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Amid anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim discourse, it seems that some refugees are more equal than others when it comes to seeking asylum in Europe

Leila Nazgül Seiit­bek
, Ori­gin­al pub­lished on openDemocracy

9 Novem­ber 2021, 11.21am

Khizbullo Shovalizoda was pos­it­ive that Aus­tria would be a safe place for him to express his dis­sent without fear of retri­bu­tion, safe from the long reach of the Tajik authorities.

What the 28-year-old act­iv­ist did not know, how­ever, is that European coun­tries are increas­ingly fail­ing to hon­our the norms set out in the UN’s 1951 Refugee Con­ven­tion, which for 70 years has served as a beacon of pro­tec­tion for refugees the world over.

Ini­tially, the Aus­tri­an author­it­ies seemed to observe the tra­di­tion of inter­na­tion­al pro­tec­tion in Shovalizoda’s case. They rejec­ted an extra­di­tion request from Tajikistan, which is known for its author­it­ari­an cli­mate, fol­low­ing an invest­ig­a­tion that showed the charges of extrem­ism and ter­ror­ism brought against him were polit­ic­ally motiv­ated. But then the Aus­tri­an Fed­er­al Office for Immig­ra­tion and Asylum and the courts over­ruled this decision and denied Khizbullo protection.

The Aus­tri­an author­it­ies depor­ted him to Tajikistan in March 2020. Imme­di­ately upon his arrival at Dush­anbe Air­port, the Tajik pro­sec­utor gen­er­al issued a press release thank­ing Aus­tria for its cooper­a­tion in “extra­dit­ing” an “extrem­ist”.

Khizbullo Shovalizoda | Source: RFE/RL

In June that year, in a closed court ses­sion, which observ­ers and fam­ily mem­bers were not allowed to attend, Shovalizoda was sen­tenced to 20 years in pris­on on extrem­ism and treas­on charges.

Iron­ic­ally, fol­low­ing the Tajik court decision, an Aus­tri­an court has now ruled that the deport­a­tion was illeg­al and that Shovalizoda should be returned to Aus­tria and be gran­ted asylum.

Asylum cases are not just num­bers, they are human stor­ies. With the rise of a strong anti-immig­rant dis­course in the European Uni­on, the bloc’s agenda has shif­ted towards keep­ing asylum seekers away from its bor­ders, as well as return­ing as many as pos­sible to their coun­tries of ori­gin, under the mis­guided con­vic­tion that this will deter future arrivals. This has turned the EU’s land and sea bor­ders into spaces of death and desperation.

Not all the same

A more devi­ous form of exclu­sion has seeped into the asylum pro­cess in recent years, too, as asylum seekers are dis­crim­in­ated against accord­ing to nation­al­ity. Belarus­i­an exiles escap­ing the Lukashen­ka regime’s crack­down on pro­longed protests for the safety of Europe have been rel­at­ively lucky.

Yauheni took part in the massive wave of demon­stra­tions fol­low­ing Belarus’s fraud­u­lent pres­id­en­tial elec­tions in August last year. Like many oth­ers, he found him­self under pres­sure from law enforce­ment, and even­tu­ally left for Poland in Octo­ber 2020 on a tour­ist visa. Yauheni applied for asylum in March 2021; his case is cur­rently under review.

Uladzi­s­lau, a 28-year-old LGBTIQ act­iv­ist, fled to Ukraine, where he was gran­ted a human­it­ari­an visa for Poland. Both volun­teer at the Belarus­i­an organ­isa­tion Human Con­stanta, which provides leg­al sup­port for refugees, migrants and state­less persons.

“We look European, like them. People here think we are cul­tur­ally close, we are not Muslim, and that’s why they are more recept­ive and sym­path­et­ic to us”

Speak­ing to open­Demo­cracy, Uladzi­s­lau and Yauheni dis­cussed the numer­ous admin­is­trat­ive hurdles they have encountered dur­ing their asylum pro­ced­ure in Poland, such as the loc­a­tion of migra­tion centres in remote areas, long hours wait­ing out­side the migra­tion office in harsh weath­er, and the dif­fi­culties in renew­ing their asylum iden­ti­fic­a­tion papers after expiry. Both agreed, how­ever, that their troubles were noth­ing com­pared to what oth­er asylum seekers face.

By “oth­ers”, Uladzi­s­lau and Yauheni meant refugees from Cent­ral Asia, the Cau­cas­us, Iraq and Afgh­anistan. “We under­stand why we have this priv­ilege. We are white,” they said.

Yauheni added: “We look European, like them. People here think we are cul­tur­ally close, we are not Muslim, and that’s why they are more recept­ive and sym­path­et­ic to us.”

Protest in Minsk, 27 Septem­ber 2020 | Pub­lic Domain: Jana Nizovt­seva / Flickr

By con­trast, dis­trust and dis­crim­in­a­tion await “non-white” asylum seekers.

The case of Far­hod Odin­aev is emblem­at­ic. Before becom­ing an asylum seeker, Odin­aev was a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man in Moscow, where he had moved from Tajikistan in 2014. His mis­take was to sup­port the polit­ic­al oppos­i­tion at home: he had joined the Islam­ic Renais­sance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the country’s second largest party, in 2007. Fol­low­ing a wide-ran­ging cam­paign to dis­cred­it the IRPT in the run-up to the 2015 par­lia­ment­ary elec­tions, the party was banned and des­ig­nated a ter­ror­ist organ­isa­tion, fol­lowed by the mass arrests and per­se­cu­tion of its mem­bers, includ­ing those liv­ing abroad.

This is when Odin­aev became a tar­get. On the request of the Tajik author­it­ies, he was arres­ted in Belarus in late 2019 as he trav­elled to Poland for a ses­sion of the Organ­isa­tion for Secur­ity and Cooper­a­tion in Europe. He had planned to speak about the rights of migrants in the Rus­si­an Federation.

Far­hod Odin­aev | Source: Social media

Pres­sure from prom­in­ent human rights organ­isa­tions worked and Belarus freed Odin­aev. Faced with charges of extrem­ism, as well as lead­ing and fin­an­cing extrem­ist organ­isa­tions, he con­tin­ued on his jour­ney to Europe and applied for asylum on enter­ing Ger­many. Des­pite a poten­tial total pris­on term of almost 50 years in Tajikistan, his ordeal did not con­vince Ger­many to grant him and his fam­ily inter­na­tion­al protection.

In their deni­al, the Ger­man author­it­ies stated that they did not recog­nise him as a refugee and that he did not qual­i­fy for refugee status in accord­ance with the 1951 Refugee Con­ven­tion. They fur­ther stated that his fears of per­se­cu­tion were not cred­ible and that he could safely return home. For now, Odin­aev remains in Ger­many await­ing the out­come of his appeal against the deport­a­tion order.

“We see now that the sys­tem can act dif­fer­ently when there is a will”

Oth­er cases remain in the bal­ance. Ham­id (name changed), a human rights law­yer, worked in Tajikistan and then with Cent­ral Asia migrants in Rus­sia, help­ing them to obtain work per­mits and offi­cial res­id­ency papers. After one of his col­leagues was abduc­ted in Moscow and trans­ferred to a pris­on in Dush­anbe, Ham­id began receiv­ing phone calls and mes­sages from Tajik secur­ity offi­cials. They accused him, he said, of hav­ing ties to the oppos­i­tion abroad. Dur­ing one of the calls, an invest­ig­at­or told him that a crim­in­al case had been opened against him for extremism.

Feel­ing unsafe in Rus­sia, Ham­id fled to Ukraine in the hope of reach­ing the Pol­ish bor­der to apply for asylum. He had heard from human rights col­leagues in Europe and Belarus that this sys­tem had worked for Belarus­i­an citizens.

But for Ham­id, things have turned out dif­fer­ently. He was turned away three times at the Pol­ish bor­der with three dif­fer­ent explan­a­tions: that he should apply for asylum at the Pol­ish Embassy in Kyiv; that the bor­der cross­ing was closed due to COVID; and that he should apply for asylum in Ukraine. On oth­er occa­sions he claims he was pushed back with no explanations.

Ham­id remains in a leg­al limbo at the bor­der, and con­tin­ues with his attempts to apply for asylum in Poland. He is unable to apply for asylum in Ukraine, he said, as the migra­tion author­it­ies there have reques­ted a three-month rent­al con­tract for an apart­ment – a doc­u­ment he does not have.

A ques­tion of life and death

Aleksandra Chrz­anowska, a leg­al expert at Poland’s Asso­ci­ation for Leg­al Inter­ven­tion, said that the inflow of asylum seekers from Belarus had shown her and her col­leagues “how dif­fer­ent the asylum pro­ced­ure can be”.

Inter­views for applic­ants from Belarus are often lim­ited to writ­ten exchanges of ques­tions, and they receive a pos­it­ive answer in four to six months. While Pol­ish rights defend­ers are very happy to see this hap­pen, Chrz­anowska explained, they attrib­ute it, at least in part, to Belarus­i­ans being seen as “Slavic brethren” in Poland.

“We would be happy to see this treat­ment exten­ded to all oth­er refugees as well,” she said. “For example, we also know that there is a sim­il­arly dif­fi­cult situ­ation in Tajikistan. But pro­ced­ures for Tajik claimants are much longer and more com­plic­ated, with a high rate of ini­tial deni­als, which they must appeal, and the pro­cess can carry on for sev­er­al months or even years.

“We see now that the sys­tem can act dif­fer­ently when there is a will.” Nasta Loiko from Human Con­stanta agrees with Chrzanowska’s ana­lys­is. She fol­lowed Odinaev’s case dur­ing his arrest in Belarus, and said that her organ­isa­tion has been voicing con­cerns over dis­crim­in­a­tion against Muslim refugees in Europe for years. While Loiko is grate­ful to Europe for open­ing its doors to Belarus­i­an exiles, she wishes the same treat­ment would be exten­ded to non-white asylum seekers from dif­fer­ent back­grounds, includ­ing Muslims.

Since 2015, the idea that the European Uni­on is being over­run by people who use asylum as a cov­er to take advant­age of Europe’s social bene­fits has taken root, not least because of unscru­pu­lous politi­cians and the media, who often paint them as crim­in­als and rap­ists. As a con­sequence, the treat­ment of Muslim refugees in European coun­tries appears to have worsened. Instead of asylum, Muslims can expect deport­a­tion. At the end of August, Ger­man author­it­ies depor­ted eight asylum seekers back to Tajikistan; anoth­er group risks the same fate in the com­ing weeks.