A plea for help from African migrants detained in Russia

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Migrants from various African countries have reported being arrested and locked in a detention center in Russia, about 100 km from the Belarusian border. Since the beginning of November, these migrants have alerted the AXADLETM Observers team to the conditions in the center, where they live in fear of being deported.

Since the summer, thousands of migrants have been trying to reach the European Union via Belarus, from where they are heading towards the Polish, Lithuanian or Latvian borders. On the border with Poland, the crisis is intensifying, with authorities doing everything in their power to prevent migrants from entering the country.

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Stranded in the middle of the forest along the Polish border, some migrants have chosen to turn back, towards the east, towards Belarus or even towards Russia.

“We were arrested by the FSB on the grounds that we did not have a visa to be in Russia.

I came to study in Russia, but my visa expired in 2016, so I found myself undocumented, and I started doing odd jobs.

This summer, I decided to go to Belarus, because I had heard that the country had opened its border posts with the European Union. Finally, at the beginning of October, I arrived at the Polish border with my friends. For almost three weeks we tried to enter Poland, but each time we were sent back. After a while we ran out of food and drink, so we decided to go back to Russia.

In a taxi we drove through Belarus, then Russia, but we were stopped by the FSB [Editor’s note: theFederal Security Service, Russia’s main security agency] in Smolensk at the end of October, on the grounds that we did not have a visa to be in Russia.

We were tried, without a lawyer or an interpreter who did not speak French well, and the judge said that we would be deported. We couldn’t say a word.

Then they took us to a detention center, which is where I am now. We are suffering here: we can only shower once a week, we can go to the toilet twice a day.[Editor’s note: according to other African detainees, the sanitary facilities are dirty, and they can only go outside for 10 to 20 minutes a day.] Food is just bread, soup …

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© {{scope.credits}} And now our only prospect is to be kicked out. But we don’t know when we will be deported because they told us it was up to us to buy the plane ticket. Otherwise, we will die right in the center.

Our Observer’s detention center is located in the forest near Dukhovshchina, about 60 km north of Smolensk. The Belarusian border is about 100 km to the west.

According to our Observer and others at the center, there are currently 30 to 50 people there. In addition to Africans, some are said to be from Cuba and Arab countries. They are only allowed to use the Internet between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.

The detention center did not respond to our requests for comment at the time of this article’s publication.

“The only way to avoid deportation is to seek asylum” Fatima Kokaeva, who works for the Civic Assistance Committee, a Russian NGO that helps migrants and refugees, knows of this type of temporary detention center for foreigners. It confirms the testimony of our Observer on the conditions in these centers, and tells us about the desperate situation in which many migrants find themselves.

These are centers where people arrested without papers are held until their deportation. They are a kind of prison. They have been around since 2016 in Russia: they are almost everywhere in the country. They are under the control of the Ministry of the Interior.

When people are arrested without papers, they are tried by the Migration Service, which is part of the Ministry of the Interior. Basically, if they cross the Russian border illegally, they are fined at least 2,000 rubles. [about 24 euros], or even imprisoned for up to six years, and then they are deported, unless they have, for example, a Russian spouse or child. The problem is that there is not always an interpreter at the trial.

A person also detained in the center near Dukhovshchina told me that the judge had just asked him and others a question: “Do you know that you crossed the Russian border without a visa?” They answered “yes”. And then they weren’t allowed to ask questions. They broke the law, so they were sentenced.

“Russia very rarely grants asylum” The only way to avoid deportation is to seek asylum. But even if they request it, they must pay their fine or even serve their prison sentence. And Russia very rarely grants asylum.

Between March 16, 2020 and September 30, 2021, it was forbidden to deport people from Russia, because of the Covid-19. There was even a kind of amnesty: people without a visa could register with the authorities. But since September 30, the arrested undocumented migrants have again been sent to detention centers. That said, with the pandemic still ongoing, it’s unclear when they will be deported.

Normally, the Russian state buys the plane ticket and the person can wait two years before being returned. But they can also pay for their own ticket if they want to leave early.

In Russia, many Africans have been legal residents for years but they can still try to reach the EU, for example, if they find themselves in a situation where they cannot renew their visas or apply for a visa. asylum is rejected in Russia.

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