each individual should receive about US$10,000, a sum far beyond the resources of the agency.

Most illegal immigrants enter the country on tourist visas; some take advantage of leaky borders and vague visa requirements. Most claim to be in transit to another country, usually in the West. Profitable businesses have sprung up smuggling refugees through Russia and then to the West. In 1994 Russian authorities announced plans for a central data bank to monitor all immigration and emigration and a new refugee agency, but no such system was in place in mid-1996. Meanwhile, the prospects of moving large numbers of immigrants to Western countries diminished with new immigration restrictions imposed there; at the same time, the United Nations convention substantially limits Russia's options by forbidding deportation of immigrants to "countries of persecution." The FMS has optimistically planned to deal with 400,000 refugees per year, but some estimates projected that as many as 2 million would immigrate in 1996 alone.

The proportion of non-Russian immigrants declined noticeably after 1992. In 1995 the estimated share of Russians was 63 percent of refugees and 75 percent of forced migrants, followed by overall immigration shares of 7 to 9 percent each for Armenians, Ossetians, and Tatars, 3 percent for Ukrainians, and 1 percent each for Georgians and Tajiks. Non-Slavic immigrants have encountered hostile attitudes from most Russian authorities. For example, beginning in 1993 Moscow authorities mounted "cleansing" campaigns to rid the city of individuals lacking residence permits; because immigrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia are easily distinguishable from Slavs, such campaigns have detained and deported disproportionately large numbers from those ethnic groups. International human rights organizations have criticized Moscow for such practices.

The Soviet-era internal passport system, which required documentary proof of an individual's place of residence for that person to receive housing, was simplified theoretically in October 1993 to allow an individual to take residence in any area without proof of registration in that location. However, local authorities have ignored this change, especially in cities such as Moscow that are chief targets of migration. In continuing the Soviet registration system, local authorities can restrict housing, education, and social security benefits to migrants, whatever their origin. In the mid-1990s, strict, "temporary" local restrictions on initial admittance of migrants spread rapidly to most of the oblast capitals, often with conditions in clear violation of the human rights provisions of the 1993 constitution, with the official backing of the FMS. Continued local limitations have had the effect of discouraging housing construction and employment, hence exacerbating the situation of nonresidents.

Such a discrimination policy has not stemmed the tide of migration into Russia's cities from other CIS states or from within the federation. Because the Soviet system usually allowed migrants to eventually register, find work, and settle at their destination, continuation of that system also has continued the expectations and the demographic movement that it promoted. As a result, the number of homeless people in Russia's cities has increased dramatically (see Social Welfare, ch. 5).