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Can Germany grant asylum to Russian deserters?

September 23, 2022

Politicians from across Germany's political spectrum want to offer protection for Russian military deserters. But legal issues have not yet been resolved — and the most important escape routes are closed.

Finland's border with Russia: Cars waiting at the crossing at Vaalimaa
Germany wants to take in Russian refugees but the routes to Europe are all but closedImage: Oliver Morin/AFP

The phones have not stopped ringing in the office of the German human rights organization Pro Asyl, as inquiries from Russia continue to flood in. "People are asking how they can get out of the country now. Since the announcement of the partial mobilization in Russia, our social media channels and our consulting team have been inundated," Pro Asyl's Wiebke Judith tells DW.

But the human rights organization's advisors can't offer much hope at the moment to those inquiring. "The problem is: how do they get to Europe in the first place?" Judith explains. "The escape routes are very restricted. All the more so because the bordering EU states make it almost impossible for Russians to enter by land."

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland are currently refusing entry to Russian nationals. Finland offers an overland route to reach the EU, but the government in Helsinki is also considering imposing entry restrictions for Russian citizens.

Rush to leave Russia before the draft

Protection for opposition members

Politicians from most political parties in Germany agree that Russian deserters are welcome in Germany. Conscientious objectors, even those who have not yet been called up for service, should also be granted asylum, according to representatives of the ruling coalition of center-left Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP), as well as numerous politicians from the opposing center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU) and socialist Left Party.

"There needs to be a place for them to flee to," Green Party foreign policy expert Robin Wagener told DW's TV news program. He said it was also better for Ukraine if Russians fled military service than if they joined the fight. "We should welcome them with open arms," Wagener said.

This applies not only to those who do not want to participate in what he referred to as Russia's "war of annihilation" against Ukraine. "We also need opportunities for members of the democratic opposition in Russia to come to Europe. So that it can work from here to stop the war, overthrow the dictator and build another Russia."

Refuge for fleeing Russian conscripts?

Calls for EU-wide coordination

It is becoming clear that there is an exodus to the West, said government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit in Berlin on Friday. The German government is now seeking consensus with its EU partners on how to deal with the situation to find a "viable solution."

But on issues of flight and migration, the EU has rarely been united in recent years. "We need escape routes instead of lip service paid by politicians," says Wiebke Judith of Pro Asyl. "It must now be made really clear what concrete options there are for the people in Russia, and not simply put out there that they will get protection if they make it here. That is too vague."

Russian opposition figures may have a chance to get political asylum in Germany. "But," Judith warns, "that raises the question again: how can you prove that you are being persecuted? What are the concrete requirements?"

Russian law enforcement officers detain a person during an unsanctioned rally, after opposition activists called for street protests against the mobilization of reservists ordered by President Vladimir Putin
Russian police have clamped down on protests against the mobilization of reservists Image: REUTERS

The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) is responsible for asylum applications in Germany. It is part of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, which told DW that this year, Russian citizens have hardly placed more asylum applications than the previous year. So far, according to the Interior Ministry, there have been about 1,800 applications for asylum from Russian citizens, compared to 2,300 in 2021.

Maximilian Kall, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said on Friday that the BAMF's decision-making procedures for asylum seekers from Russia had already been modified in April "so that, as a rule, conscientious objection is a reason for protection."

In addition, 438 Russian nationals have been accepted as refugees on humanitarian grounds since the Russian attack on Ukraine in February. These include opposition figures and journalists.

Wiebke Judith of German organization Pro Asyl
Wiebke Judith of Pro Asyl hopes that decision-makers will agree on more than lip service, and that escape routes from Russia to Europe will be openedImage: Wiebke Judith,

The fact that some neighboring countries, such as the Baltic states, Poland, and the Czech Republic, do not want to grant asylum to Russian deserters has been met with surprise by German authorities.

According to a ruling by the European Court of Justice in November 2020, persecuted deserters are in principle entitled to full refugee protection in the EU. The ruling clarified the situation of Syrian refugees liable for military service, who were then granted asylum under the jurisdiction of the European court.

Government spokesperson Hebestreit made it clear on Friday that the issue of protection of Russian citizens fleeing the war would have to be discussed again with all European partner countries at the beginning of next week. Wiebke Judith of Pro Asyl hopes that this will result in more than "political signals", and that escape routes for people from Russia to Europe will be opened.

This article was originally written in German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille
Volker Witting
Volker Witting Volker Witting has been a political correspondent for DW-TV and online for more than 20 years.
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