Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 43

Thanks mostly to Chechnya, Russia has suddenly become the world’s largest source of would-be refugees seeking political asylum in western Europe. A November 19 Radio Liberty report by Jeremy Bransten found that this year Russia has outstripped countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan as an “exporter of asylum seekers.” In Bransten’s words, “when Moscow is trying to anchor itself in the West and pressure the European Union to lift visa restrictions, the rapid growth in refugees fleeing Russia cannot be a welcome development.”

An official of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told Bransten that the number of asylum applications from Russia to EU countries during the first nine months of 2003 was 23,465. That is some 66 percent higher than the figure for the same period last year. The Radio Liberty reporter noted that “the UNHCR does not keep ethnic statistics, but evidence from nongovernmental organizations that work with refugees and individual governments suggests most of the asylum seekers are, or claim to be, from Russia’s war-torn republic of Chechnya.”

Countries on the receiving end of the refugee flow often find that asylum seekers are motivated by economic deprivation rather than political persecution in their home countries, but Bransten found substantial evidence that in the case of Chechens the claims of persecution are true. In Austria, where asylum petitions from Russian citizens have exploded tenfold just since last year, the current acceptance rate of such petitions is 62 percent–as compared with 1 percent for applicants from Nigeria or zero percent for those from India. A spokesman for Austria’s interior ministry confirmed that “most of [the Russian citizens] have very good reasons for why they are seeking asylum in Austria. So it’s true that they are coming to us, and they will of course receive some aid, and most of them will receive asylum too.”