Russians Fleeing Conscription: What Protections Exist?

December 7, 2022

By Selina Marton

On September 21, 2022 the Russian government enacted its first military mobilization since World War II. Termed a ‘partial mobilization’, 300,000 Russian citizens from the military reserves were immediately called up to serve (“Putin’s Plan”, 2022; “Central Asia Faces a Russian Migrant Crisis”, 2022). At least an equal number of Russians left the country in just the two weeks after (“Migration from Russia amid mobilisation”, 2022). Whether for meeting some conscripted goal, or in the wake of protests and further public backlash and controversy, or in the face of a regular biannual recruitment drive, the partial mobilization has now in fact ended (“Partial mobilization is over”, 2022; ISW, 2022; RFERL, 2022). Though technically only targeting those with prior military experience and reserve members for deployment to Ukraine, the draft was mired in local controversy, further altered regional economics, and set a precedent for future waves of mobilization during this war. So what was this phenomenon and what becomes of those affected?


The partial mobilization decree targeted mainly reservists and former military service members for involuntary service until the end of the partial mobilization, a formal end to which does not legally exist despite announcements to the contrary (“What Does Russia’s ‘Partial Mobilization’ Mean?”, 2022; “Partial mobilization is over”, 2022). Roughly 1% of reservists were then mobilized, however various discrepancies existed during this draft’s implementation (“Explainer on Russian Conscription”, 2022) . Many Russian men and their families began considering leaving the country in fear of the draft. They come alongside those who already fled the country soon after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, those fleeing after international sanctions were imposed, and those included otherwise in what has become the region’s largest displacement since WWII driven by flight and deportation from Ukraine, its occupied regions, and Russia itself (“How Russia is conscripting men”, 2022; “How Big Is the Storm?”, 2022). As congestion built up around key border checkpoints of neighboring countries, debates arose as to this movement’s potential legal classifications. This debate, at the confluence of a potential refugee rights crisis and a humanitarian disaster, has raised ELNOR’s concern for the status of refugees and others leaving home in precarious conditions.


An organization which provides refugees with tools necessary for self-expression and social inclusion, ELNOR seeks to share and address developments in refugee politics especially related to our students’ own lived experiences, including the war in Ukraine.


A refugee, as defined by the UN in the 1951 Refugee Convention, is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear” of being persecuted (1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees).


Conscription is “the compulsory enrollment for service in a country’s armed forces” (“Conscription”, 2022). Historically seen as a way to build military might, the practice dates back to Ancient Egypt. It has been a Russian reality since 1699, when selective conscription, in which eligibility was restricted to certain social classes, was introduced (Jones, 1982). Standard conscription arrived shortly before the outbreak of WWI, and since then has continued in various forms. Though supported by many Russians as a fundamental aspect of “a citizen’s duty”, the policy came as a relative shock to many (“Background on Conscription in Russia”, n.d.).


Russia has a particularly long history of formal conscription. Some countries have instituted conscription only during wartime, such as the U.S. with its unpopular and large-scale conscription of men aged 18 to 26 during the Vietnam War. Men, alongside their peers, made many efforts to avoid participating in what they viewed as an “unjust war”: enrolling in college, intentionally failing aptitude tests, fleeing to Canada, and entering special fields like engineering (“The Military Draft”, n.d.). It was during this time that the term ‘conscientious objector’ became commonplace. Defined by John Matheson as “an objection to military service by individuals who oppose participation in any war on the basis of their religious, moral, or ethical beliefs”, only in 2006 did the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights decide that conscientious objection “is a right of the people” (Matheson, 2009; “Conscientious Objection”, 2012). 


Nonetheless, to this day countries around the world do not uphold an individual’s right to conscientious objection. The same goes to their right to “limit the duration of mandatory service to a defined period of time”, upheld in international and EU law (RefWorld, 1991; Directive 2011/95/EU). In 2019, the Human Rights Watch reported that Eritrea was forcing hundreds of young people to serve indefinite sentences in the military, despite national legislation restricting service to a maximum of 18 months (“Indefinite Conscription”, 2019). Eritrea has justified their conscription policy by attributing its necessity to the stalemate held with its neighbor, Ethiopia. However, the resounding response is that those conscripted end up in the exploited lower ranks of a full-fledged economy (“They Are Making Us into Slaves”, 2019; “It’s Just Slavery”, 2018). Faced with the risk of being forced to serve indefinite terms, many Eritrean youth have fled to neighboring countries. The UN estimates that in late 2019, 10% of the nation’s population had left, the majority of whom were minors (Sanderson, 2019). Many of the roughly 29,000 Eritrean refugees seek asylum in Europe, with 15,738 pending cases at this point in time (“Figures and Development”, 2021). Thankfully, the community sees a high asylum acceptance rate of 86% (“Latest Asylum Trends”, 2022).  The facts confirm that mandatory conscription in Eritrea has resulted in mass migration, a phenomenon that risks some replication in Russia.


Within only a few weeks of the partial mobilization announcement, Russian emigration had flooded toward those border checkpoints where visa restrictions were lax. Media reported on days-long lines building at the Kazakhstan and Georgia borders. Around 200,000 people entered Kazakhstan within a couple weeks. There they were met quite positively (“Locals treat us like refugees”, 2022). Common narratives and vlogs flooded popular and oppositional media on YouTube, VKontakte, Telegram, Mediazona, and more. The two most popular countries of destination were Kazakhstan and Georgia, although some 60% of arrivals would leave Georgia for a third country within a matter of days (“Influx of Russian citizens”, 2022). Many also traveled to Finland, Estonia, Mongolia, Armenia, Israel, and elsewhere in Western Europe and Central Asia (Hopkins, 2022). Leaving Russia saw major challenges. Within 24 hours after Putin’s announcement, plane tickets were virtually unattainable (Otte, 2022). Most had to act quickly and without detailed plans. Disorganization and guerilla-like tactics defined this period of many’s lives — understanding how to deal with border security, organizing around legal loopholes of one’s possible eventual asylum claim, not to mention keeping healthy during the days-long venture to the border. One ‘Kirill’ boarded a train to Kazakhstan, full of young Russian men like himself, not two days after the news and without any concrete knowledge of what his future would hold (Otte, 2022). Some chose to document their journeys out of Russia: YouTubers like ‘NFKRZ’ share to hundreds of thousands of viewers about the obstacles Russians must overcome even once they have successfully left (Abalin, 2022). Others, such as Matt and Julia, open up about the difficulties of leaving family behind and being separated from their significant other (Matt and Julia, 2022). Some leave in support of family in Ukraine who have thus far endured the invasion (“Photos of the Russians”, 2022). However, many more remain in Russia, stuck, lacking funds and resources in a tough economy. ‘Vladimir’ and his friends dreamt of escaping to the Czech Republic, but could not afford to. Even if they were successful in leaving, they have no means of support upon arrival, and the Czech Republic has since joined other EU states in tightening border entry rules (“Czechs tighten entry rules for Russian tourists”, 2022). Nevertheless, they won’t give up: “We don’t care what happens next. Our decision is final” (Otte, 2022).


Responses to this mass migration of young Russian men have thus far been mixed. Kazakhstan, receiving a large percentage of those fleeing, made it clear that it intends to continue welcoming those attempting to avoid conscription. “Most of them are forced to leave because of the hopeless situation. We must take care of them and ensure their safety”, said President Tokayev (“Kazakhstan”, 2022). Still, the wait at border-crossings was several days long, and many relied only on local volunteers for both food and shelter (Ivanova, 2022). The Central Asian gas giant has spent much energy distancing itself from Russia, even boldly declaring that it would not recognise referendums held in occupied territories in Ukraine, cementing its stance in the region (Ivanova, 2022). Countries as far west as Germany have taken this approach further, signaling their willingness to host Russians, declaring that “anyone who courageously opposes Putin’s regime can file for asylum on grounds of political persecution” (“Europe faces dilemma”, 2022). However, EU states fail to offer logistical support to make the journey across the border, instead increasingly pushing discriminatory visa restrictions as what could amount to a form of collective punishment (“Europe Must Handle Awkwardness”, 2022). One must generally be within EU borders to open a case for asylum, so by barring border access to Russian visa-holders altogether, governments in the EU are contributing to an already substantial problem facing refugees and asylum seekers. This is not to mention pre-existing issues in asylum systems, including purported discriminatory case fast tracking to expedite deportations, and the threats (including torture) that many face after deportation.


So, this positive response to those fleeing is not replicated throughout all of Europe. Kazakhstan and Georgia serve as outliers, with most states bordering Russia displaying reluctance to welcome or formally host fleeing Russians. Many Kazakhs voiced concern online, while some in Georgia discuss the sudden effects on the housing market and many are still reeling from the 2008 Russo-Georgian war; President Zourabichvili noted the Georgian government’s broadly neutral stance toward Moscow, while the opposition party pushed more restrictive legislation (“Russians crush in”, 2022; “Georgia’s President disagrees”, 2022; “Georgian parliament to consider bill”, 2022). As of September, only 728 of 3,265 Russian citizens applying for citizenship in Georgia this year have received it. That smaller figure also includes specifically 551 Russian citizens who have been granted Georgian citizenship on “exceptional” basis since the start of Russia’s invasion this year (“6075 Russians Got Georgian Citizenship”, 2022). Russian migration to Georgia has seen local skepticism and a minor row between the state and local media over alleged misinformation (“Interior minister rejects media claim”, 2022). Latvia and Estonia, in particular, have been most vocal about their stance, labeling Russians attempting to escape mandatory conscription as ‘deserters’ (Hird, 2022). Latvia’s foreign minister reportedly stated that such men do not qualify as conscientious objectors, given that they did not flee in February when the conflict began, nor as refugees, as they are not directly being ‘persecuted’ (Gambrell and Shreck, 2022). The primary argument of these states is clear: in their eyes, fleeing conscription is a refusal to perform a citizen’s civic duty. However, it is important to understand that such countries are only purportedly putting their national security first, in an attempt to avoid inciting Russia’s and their local population’s anger further (Gambrell and Shreck, 2022). They also overlook the threat posed to individuals upon return or deportation to a retaliatory environment, among other precarious conditions at home. Finland, alongside Estonia, Latvia, and Poland, expressed security-related concerns toward this exodus, in addition to the infrastructure-based concerns commonly expressed by European states with regard to broader refugee crises (Gambrell and Shreck, 2022). As a main entry point into the EU, Finland’s late-September announcement restricting entry to specifically Russians is a game changer against refugees, and has been mirrored by several other EU members (“Migration from Russia amid mobilisation”, 2022).


So how is this flight legally categorized? The question does not have a straightforward answer. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), refugee status is only attainable under the condition that one can claim persecution owing to one or more of the following criteria: race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion (UNHCR). Applying international refugee law to the ongoing situation in Russia, deserters might be entitled to protection for three reasons. Firstly, there is growing evidence that conscription notices, rather than being random, are targeted based on political opinions or race. There is evidence that vocal dissidents and dissenters — including those who participated in protests specifically against the mobilization decree —, alongside ethnic minorities from the country’s peripheries, have been conscripted at disproportionately high rates (Jones, 2022; “Kyiv requests Georgia”, 2022; “Ethnic Minorities Hit Hardest”, 2022). Secondly, a soldier is entitled to objection, should conscription lead to forced participation in actions classified as crimes against humanity or war crimes (Jones, 2022; RefWorld, 1991). This is further recognized in European law (Directive 2011/95/EU). Conscripted soldiers sent to the warfront in Ukraine will potentially find themselves at the heart of ongoing war crimes. Evidence for this claim comes from Amnesty International’s and others’ reports which document that the Russian military has been involved in the mass execution and torture of civilians (“Further evidence of war crimes”, 2022). Finally, one is entitled to protection owing to personal circumstances, which may be attributed to (but not limited to) race, sexuality, and religious beliefs. Homophobia, religious descrimination, and racism are endemic within the Russian military and increasingly within public life (Jones, 2022). Indeed, Russia recently passed a ban on the “promotion of non-traditional sexual relations”, labelling it “LGBTQ propaganda”. This legislation would also virtually ban all general and scientific discussion of gender transition (“Early Approval for LGBTQ ban”, 2022). Various other restrictions on speech have been implemented in 2022 (“Russia’s independent media”, 2022). There have also been reports of those exempt getting swept into service, and many conscripts have died without ever being deployed (“convinced there’s nothing legal”, 2022; “I could rip them to pieces”, 2022.). Whether directly facing danger or fear of persecution, these are grounds for people, in this case from Russia, to seek asylum. But confusion remains on people’s legal designation, as in many refugee crises.


The 1951 Refugee Convention only loosely defines what amounts to persecution, introducing ambiguity to many people’s claims (Ali, 2021). The reasons listed above are valid, but can governments deny or deport on the basis that many people apply only after the receipt of a conscription notice? While international law successfully outlines many conditions under which a soldier may conscientiously object, it fails to address situations in which individuals are yet to be persecuted, having a well-founded fear of imminent persecution. It is both here and wherever they’re refused entry altogether that hundreds of thousands of Russian people currently fall through the cracks of international law. They and those accompanying them wish to escape great troubles and to seek protection under refugee status, and should be supported in their application.


In February of 2022, the international community was nearly unanimous in aiding the Ukrainian military and welcomed Ukrainian refugees with open arms. This was inspiring to many. Rarely throughout history has Europe been so united and responded to a crisis with such overwhelming support. With Russians, the situation could not be more different. There is hesitation in welcoming Russian refugees. Western and non-western countries alike justified their support for Ukraine by citing violations of international law and human rights abuses, yet the absence of such declarations with regards to support for those opposing conscription is striking. Support for human rights anywhere means support for human rights everywhere, and Russians fleeing persecution and violence deserve support as they seek safety and their rights under international law.


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