Last Updated: Friday, 16 February 2018, 15:01 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - Russian Federation

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 20 June 2001
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2001 - Russian Federation , 20 June 2001, available at: [accessed 19 February 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

At the end of 2000, the Russian Federation hosted about 36,200 refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection. These included 26,065 refugees registered with Russia's Ministry of Federal Affairs, National and Migration Policy – MFA (which replaced the Federal Migration Service – FMS); 200 mandate refugees recognized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); 691 asylum seekers whose cases were pending with the MFA; and about 9,200 asylum seekers from outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) who were registered with UNHCR but not with the Russian authorities.

The largest number of MFA-registered refugees came from Georgia (19,560 – 75 percent), followed by Tajikistan (2,061), Uzbekistan (1,519), Azerbaijan (780), Kazakhstan (747), Kyrgyzstan (321), Moldova (151), Turkmenistan (128), and Armenia (117).

Approximately 600,000 persons registered with the MFA as "forced migrants" – overwhelmingly from countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus – were living in "refugee-like" conditions in the Russian Federation at year's end. In addition, more than 90,000 Afghans without legal status were "of concern" to UNHCR and considered by the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) to be living in refugee-like circumstances.

At year's end, more than 491,000 persons remained internally displaced in the Russian Federation. These included more than 370,000 persons displaced in 1999 and 2000 by the conflict in the war-ravaged republic of Chechnya (about 170,000 inside Chechnya, 160,000 in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, 20,000 in neighboring Dagestan, and 20,000 elsewhere in the region); some 106,000 persons displaced during the previous (1994-96) war in Chechnya, mostly ethnic Russians, who were registered with the MFA as "forced migrants"; and about 15,000 "forced migrants" in Ingushetia who were displaced in 1992 during the conflict over the disputed Prigorodnyi Region of North Ossetia. (Estimates of the number of newly displaced ethnic Chechens vary widely, going as high as 800,000.)

The ascendancy of Vladimir Putin, former head of the Soviet KGB, to the Russian presidency did not produce noticeable improvements either in Russia's generally poor human rights record or its treatment of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons during the year. Conditions for the uprooted – particularly ethnic Chechens and asylum seekers from countries outside the former Soviet Union – remained extremely difficult for many reasons. Apart from the humanitarian catastrophe in Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia (see box, next page), these included: the government's failure to improve its asylum system or to grant the benefits and freedoms accorded to refugees and "forced migrants" under Russian law; Putin's intolerance of criticism of human rights abuses aimed at uprooted people and foreigners; and public mistrust of non-ethnic Russians perpetuated by the government's claims that the war was necessary to root out Chechen "terrorists."

On March 26, Putin was elected president after serving as acting president since Boris Yeltsin's resignation on New Year's Eve. Putin solidified his power quickly, stripping regional leaders of their seats in the Federal Council, and creating seven "administrative regions" run by representatives responsible to him alone. Despite Putin's repeated assurances of Russian "victory" in Chechnya, the war dragged on, detailed accounts of atrocities committed by Russian forces in Chechnya mounted, and the vast majority of the displaced remained without durable solutions at year's end.

Refugees and "Forced Migrants"

The number of formally recognized refugees has dropped considerably since 1998. This is largely because many refugees from countries of the former Soviet Union de-registered after Russia's 1997 law "On Refugees" eliminated several of the benefits accorded to refugees. Another reason for the decline is that government agencies responsible for implementing Russia's laws "On Refugees" and "On Forced Migrants" recognized far fewer refugees than in previous years (see asylum, below). The FMS (and since September 2000, the MFA) granted refugee status to only 277 persons in 2000, down from 382 in 1999, 510 in 1998, and 5,751 in 1997.

The legal distinction between "refugee" and "forced migrant" is based primarily on citizenship. The law "On Refugees" applies to noncitizens of the Russian Federation. The law "On Forced Migrants" applies to citizens of the Russian Federation or citizens of the former Soviet Union who are expected to assume Russian Federation citizenship. Therefore, the government's registry of "forced migrants" includes both internally displaced persons and persons from other former Soviet republics.

At year's end, 782,215 individuals were registered with the MFA as forced migrants (cumulative registrations from 1993 through 2000), down 10 percent from the 880,394 registered at the end of 1999. The decrease reportedly occurred as larger numbers of forced migrants from outside Russia acquired Russian citizenship and lost their forced migrant status.

In addition, despite the new displacement from the conflict in Chechnya, the number of persons registered as forced migrants from Chechnya declined in 2000 because Russian authorities generally refused to grant forced-migrant status to newly displaced ethnic Chechens. Instead, the government reserved forced migrant status largely for ethnic Russians, most of whom were displaced from Chechnya during the previous conflict in 1994-96.

Nearly all forced migrants registered at the end of 2000 came from two regions: Central Asia (70 percent – 552,550 persons) and the Caucasus (28 percent – 219,347 persons). By country or region of origin, the largest number of forced migrants came from Kazakhstan (290,695), followed by Chechnya (114,367 – 16,576 fewer than in 1999 and 32,865 fewer than in 1998), Uzbekistan (100,606), Tajikistan (83,039), Georgia (40,507), Azerbaijan (36,698), Kyrgyzstan (35,498), and the Republic of North Ossetia (23,052).


The Russian Federation acceded to the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol in 1992 and enacted national legislation to implement the Convention in 1993.

Before replacing that legislation in 1997, the FMS applied the law on refugees almost exclusively to asylum seekers from former Soviet countries (referred to as the "near abroad") – often granting them refugee status on a prima facie basis – and restricted access to those from outside the former Soviet Union (referred to as the "far abroad").

The 1997 law "On Refugees" (hereafter "refugee law") restricts access to asylum for both near- and far-abroad asylum seekers. Substantial numbers of ethnic Russians displaced from the successor states of the former Soviet Union applied for refugee status in Russia until 1997, but since then, the authorities have either registered such applicants as forced migrants or immediately accorded them citizenship. As in previous years, significant barriers to asylum for "far abroad" applicants remained firmly in place throughout 2000.

Mid-year, the government dissolved the FMS, replacing it with the MFA. UNHCR expressed concern that the transfer of power and staff "may affect FMS eligibility officers ... who have been trained by UNHCR on refugee status determination procedures and on many aspects of refugee protection."

Of the 277 persons recognized as refugees during 2000, 162 came from outside the former Soviet Union, virtually all from Afghanistan (160). Of the 115 near-abroad applicants granted refugee status, the largest number came from Azerbaijan (33), followed by Kazakhstan (30), Uzbekistan (18), Georgia (11), Kyrgyzstan (10), and Tajikistan (8).

The 1997 refugee law divides the first-instance refugee status determination procedure into two steps: registration and status determination. During registration, immigration control officers or a local branch of the MFA determines the applicant's admissibility to the procedure. Asylum seekers arriving from "safe third countries" and undocumented applicants who do not meet a 24-hour filing deadline are inadmissible to the status determination procedure. The 1997 refugee law also disqualifies applicants (or recognized refugees) who commit "any" crime on Russian territory.

For applicants deemed admissible, the local branch of the MFA then enters into a determination of the refugee claim based on the merits. Negative first-instance decisions may be appealed, but appeals do not suspend an asylum seeker's obligation to leave the country.

Under the law, the registration process may take up to five days, during which the asylum seeker is not legally in the country and has virtually no rights. However, in Moscow, which receives the majority of asylum applications, the authorities have established a "pre-registration" system whereby applicants are put on a waiting list and asked to present themselves at a later date – generally 18 months to two years later. During this time, asylum seekers remain without legal status and are particularly vulnerable to police harassment. During 2000, the refugee authorities in Moscow finally registered 1,855 Afghan asylum seekers who had been awaiting access to the asylum procedure since 1993 and 1994.

Once an asylum seeker is officially registered, the MFA has six months to assess the merits of the claim, although the process often takes longer. Approved applicants receive refugee status for three years, after which they may opt for merits-based reassessments annually. Otherwise, their status ends.

Because many far-abroad asylum seekers still encounter substantial difficulties in registering their claims and obtaining protection in Russia, UNHCR continues to register far-abroad asylum seekers. As the year drew to a close, UNHCR reported that 9,180 asylum seekers and refugees with "active cases" were of concern to the agency, overwhelmingly from Afghanistan (7,862). These included 6,871 asylum seekers (81 percent) awaiting registration by the MFA in Moscow, 364 pending a refugee status determination, 1,364 denied refugee status, in addition to other asylum seekers registered with UNHCR.

During 2000, UNHCR resettled 84 refugees to other countries, most of whom faced threats to their protection in Russia. An additional 173 UNHCR-recognized refugees were awaiting resettlement at year's end. All came from the far abroad, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Iran, Iraq, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Rwanda.

Undocumented Migrants

Because most far-abroad asylum seekers, including those registered with UNHCR, never receive refugee status, Russian authorities consider them to be illegal migrants. Without legal status, they are denied most rights, including the right to work, to social services, to non-emergency medical care, and even to registration of marriages and births. Many schools do not accept children of far-abroad asylum seekers because of their illegal status.

An estimated 90,000 to 100,000 Afghans were living in the Russian Federation without legal status at year's end. Other sources cite tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of other "illegal immigrants," many from Africa and the Middle East, living in the country, although the actual number is virtually impossible to determine. Many may, in fact, be refugees, although their claims have never been registered or adjudicated. The population is generally transient, with many third-country nationals traveling through Russia on their way to Western Europe. They are often reluctant to register either with government officials or international organizations such as UNHCR.

Despite their illegal status, most far-abroad asylum seekers already living in the Russian Federation appeared to be free of the immediate threat of refoulement during 2000 because the authorities lacked the financial resources to expel them. However, newly arriving asylum seekers were not protected.

Although the government does not generally detain registered asylum seekers, the Russian penal code allows the government to apprehend "illegal migrants," of whom unregistered asylum seekers are an especially vulnerable group. Border guards may detain people at the border when they find "irregularities" in their documentation. Immigration authorities are also authorized to detain foreigners with deportation orders "for the period necessary to carry out the deportation."

Russia's penal code stipulates that detention should not apply if a person enters the Russian Federation illegally to apply for asylum. The vast majority of foreign nationals whom border authorities apprehend are deported before they can gain access to the asylum procedure, however.

Under the Russian law, the government's "Points of Immigration Control" (PIC) offices handle asylum requests at ports of entry and along Russia's vast borders. One of the most active PIC offices is housed at Moscow's Sheremetevo-II Airport, which receives a large portion of African and Asian asylum seekers.

During 2000, the authorities granted UNHCR permission to visit undocumented asylum seekers in the transit zone. According to UNHCR, no effective refugee screening exists at the airport, and undocumented asylum seekers are "often deported without having the possibility to address their asylum claim to the PIC." During 2000, UNHCR reported that there were no positive decisions by the PIC to admit any asylum seeker into the territory of the Russian Federation to have his or her case examined on the merits.

The authorities do not permit undocumented passengers to leave the transit zone, and generally return them promptly to the airlines that transported them to Moscow. Because the airlines are legally bound to provide food and emergency medical care to undocumented passengers, the airlines try to return them as quickly as possible to the countries they departed to reach Moscow. The airlines contact UNHCR only when experiencing problems in carrying out deportations, UNHCR said.

During the year, UNHCR intervened in 25 cases denied by the Sheremetevo-II PIC, of which the applicants in three cases were resettled to third countries.

Internal Migration Restrictions

During 2000, many of Russia's regions and cities continued to restrict migration within Russia through the use of internal passports resembling Soviet-era propiskas. Under the propiska system, citizens must carry an "internal passport" – a booklet full of stamps and signatures spelling out where they live, for whom they work, what their qualifications are, and to whom they are married. Until recently, it also noted their ethnic group.

Regional authorities in Stavropol, Krasnodar, and Moscow reportedly targeted migrants with strict, discriminatory registration requirements, despite Constitutional Court rulings abolishing most aspects of the propiska system. Although federal authorities have said that some regions' registration systems contravene federal law, they have done little to stop such practices.

Russia's Constitutional Court ruled in 1998 that a city may neither "grant permission" nor limit where persons choose to live nor how long they stay. Soon after the court issued its ruling, however, Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov publicly refused to implement it and ordered Moscow police to enforce the existing registration rules created in 1996 (see below). In July 1998, the Supreme Court outlawed temporary and permanent residence permits, removing any question of the legality of the permit-based systems in Moscow and other regions. Nevertheless, Moscow authorities continued to ignore both rulings in 2000.

Under the unconstitutional 1996 registration rules in effect in Moscow, adults are issued internal passports, which they must carry and register with the local authorities within three days (or in Moscow within 24 hours) of their arrival for visits of more than three days. Russian citizens and migrants from the former Soviet republics have seven days to register when moving to a new area to live and work.

Moscow remained openly hostile to newcomers throughout 2000 following the bombings of several Moscow apartment buildings in the fall of 1999 (for which Moscow officials blamed "terrorists" from the northern Caucasus). In response to the attacks, Mayor Luzhkov cracked down on Chechens and other "darker skinned" minorities, primarily through the vigorous enforcement of Moscow's registration rules. Luzhkov issued an ordinance in September 1999 requiring all of Moscow's temporary residents who arrived after January 1, 1999 to re-register within three days with the authorities. To re-register, residents were required to show proof of employment, payment of city taxes, and a legal place of residence. Of the 74,000 temporary residents who attempted to re-register, authorities reportedly denied the applications of some 15,500 persons, many of whom reportedly were ethnic Chechens.

On January 27, The Times (London) reported, "In Moscow, the Chechens collectively became 'unpersons' on September 13 when Luzhkov issued Order Number 1007. It said that all 'incomers' – up to a million provincials and foreigners temporarily resident in the capital – must reapply for their residence permits as a precaution against terrorism. A fat dossier of references, permits, and receipts had to be collected, each needing to be queued for and most needing to be paid for. Anyone who failed to run through the marathon of bureaucratic obstacles within three days would lose the right to live in Moscow." As a result of the policy, many former Moscow residents lost their ability to stay in the city, and newly displaced Chechens were effectively barred from moving to Moscow.

Following another apartment bombing in August 2000, Luzhkov again spoke of a "Chechen connection," and human rights organizations feared another crackdown on the city's non-Muscovites. Moscow authorities reportedly used the August bombing to defend the propiska system and to detain some Chechens.

In April, the Movement for Human Rights in Moscow and the procurator general joined forces to challenge Moscow's registration requirements in Moscow City Court. Although the procurator general later revoked his support for the lawsuit, the City Court nevertheless ruled on September 25 that the registration rules were indeed unconstitutional. Still, the registration rules remained in effect throughout 2000, and police abuse of the rules for extortion and bribery continued.

Northern Caucasus

The hostilities that broke out in the fall of 1999 and continued throughout 2000 in Chechnya devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. In addition to the more than 370,000 civilians displaced by the military assault on Chechnya, Russia's northern Caucasian republics continued to host a variety of other long-standing internally displaced and refugee populations during the year.

According to UNHCR, about 106,000 persons remained internally displaced from the 1994-96 war in Chechnya, most living in neighboring republics.

Some 13,000 Meskhetians who fled ethnic conflict in Uzbekistan between 1988 and 1990 were living in Krasnodar and the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. Although the Meskhetians are legally entitled to Russian Federation citizenship, authorities in both republics have refused to recognize their citizenship rights, rendering them stateless. As with asylum seekers, refugees, and many of the internally displaced, Meskhetians in the northern Caucasus also have had considerable difficulties in registering for residence permits.

Another 15,000 ethnic Ingush from North Ossetia remained internally displaced in Ingushetia; another 13,000 to 14,000 had reportedly integrated into Ingushetia by year's end (see Prigorodnyi Region below).

Russia's North Ossetia, in turn, hosted about 19,600 Georgian refugees, most from Georgia's South Ossetia, at year's end. Because of legal and economic barriers to repatriation to South Ossetia, such as property disputes between returnees and local residents, repatriation of Georgian refugees from North Ossetia to South Ossetia slowed to a trickle during 2000.

Between 1997 and the end of 2000, UNHCR assisted 1,298 ethnic Ossetian refugees to repatriate from North Ossetia to South Ossetia, of whom 138 returned in 1999 and only 59 returned in 2000. During the year, an additional 11 ethnic Ossetian refugees repatriated from Russia to Georgia proper with UNHCR assistance, down from 101 in 1999.

Prigorodnyi Region

The October 1997 peace agreement between the Russian Federation republics of Ingushetia and North Ossetia held throughout 2000, and the return of the displaced and reconciliation saw signs of improvement during the year.

Competing territorial claims over the Prigorodnyi Region, part of North Ossetia but claimed by Ingushetia, sparked a war between ethnic Ingush and Ossetians in 1992. Almost the entire ethnic Ingush population (34,000 to 64,000 people) in Prigorodnyi and about 9,000 ethnic Ossetians fled as a result of the war. Although most Ossetians returned home, about 15,000 ethnic Ingush who expressed their intention to return to the Prigorodnyi Region remained displaced in Ingushetia at year's end. Another 13,000 to 14,000 ethnic Ingush have integrated into Ingushetia, and "are likely to settle permanently in Ingushetia," according to UNHCR.

Throughout the year, joint North Ossetian, Ingush, and Russian federal government patrols provided some security in the Prigorodnyi Region, but a general climate of lawlessness continued to impede Ingush returns to some towns. During the year, 2,384 persons (391 families) returned with UNHCR assistance to the Prigorodnyi Region.

Pre-1999 Displacement from Chechnya

The government estimated that more than 600,000 people fled their homes because of the 1994-96 war in Chechnya. Although about 200,000 had returned to their former homes after hostilities ended in August 1996, UNHCR reported that about 172,000 Chechens remained internally displaced prior to the resumption of fighting in Chechnya in August 1999.

Pre-1999 displacement in Chechnya fell into two categories: ethnic Chechens who often fled localities only to return when the fighting died down, and ethnic Russians who left the region with no intention of returning, mostly seeking to settle in other areas of Russia. Ethnic Chechens tended to flee either to rural areas of Chechnya or to neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan, while ethnic Russians were more likely to flee to Stavropol or other parts of the Russian Federation with a majority ethnic Russian population. Ethnic Russians without family connections were often directed to reception centers in other parts of Russia such as the Volga region, the Urals, and Siberia.

Those displaced from Chechnya in the 1994-96 war faced bureaucratic obstacles to integrating elsewhere in the Russian Federation. Many had no proof of owning property in Chechnya and were reportedly denied financial compensation for their losses, which they were entitled to under Russian law. Although many eventually received "forced migrant" status, they nevertheless had trouble securing residence permits, employment, health care, and pensions in other republics.

USCR Actions

As the humanitarian tragedy in Chechnya and Ingushetia continued throughout 2000, USCR advocated for Russia to uphold its international obligations, meeting with U.S. government officials, exiled Chechen leaders, UNHCR representatives, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and others attempting to assist the displaced and curtail Russian abuses against Chechen civilians. The meetings culminated in a USCR site visit to Chechnya, Ingushetia, Stavropol, and Moscow in December to assess conditions for people displaced by the war.

During its December site visit, USCR talked to displaced Chechens in Ingushetia and Chechnya, and interviewed aid organizations and others working to assist them. Some of the displaced people USCR interviewed in Ingushetia cited the lack of food in Grozny, the capital, as a reason for not returning, although lack of personal security and uninhabitable homes also topped the list. Almost all cited fear as the principal reason for not returning.

Traveling inside Grozny, USCR witnessed total, utter, destruction. Much of Grozny was razed, and vast areas of the city were reduced to rubble. Blocks on end were completely uninhabitable. USCR saw sites identified as hospitals or government buildings whose former identities as structures were unrecognizable.

Despite the devastation, people managed to live in the city, usually in badly damaged, clearly unsafe buildings, without electricity, potable water, or functioning sewage systems. Although food was for sale in sidewalk stands, it was obvious that no food or anything else was being produced in the city. Clearly, any food available in Grozny – whether in the market or as humanitarian aid – came from outside.

At the time, there were few signs of emergency humanitarian aid nor evidence of reconstruction, even temporary, of damaged housing. Some people said that oil from the damaged oil wells around the city had seeped into the water table. It seemed that some natural gas lines in the city were working, although USCR also saw pipes along city streets that were emitting fire.

Russian soldiers maintained a constant presence in Grozny, and had checkpoints at every turn. Closer examination of Grozny's street corners revealed machine gun nests, tanks, and bunkers. USCR counted 15 checkpoints on the main road from Ingushetia to the Grozny city limits.

Driving from Ingushetia to Grozny, USCR passed truck convoys with the logos of the NGOs carrying aid. USCR rarely saw them moving, however. Mostly, they sat still, waiting at checkpoints. USCR noted checkpoints along stretches of road uninterrupted by intersections, indicating no security rationale for checkpoints when no new traffic could enter the road. NGO personnel said that the main incentive for these checkpoints, aside from harassment, was to collect bribes.

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