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Germany: No asylum for Russian draft dodgers?

Natalia Smolentceva
April 19, 2024

German authorities say that men coming to Germany from Russia to avoid being enlisted in the army are not at risk of persecution if they return to Russia.

Crowd of protesters; one poster reads "Russland bringt Tod" or Russia brings death
Many Russians have attended anti-Putin demonstrations in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin Image: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Photo/picture alliance

Russian national Oleg Ponomaryov's asylum application was turned down by Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) at the end of February. BAMF said he was at no risk in Russia and should leave Germany within 30 days. If not, he could expect to be deported.

Ponomaryov's despair is palpable. He fears he will be arrested as soon as he arrives in Russia and be sent to fight against Ukraine.

"The situation in Russia is getting worse and worse, a total mobilization is on the cards and my fitness level and driving license allow me to drive military vehicles," says Ponomaryov, who came to Germany in September 2022 after Russia announced a partial mobilization.

At the time, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared that Russian nationals who did not want to take part in Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine, which is a violation of international law, should be given protection in Germany. Ponomaryov applied for political asylum, and while he waited for the decision, he learned German and volunteered at an integration center for Russian speakers. His wife also came to Germany and applied for asylum.

Ponomaryov thinks that the negative decision is unfair. "We are expected to speak out and be more politically active, and then we are denied asylum. According to several articles of the law in Russia, we can be thrown into jail just for taking part in protests here," he says, pointing out that he has regularly attended anti-war rallies in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin. He is concerned that he could be charged with "discrediting" the Russian armed forces if forced to return to Russia.

A man chops wood in a snowy forest
Many Russians went into hiding in the woods to avoid conscriptionImage: DW

'They think I'll be safe there'

Dmitriy, another young man whose name has been changed, fled Russia after an appointment at an enlistment office. He had been given several hours to pack his things before returning. He decided to go into hiding and then left the country. 

He had been active in the resistance against the war, spraying graffiti and distributing stickers, but was unwilling to reveal any more than that. Some of his like-minded comrades had been more active, he said, blowing up trains carrying munitions for the Russian army for example. 

He said that for the German authorities what he had done was not enough proof that he would be in danger if he returned to Russia. "They think I'll be safe there," he said sarcastically. "They're too cowardly to do anything against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's regime themselves, but they want Russians to fight against it."

Human rights activist Rudi Friedrich from Connection, a German NGO that campaigns for conscientious objectors and deserters around the world, said that he had seen several letters recently in which Russian nationals had been refused asylum on similar grounds.

He explained that from the perspective of the courts and the Federal Office for Migration there has to be a "considerable probability" of persecution for somebody to be recognized as a refugee.

"With regard to Russian conscripts, it is very often assumed that such a probability does not exist, even if a person submits their draft notice," said Friedrich. "Then, the argument runs that conscription is not likely because the person is too old. Or that there are 25 million reservists, so why do people think they will be enlisted?"

He said that though this was in line with the requirements of the highest court in Germany, these were interpreted to the disadvantage of asylum seekers, with the result that applications were often rejected. He added that if ordered to return to Russia, these men ran the very real risk of being conscripted. 

Russian soldiers holding weapons
Many Russians fled the country to avoid being enlisted in the armyImage: Alexey Pavlishak/REUTERS

Friedrich also confirmed that Russian deserters had been granted asylum in Germany.

According to BAMF, 4,431 male Russian nationals of military age have applied for asylum in Germany since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. A decision has been issued in more than half of the cases (2,476), but in most (1,905) the asylum seekers have simply been referred to the country responsible for granting asylum in their case.

Of the cases for which Germany is responsible, asylum has been granted for 159 people and rejected for 412. The number of positive decisions has been falling steadily.

In 2022, the ratio of rejections to positive decisions was six to four, whereas these days it is nine to one. Clara Bünger, a lawmaker for Germany's Left party, criticized the development: "I call on the federal government to instruct BAMF to be generous in granting protection to Russian conscientious objectors, as was announced. That would send a strong signal in favor of peace politics," she said.

'Torture, prison, war and death'

When asked what awaited him in Russia if he was forced to return, Dmitry said: "Torture, prison, war and death." Oleg Ponomaryov said he was plagued by "the thought of waking up one day, with the police knocking at the door saying: 'Let's leave for Russia!'"

Although there are currently no direct flights between Germany and Russia, there have already been deportations of Russians convicted of criminal offenses, via third countries such as Serbia. "What's to stop the German authorities from doing the same with conscientious objectors?" asked Ponomaryov.

The two men have both appealed against the BAMF decisions and proceedings could drag on for years. In the meantime, they have been allowed to stay in Germany, but their asylum seeker status makes it difficult to find work, study or even rent an apartment.

This article was originally written in Russian.

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