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Russia: As Pandemic Grows, Migration Detention Deadlock

With Risk of Spreading Covid-19, Government Should Find Alternatives

A detained migrant from a former Soviet republic waits in a holding cell at a police station in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. Picture taken September 19, 2013.  © 2013 Reuters

Update: On April 18, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree regulating the legal status of foreigners during the lockdown in the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The decree extends through June 15 the validity of migration documents and lifts work permit requirements. It also imposed a moratorium, for the same duration, on issuing decisions on deportation and expulsion. However, it does not address the situation of the thousands of people currently in migration detention.

(Moscow) – Thousands are stuck in migration detention indefinitely in Russia because the travel restrictions under the Covid-19 epidemic mean that their removal is not imminent, Human Rights Watch said today.

Russian authorities should provide safe and dignified alternatives to migration detention for people facing deportation or court-mandated expulsion. They should also improve access to healthcare and ensure social distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in Russia’s migration detention centers.

“The huge global challenge that the Covid-19 pandemic poses does not absolve Russia, nor any government, from living up to its human rights obligations,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “To stop the spread of Covid-19 inside and outside of Russia’s migration detention facilities, the Russian government should immediately offer alternatives to migration detention, especially given that many migrants cannot be deported or removed at this time.”

More than 8,000 people, including families with children, are effectively being held in indefinite detention across Russia because of the near-total shutdown in international travel. In some instances, children have been separated from their parents, held in different detention centers, and placed in separate removal proceedings.

The very poor conditions in many of Russia’s migration detention facilities are well known. Overcrowding, inadequate medical care, and poor sanitation are notable problems. Since the onset of the pandemic, the police continue to arrest migrants for a range of reasons, now including violation of the lockdown regime, which could lead to further overcrowding of the detention centers.

Migrants in Russian migration detention centers. © 2018 Habarho/Creative

As multiple cases before the European Court of Human Right have confirmed, for years Russia has detained indefinitely people who cannot be removed from the country, violating the prohibition on arbitrary detention and other guarantees of liberty and security.

Russian authorities should take immediate steps to reduce the immigration detention facility population and place detainees in alternative settings that facilitate their protection from Covid-19. This includes providing access to facilities that allow for adequate space for social distancing, and where migrants can secure food, hygiene products, and healthcare. Government measures should take into account the individual circumstances of all migrants, respect the dignity and autonomy of affected people, and ensure that no one is made homeless or otherwise destitute as a result of release from detention.

Some of Russia’s top rights groups that focus on migrants’ rights and conditions in detention, including Civic Assistance, Anti-Discriminatory Center “Memorial,” Human Rights Center “Memorial,” the “For Human Rights” movement, and members of Public Monitoring Commissions, have recommended that the government release foreigners whose prompt repatriation is not possible or who are especially vulnerable to coronavirus due to their health conditions. Their statement noted that this measure would protect the health and lives of detainees and would contribute to preventing the spread of Covid-19 within and beyond migration detention facilities.

The Russian authorities should also consider a temporary moratorium on police checks of migration documents and expulsion and deportation orders until the quarantine, lockdown, and curfew restrictions are lifted. This could prevent a further increase in the number of detainees, overcrowding, and risk of exposure to the virus for migrants, police, and staff of the detention centers.

“The Russian authorities should not continue to turn a blind eye to the plight of migrants in detention and should mobilize provision of alternative housing in hotels, unused buildings, and sports halls, if necessary, to provide safe, adequate shelter that allows for social distancing,” Denber said. “This is a test not only of Russia’s legal system and the government’s crisis preparedness, but of its humanity and decency.”

For additional details about the situation, please see below.

Covid-19 is a serious disease, which can have symptoms ranging from no-to-mild fever, shortness of breath, and cough for people at low risk, to respiratory failure and death. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies people at highest risk to include those over age 60 and those of any age with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer.

Other serious conditions putting people at high risk include blood disorders; chronic kidney or liver disease; compromised immune system; endocrine disorders, including diabetes; metabolic disorders; heart and lung disease, including asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions; and current or recent pregnancy.

Travel Shutdowns, Indefinite Detention

Starting in mid-March 2020, the Russian authorities gradually shut down Russia’s borders, with each consecutive government decision announced on short notice. They gradually introduced public measures to limit the spread of Covid-19 within the country, starting with isolating people returning from abroad and then introducing surveillance measures to ensure that people observe quarantine. Lockdowns are in place in most of Russia’s regions, and in some, a pass system requires people to apply for permission to leave home. The specifics of these regimes vary from region to region.

On March 23, the Russian authorities significantly restricted and then, on March 27, stopped the arrival of international flights, with the exception of repatriation flights for Russians stranded abroad. Railroad lines were shut down almost entirely a week earlier. All remaining routes in and out of the country were officially closed as of March 30. None of the government decisions on these closures include time limits.

Some foreign governments organized flights to repatriate their nationals from Russia, but their capacities were limited, and many discontinued these operations after March 30. In a rare exception, according to two human rights lawyers working on asylum and migration issues Human Rights Watch interviewed, on April 12, about 200 Uzbek nationals were repatriated from the Moscow migration detention center. Other foreigners in migration detention facilities might have no prospect of removal through repatriation to their countries of origin or readmission to third countries in the foreseeable future.

To their credit, on March 19, Russian authorities declared that foreigners stranded in Russia could extend their visas, migration cards, residence permits, and work authorizations. However, this did not affect people already in migration detention.

On March 23, an ombudsperson for Sverdlov region and member of President Vladimir Putin’s human rights council, Tatyana Merzliakova, stated that people were being held indefinitely, without any prospect of imminent deportation. She visited a migration detention center in Yekaterinburg, where at the time 248 people were held.


Migrants in Russian migration detention centers. © 2018 Habarho/Creative

In some cases, regional courts have overturned on appeal deportation orders with explicit reference to border closures and impossibility of removal. But the Russian authorities have made no policy decisions to review the situation of those in migration detention.

The problem of indefinite migration detention in Russia predates the pandemic. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights delivered its first judgment in a case against Russia concerning migration detention without prospect of removal. The court reiterated that any deprivation of liberty can be justified only “for as long as deportation or extradition proceedings are in progress” and where that is no longer feasible, continued detention of a person is a violation. The court also noted that conditions in such migration detention centers may amount to inhumane and degrading treatment.

Since 2014, the European Court has issued 18 similar rulings against Russia, which have yet to be carried out.

In 2017 the Russian Constitutional Court, citing the European Court, ruled that detention for an indefinite period is not permissible.

Infractions That Lead to Migration Detention

People in Russia’s migration detention facilities are held for a wide variety of offenses, many of them petty, such as irregularities with residence registration, expired passports, missing deadlines for paying monthly fees, and delays in renewal of migration cards, which are issued to foreigners for limited duration upon entry. Many detainees are migrant workers from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, which do not have visa regimes with Russia. It is relatively easy for them to enter Russia, but often hard to obtain and maintain regularized status.

Valentina Chupik, a human rights lawyer who operates a hotline for migrants in Russia, told Human Rights Watch that despite the pandemic, law enforcement authorities continue to detain people for migration infractions. In late February, media reported that the authorities had begun detaining migrants for violating new, self-isolation requirements. Chupik believes the police are interpreting these alleged violations as infractions of migration rules, even though under a recently adopted law, the sanction for such infringements is a monetary fine.

In some regions, the authorities have toughened lockdown and self-isolation regimes by introducing pass systems to travel inside and outside of cities. As police begin to enforce these regimes, migrants could be at dramatically increased risk of detention, especially as many are unable to register their temporary stay, as required by Russian law. The situation is aggravated by longstanding police practices of racial profiling and extortion.

Expulsion and Deportation

Migration detention centers hold people under deportation and expulsion orders. Under Russian law, expulsion is a punitive sanction, handed down by courts, for some offenses. Its application may be discretionary or a mandatory additional sanction, depending on the offense. Under a “forced expulsion” order, it is the authorities’ responsibility to enforce the removal. Under a “controlled voluntary exit” order, migrants must leave Russia, making their own travel arrangements at their own expense.

Chupik said that courts continue to hand out “controlled voluntary exit” orders, even though people currently have no options to comply with such an order and risk additional penalties for non-compliance.

Many courts in Russia have moved to remote review of cases though videoconferencing.

However, Chupik said, in expulsion cases, some courts are instead conducting the proceedings by proxy, with police officers taking the detainee’s documents to court and returning with court rulings, in contravention of Russian law.

Migrants await their fate in police stations for hours at a time, in crowded spaces along with other detainees, without any health precautions or personal protection equipment. Violations of migrants’ rights during court proceedings that were routine before the pandemic have continued, such as lack of access to adequate legal aid and interpretation in their native languages.

Migration police order deportation when, for example, migrants’ work permits, visas, and the like are annulled, canceled, or withdrawn, or after foreigners have served out criminal sentences in Russia. In some cases, asylum seekers whose applications for asylum are rejected by migration authorities are held in migration detention pending deportation. Some are also held while they await appeal decisions.

Notably, according to media reports, in early February the government included Covid-19 in the list of diseases that can prompt a deportation order, without full clarity as to how that measure would be enforced and whether such deportees would be held in the same facilities as other migrant detainees pending removal. And in recent days Russian officials and politicians have voiced proposals to deport migrant workers, amid unproven theories that new unemployment among migrant workers could cause a rise in crime and allegations that migrants are violating social distancing rules.

Conditions in Migration Detention Facilities

Around the world, Covid-19 risk is particularly acute in places of detention, including migration detention centers. The virus can spread rapidly in these centers, especially if access to healthcare is already poor.

According to media reports citing information from Russia’s Interior Ministry, Russia has 78 migration detention centers, with 8,571 foreigners and stateless people detained there as of late 2019.

Human rights defenders who visit Russia’s migration detention centers say that conditions in these facilities are worse than in Russia’s pretrial detention facilities or prisons. Access to medical care is especially problematic. In October, St. Petersburg’s ombudsperson’s office inspected the local migration detention center, and was concerned that the only medical assistance available was limited to what may lawfully performed by a nurse practitioner.

The ombudsperson’s team found that this “created problems with providing more specialized medical care and could facilitate the spread of infectious diseases within the center.” The ombudsperson also stressed that they reported similar problems in their previous annual report, and that the situation had not improved.

Independent monitors reported similar findings in facilities in other parts of Russia. Two lawyers working on asylum and migration issues noted that in many cases persistent intervention by lawyers is needed to ensure that detainees get adequate medical attention, including examination and treatment by specialists outside of the migration detention centers.

Chupik told Human Rights Watch that although rules require medical examinations for all detainees upon entry, the practice varied in facilities she visited in Moscow and several other regions in 2019. In at least one facility, there were no exams upon entry. Furthermore, only one nurse practitioner is allocated per center in some places, but at least in one center, this practitioner had not been in regular attendance. Several sources also reported shortages of basic medications and serious deficiencies in the treatment of infectious diseases.

Several lawyers who spoke separately with Human Rights Watch and who have visited the Moscow facility said that the toilet in the cells consists of a hole in the floor and, in some cells, it was not adequately separated from the rest of the cell, where detainees also eat their meals. One of the lawyers said the center has a canteen for detainees, but that it has not been used.

Human rights monitors also found that migration detention centers are not equipped for the detention of children and that there are no pediatricians on the payroll. Yet human rights defenders and media report that in some cases, children are held with their mothers in migration detention centers, and in other cases they are separated from their families and held and processed for removal in different facilities. One expert said that the authorities in some cases have taken measures to prioritize children for removal so that their detention is limited where possible, but they do not prioritize avoiding family separation, which is fundamental to ensuring a child’s best interests and their right to family unity.

In some centers, detainees are held in premises that resemble prison cells. In many centers, foreigners awaiting deportation after they finish serving criminal sentences, including those who were charged with violent crimes, are held in the same cells with people held only for migration infractions and rejected asylum seekers, in violation of international and national standards.

Human rights defenders have also consistently reported overcrowding in some migration detention centers.

Migrants in Russian migration detention centers. © 2018 Habarho/Creative

Starting March 18, 2020 Russian authorities have banned visits to all places of detention. Conditions for visits by lawyers have varied among facilities. Visits are not currently allowed in most.

International Law and Better Practices in Council of Europe Countries

Under international human rights law, everyone, including people in custody, has the right to “the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” States have an obligation to ensure that medical care for those in their custody is at least equivalent to that available to the general population and must not limit equal access to preventive, curative, or palliative care. In a statement of principles on the treatment of prisoners and detainees amid the Covid-19 crisis, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, a body of the Council of Europe, asked authorities to use alternatives to detention “and refrain, to the maximum extent possible, from detaining migrants.”

On March 25, its sister body, the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture urged all countries to reduce populations in detention centers and refugee camps “to the lowest possible level.” The same day, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that governments should “work quickly to reduce the number of people in detention” to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 “rampaging through such… extremely vulnerable populations.”

On March 26, the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Dunja Mijatović, echoed the call to release detainees from migration detention to the extent possible. She noted that “migration detention facilities generally provide poor opportunities for social distancing and other measures to protect against Covid-19 infection for migrants and staff” and also stressed that under human rights law, migration detention for the purpose of such returns can only be lawful as long as the return is feasible.

Mijatovic also noted that several Council of Europe states have started releasing migration detainees and encouraged others to follow suit.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, authorities in Belgium, Spain, and the United Kingdom have released hundreds of people from migration detention. Calls from nongovernmental organizations are mounting in other Council of Europe states, including many European Union countries, to urgently find alternatives to migration detention.

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