BERLIN — There are a record number of asylum seekers pinning their hopes on Germany this year, and refugees from Russia by far represent the largest group. Of those, some 90% are from the North Caucasus, particularly Chechnya.
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has characterized the situation as “unsettling.” Germany has more asylum requests than any other country in the European Union, and about a fifth of these come from Russian citizens. This year was the first time since 2000, when the German Immigration Service started collecting data, that Russian citizens represented the largest group of applicants, edging out countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Serbia.
“The overwhelming majority of the Russian asylum applicants come from Chechnya and the North Caucasus,” says a German Immigration Service source. The German newspaper Die Welt has described it less politely. “Terrorists apply for asylum in Germany.”
Alexander Kamkin, an expert from the German European Research Institute, says refugees are "often seen as people who were not able to integrate into Chechnya’s power structure or as supporters of radical Islam, who choose to apply for asylum in a country where the government won’t interfere with the diaspora’s way of life.”
The German Immigration Service source says the security situation is, just as before, “quite problematic” in the North Caucasus. Asylum seekers are motivated by a desire to escape poverty and hope for a better life. And they are helped by the proliferation of criminal organizations that help people emigrate illegally.
Word of German incentives
“Considering how attached Chechens are to their land, only interior reasons — like the problems of society and the political regime — could make people leave everything and leave for the unknown,” explains Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the Citizen’s Cooperation, an organization that helps refugees and forced migrants. She also says that among the reasons for increased migration to Germany is the widely spread rumor that the country has a quota for Chechens and that the government will give them money and land to establish themselves upon arrival.
The press service of Berlin’s Russian embassy confirms that those rumors are not entirely unfounded. “In comparison to other European countries, German attracts economic migrants from the North Caucasus because of remarkable social benefits,” it says. “In fact, some German experts say that more refugees come to Germany precisely because it offers a higher level of social benefits than other European countries.”
The German government denies that it has a quota for refugees from Chechnya, as the rumors in Chechnya would imply. The government explains that refugees and asylum applicants are all provided with housing, food and medical services, and monetary aid is tied to the German minimum wage.
The leadership in Chechnya doubts the validity of the statistics regarding Chechen refugees. “There are no official statistics on Chechnya,” explains Alvi Karimov, the press secretary for the head of Chechnya. That assertion is one the German Immigration Service acknowledges. “So there is no data on the real number of residents of the Chechen republic who apply for asylum. We have heard reliable testimony that residents of other parts of the North Caucasus who apply for asylum in Germany pretend to be Chechens, although they are not. In Chechnya itself, there are no political or economic reasons for people to move anywhere.”
The Russian embassy in Berlin is also unconvinced that all the supposed “Chechen” asylum applicants really come from Chechnya. “Russian consular officers don’t have access to asylum applicants,” explains an embassy employee. “Most of the applicants are here in violation of local laws. Asylum applicants are usually in the country totally without papers, so their personal information is based on their word alone and doesn’t always correspond to the reality.”
Whatever the case may be, the record number of refugees fleeing to Germany has had an enormous impact on the overall number of refugees in Europe. According to Eurostat, Russia sent more refugees to Europe than any other countries in the first quarter of 2013 and more than twice as many Russian citizens arrived as refugees this year than the previous year. This sharp increase could have a negative impact on the ongoing negotiations with the European Union on the issue of loosening visa requirements for Russian citizens visiting the EU. The EU has already had to toughen its visa requirements in response to increased migration from the Balkan countries.
“The negotiations with the EU have already encountered problems,” says Aleksai Makarkin, vice president of the Center of Political Technology. “The number of asylum applications will give the European Union a reason to say that Russia has problems with democracy and that they should be as careful as possible in relations with the Russian Federation.”