(Moscow) – Norway should stop using fast-track procedures to return asylum seekers to Russia based on the presumption that it is a safe country of asylum for them, Human Rights Watch said today. Russian and Norwegian authorities plan to meet on February 3, 2016, to come to an agreement about which migrants and asylum seekers, if any, may be immediately returned to Russia.
Norway has returned 13 asylum seekers to Russia since 2016 began, in addition to several hundred either returned to Russia or denied entry to Norway during the fall of 2015. It has slated dozens more to follow, despite the lack of assurance from the Russian authorities that they will provide those sent back with any hearing of their asylum claims, much less a fair consideration of their applications.
“The United Nations refugee agency and Norway’s own country of origin office have noted deficiencies in Russia’s asylum system that may prevent the fair and effective assessment of people’s refugee claims,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director at Human Rights Watch. “Norway should not return asylum seekers to Russia without examining their claims individually.”
In fall 2015, more than 5,500 migrants and asylum seekers crossed the Arctic border between Russia and Norway by bicycle, taking advantage of a border regulation that restricts pedestrians but not cyclists from crossing. These cyclists included asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and other war-torn and refugee-producing nations. Some – including two Yemeni nationals Human Rights Watch interviewed who were sent back on January 19, 2016 – had spent as little as a week or two in Russia on temporary visas before moving on to Norway to apply for asylum.
In the wake of the new arrivals, Norway adopted restrictive amendments to its Immigration Act that entered force on November 20, 2015. While the previous version of the law only allowed Norway to refuse examination of an asylum application if the applicant had “stayed in a state or an area…where the foreign national’s application for protection [would] be examined,” the new version has deleted that requirement. This change allows Norway to return asylum seekers to Russia regardless of whether Russia will consider their asylum claims.
According to a report published by Norway’s country of origin information center, Landinfo, the Russian asylum procedure is riddled with protection gaps and abuses. UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has further expressed its concern regarding this procedure, saying that “Norway is wrong to regard Russia as a safe country for people who need protection.” In October, the European Court of Human Rights found that Russia had violated the European Convention on Human Rights by ordering three Syrian men to be deported to Syria, detaining them indefinitely, and preventing them from exercising their right of individual petition.
The two Yemeni nationals told Human Rights Watch that they were returned to Russia just hours before their Russian visas expired, on the evening of January 19, 2016, despite Norway’s assurances that only those with “valid visa and residency in Russia” will be returned there without examination of their asylum claims.
Any agreement between Norway and Russia reached after the February 3 meeting should take into consideration both countries’ obligations to ensure that asylum seekers’ rights are protected, Human Rights Watch said.
Under international refugee norms, an asylum seeker should only be returned to a third country if that country is able and willing to provide the asylum seeker with effective protection. That means the country must respect the principle of nonrefoulement, which prohibits the return of individuals to a country where they face serious threat of persecution or harm, must guarantee decent reception conditions and access to fair asylum procedures, and must respect key refugee rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention, such as access to education for children.
To honor its obligations under this principle, Norway should reverse its November amendment to the 2008 Immigration Act, as well as ensure that the asylum claims of an asylum seeker will be examined – and examined fairly – before returning anyone to Russia.
Russian authorities should also provide assurances that they will fully and fairly examine the claims for protection of any person subjected to such returns, including providing decent conditions while claims are pending and full respect for the rights under the Refugee Convention, and that Russia will be transparent in complying with these assurances.
“Both Russia and Norway need to step up their asylum procedures to ensure that people seeking protection from persecution and harm are offered a meaningful opportunity to get that protection,” Lokshina said. “Otherwise both countries will be directly violating their obligations under international law.”