Anastasia Denisova, an alumna of the MA in ‘Understanding and Securing Human Rights’ (2015-2016), School of Advanced Study, University of London interviewed Svetlana Gannushkina, the Director of ‘Civic Assistance’ NGO (Moscow) and a 2016 laureate of the prestigious Right Livelihood Award for ‘her decades-long commitment to promoting human rights and justice for refugees and forced migrants, and tolerance among different ethnic groups’. 

Svetlana Gannushkina, photo by Alisa Reihtman

Dear Ms Gannushkina, congratulations with receiving the award that is more well-known as an Alternative Peace Nobel Prize! It is indeed well-deserved. My first question is straightforward. What are the main problems with the asylum system in Russia?

The main shortcoming in the Russian asylum system is that it simply doesn’t exist. We don’t have one in Russia and we won’t be getting one any time soon. Yet international delegations are sometimes misled in this regard. The Federal Migration Services once reported to one of them that in one year in Russia 1324 people were granted refugee status, and that Russia provides an allowance immediately upon application for asylum. Several members of the delegation approached me afterward since they were in disbelief. I open the table (note: from FMS statistics), and I tell them, “Look which column 1324 is in. The applicant column, not granted! Now look how much they gave in allowances… not a penny.” Some were rather dumbfounded. And when I said that there was no allowance, they said, “How? We were told it was given from day one.” Of course, the law says that when someone is seeking asylum, he or she receives a one-time allowance. Do you know how much it is? One hundred roubles (note: less than 2 pounds sterling). Besides, you should note that the law doesn’t provide for any housing, even to those who have already attained refugee status, and no allowance. So even after granting refugee status, we provide people with absolutely zero safety net. It would be wrong to approach this as a question of money; we don’t spend any money on them, after all. They get the right to work, the right to study like citizens, and this can play out in a number of ways.

For four years under Medvedev’s presidency, a state migration policy initiative was being developed. A great many highly qualified people were involved. The initiative was geared toward labour migration and how it can benefit Russia. As we were involved, we proposed that the institution of asylum needs to be developed, we need to tackle the issue of stateless persons, and the registration system (note: a far cry from the Soviet Union times) needs to be simplified. The initiative was finalized and approved in 2012 when Putin was already president. In accordance with the common Russian principle that “the right hand shouldn’t know what the left hand is signing”, before being inaugurated again as president, Putin issued about seven pivotal articles. One of them was concerning migration, and in it was clearly stated that registration rules needed to be tightened, that we don’t need to pay attention to anything besides illegal migration, and so on. New migration policy trends were set. It’s possible he didn’t even read the initiative he approved, but that article reflected his views on how things should be. So now there are two documents — the migration policy initiative and some article in Rossiyskaya Gazeta (note: the Russian government newspaper) that can’t really be considered a document. Can you guess which one has been enforced? The process has been developing in the spirit of the article, not the initiative.

In the first two years of Putin’s presidency, a series of 40 amendments to the existing migration policy was enacted, mostly of a repressive nature. The last thing done in 2016 was the integration of the FMS into the framework of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which absolutely destroyed the migration management system. The FMS management was left hanging, since now no one answers to them. They are now part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and can only make some recommendations. But they have no right to veto the decision of someone who manages migration right then and there because he or she doesn’t answer to them, but instead answers to the local Ministry of Internal Affairs. As I understand from my discussion with the deputy minister of the Ministry of Internal Affairs who oversees this topic, they themselves aren’t sure how to navigate the integration. The Ministry of Internal Affairs does not deal with integration. And our Ministry of Internal Affairs is from Soviet times; it’s a purely repressive department. My proposal to create a new department that would deal with asylum assistance didn’t gain their support.

So is it the policy not the law that dominates the procedure for determining status? I’m referring to Putin’s article that was imposed like a seal on the asylum system.

The article was Putin’s own impression of the world. He imagines the world like that. He thinks the asylum system needs to be tightened. He had a discussion with Mr. Muzykantsky (note: the former Human Rights Ombudsman in Moscow), who told him that these problems with illegal migration needed to be dealt with differently, not by tightening registration rules, to which Putin replied, “My people have already given it some thought; there is no other way”.

But there are other people, there is global experience; but this is of interest to no one.

“Yes, we need migrants,” Putin told me in person, “migrants of Slavic origin, of reproductive age and with a good education”. Yet he somehow overlooks the fact that such people are leaving Russia, not moving here.

Ms Gannushkina, about the asylum system — what should be done to fix it?

Remember that this will only change when the system changes from the top down.

Is it possible today to achieve some fair consideration of refugee affairs through legal methods?

I mean, what legal methods? You can go to court all you want, but once the president of Russia, not Putin actually but Medvedev, says that our judge is professionally, psychologically and corporately linked to the investigation and the prosecutors office, then what’s the point of going to court where the corporations will just judge according to their own interests? Our country’s president is imposing a de facto death sentence on the judicial system. In this way he has written off our courts as nonexistent. His assessment is fair, but he seems to think that it’s fine, and that this is how it is everywhere. But there are places where the judicial system is truly independent. Like in the US with Trump (note: the non-enforcement of presidential decisions by local authorities). Yes, the president issued an order, and they told him, “look buddy, you’re in over your head. Don’t you get that there are limits to your power?”.

Svetlana Gannushkina and Anastasia Denisova, photo by Alisa Reihtman

More and more the European media are writing about the “migrant crisis”, that the welcoming attitude of the authorities of certain countries has lead to public discontent. How can we deal with this?

Well, what can you do? We must understand that migration is a challenge. And migration incited by war is a double challenge. The answer to the challenge must be reasonable. We must respond to it, not resist it. I always say that in Russia we combat problems (note: boremsya s problemoi), but instead we should solve them (note: reshat’ problemy). It’s as if I were to give a student a homework maths assignment not to solve but to “fight!” It would be silly, just ridiculous. And it’s just the same with this problem. The people have been presented with the problem of migration — a very serious problem. But we shouldn’t fight it. We should solve it — comprehend it, analyse it, find solution mechanisms.

What do you think, can someone fleeing war count on any pre-existing mechanisms for claiming asylum?

Well you see, if we take the 1951 Refugee Convention, the main concern is not people fleeing war, but rather people fleeing persecution. Such refugee status is aimed not at those who are simply saving their own lives, but people who risk real persecution based on some selective principle. The convention specifies five such principles: citizenship, ethnicity, religion, belonging to a certain social group and political convictions. When we see that just 270 Ukrainians were granted refugee status, and that they are Berkut (note: a special subdivision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine) and prosecutors, we realize that this is in accordance with the Convention because these people cannot return to Ukraine since they will be subjected to personal persecution and perhaps, indeed, unfairly. As for people fleeing war, they should probably receive some additional guarantee of protection.

But as I understand the trend — after all the law is a living mechanism, and if people used to think that “the persecution should always take the side of the state”, then if the persecutor is a third party, the person no longer falls under the definition of the Convention. But this understanding has come about gradually.

As the great James C. Hathaway taught us at our Moscow seminar back in 1999, the state or certain state organs (not the government or the president, but, for example, the ministry of internal affairs or the military) can be the persecutor, and persecution can also come from certain groups the state cannot or chooses not to protect against. This marked a clear expansion of the definition.

Now it seems to me that it is expanding in connection with events in Ukraine and even more so in connection with events in Syria. It is believed that people who come from regions where they are at risk not because of some selective principle, but simply because distress and misfortune can affect anyone, should in any case receive refugee status.

People are saving their own lives, the state lacks the means to ensure their safety, so they get the chance to claim refugee status. That’s not how things work here. We provide temporary asylum, like what the Ukrainians were given, but Syrians generally don’t receive it. Only two Syrians have refugee status here. It’s outrageous! I think that if the trend of expanding the interpretation of the Convention continues, then the understanding of what constitutes a refugee is likely to expand beyond a precise adherence to the Convention.

Do you believe the Russian and European asylum systems are moving in different directions?

Just as we were initially enthusiastic about the Ukrainian refugees, so was Europe enthusiastic about the Syrians. And Syrians received support in the millions in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Lebanon is hardly visible on a map and yet they took 700,000. At first (note: in Europe) there was significant, active interest in the Syrians. Then, just like with the Ukrainians here, began the decline.

But that decline still didn’t have such tragic outcomes in people’s fates that they could no longer achieve anything, as was the case here in Russia. Russian authorities use the refugee theme to scare the public; they fashion themselves as the protectors of the people against the refugee invasion, although, we haven’t seen anything of the sort; and accepting five or six thousand Syrians into this giant country Russia wouldn’t be such a challenge. Such protectionist politics could be seen as populism. It is different from, for example, the position of Angela Merkel, who is strong enough to make unpopular decisions.

How would you assess the asylum procedure in the US and the actions taken by the new leadership to toughen the procedure?

It’s a whole other story in the US; they have a quota for Mexicans, a quota for labour migrants and a quota for asylum seekers. They invite people around the world, announcing green card lotteries. Because they have their own sort of migration policy built on the idea that they should have everything in America. Not once did the American migration services or residents approach me with a support letter (note: for refugee status). It seems to me that it’s practically impossible to arrive in America and then be deported. But yes, now Trump has arrived, still I think he won’t soon change America, rather America will reject him.

Civic Assistance lawyers at work, photo by Alexander Fyodorov

What do you think, does the international asylum system have a future?

How could it not, with such a huge number of refugees? If we scrap the system and these people do as they will, then the receiving countries where they live will have a hard time of it. Because you either grant them legal status and provide them with hope for the future or you create for yourself a criminal system. It’s what I’ve been saying for a hundred years: being kind and humane is much more to your advantage. The most pragmatic decision is always the most humane one. On the whole, I’m a pragmatist, while Putin is an idealist. And it’s precisely because I am absolutely positive that it is to my benefit and to the benefit of my society to be humane and help those around me. You don’t gain a thing, besides enemies, through repressive actions. Putin is an idealist, he idealizes force. For him, force and power are what create stability, which can be used to solve problems. But this isn’t a way of solving problems, only of managing them.

But this struggle brings me to my favourite analogy of the rabbit. Have you read the tale of Uncle Remus? In it, a fox makes a little doll out of tar, a “tar-baby” and it’s a problem for the rabbit because he gets into a fight with the doll. The rabbit hits the doll with one paw and it gets stuck, then the second, and it sticks, then the third and the fourth (since he has four legs). And he gets all stuck to the tar. Look, this is a symbol for how we struggle with our problems. Not just with what’s going on in Ukraine, but also with Crimea, with migration, which we’re dealing with here, and whatever else. It’s the only way we know how, we struggle with everything the same way: right, left, uppercut, two legs and we’re stuck. At that point, just take us and our tar-baby and please don’t throw us into a thorn bush!

In summer 2016 in New York, a declaration on massive relocations of refugees and migrants was adopted. For me, the significance of this was that the international community understood that migration would continue to develop. It’s inevitable; that’s the direction society is growing in. It has already become impossible to distinguish clearly between labour migration and forced migration. The borders between states play an increasingly less significant role, and we must inevitably live in a single society. Human society should live by internationally recognized laws if we want to preserve it.

April 2017, Moscow