It Pays To Leave Russia

Crimeans may very well wish to be a part of the Russian Federation, but plenty of Russian citizens want out of it. The number of asylum seekers hailing from Russia quadrupled during 2013, reaching a record 39,800 individuals, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). More people ...

ATYANA MAKEYEVA/AFP/Getty Images
ATYANA MAKEYEVA/AFP/Getty Images
ATYANA MAKEYEVA/AFP/Getty Images

Crimeans may very well wish to be a part of the Russian Federation, but plenty of Russian citizens want out of it.

The number of asylum seekers hailing from Russia quadrupled during 2013, reaching a record 39,800 individuals, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). More people from Russia sought international protection last year than those from Afghanistan (38,700) and Iraq (38,200). Only Syria -- a country wracked by a brutal, years-old civil war -- produced more asylum seekers than Russia in 2013.

The UNHCR report doesn't dig into the reasons behind this dramatic spike in asylum seekers from Russia, but news reports over the last year point to a few possible factors, including rising anti-gay sentiment. Last year, Moscow enacted new laws banning "homosexual propaganda" and adoptions by same-sex couples, fueling a small but visible surge in Russian asylum seekers, according to the Wall Street Journal. Many sought protection in the U.S. and Canada, on the grounds that they were being persecuted for their sexual orientation.

Crimeans may very well wish to be a part of the Russian Federation, but plenty of Russian citizens want out of it.

The number of asylum seekers hailing from Russia quadrupled during 2013, reaching a record 39,800 individuals, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). More people from Russia sought international protection last year than those from Afghanistan (38,700) and Iraq (38,200). Only Syria — a country wracked by a brutal, years-old civil war — produced more asylum seekers than Russia in 2013.

The UNHCR report doesn’t dig into the reasons behind this dramatic spike in asylum seekers from Russia, but news reports over the last year point to a few possible factors, including rising anti-gay sentiment. Last year, Moscow enacted new laws banning "homosexual propaganda" and adoptions by same-sex couples, fueling a small but visible surge in Russian asylum seekers, according to the Wall Street Journal. Many sought protection in the U.S. and Canada, on the grounds that they were being persecuted for their sexual orientation.

But Germany, according to the UNHCR report, received the vast majority of asylum applications from people fleeing Russia — and, of those, many came from ethnic Chechens. Though the relationship between Chechnya — a subdivision of the Russian Federation — and Russia is historically fraught, the recent rise in Chechen applicants is a bit mysterious. German officials seem to believe it has something to do with a year-old German court ruling that grants asylum seekers the same social service benefits as Germans. In other words, it pays to leave Russia.

The report goes on to note that a total of 612,700 refugees sought asylum in 2013 — the highest figure since 2001. It marks a dramatic spike in the number of people fleeing conflict and persecution across the globe in the past few years.

The Syrian civil war has, of course, fueled a sharp rise in the overall number of asylum seekers. In 2013, some 56,400 Syrians applied for asylum in dozens of countries. That’s twice as many as in 2013 (25,200), and six times as many as in 2011 (8,500). "That Syrians sought international protection in all of the 44 industrialized countries speaks of the tragic situation in the Syrian Arab Republic," the report said.  

As a result, Syria displaced Afghanistan as the world’s top source of asylum seekers. Russia ranked second — but don’t tell Crimea.

Read the full report here.

Catherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.

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