In a one page letter of 13 December, the Dutch state secretary for immigration Eric van der Burg (of the right-wing liberal VVD party) explained to Dutch parliament how asylum claims made by Russian draft evaders will be dealt with. The new Dutch policy makes a distinction between Russian conscripts and Russians reservists who attempt to evade the mobilisation which the Russian president announced last September. Conscripts will continue to enjoy a form of temporary protection in the Netherlands. Asylum claims of Russians who evade mobilisation will, however, be decided on an individual basis. Importantly – and controversially – the state secretary suggests that claims of the latter category may now be denied because the Russian mobilisation has been completed.
In response to the Ukraine war, the Dutch government decided in the summer to suspend individual asylum procedures of Russian conscripts who are in the age of 18 to 27. This was because it was unclear, according to the Dutch government, whether Russian conscripts were being deployed in Ukraine. Because this is still unclear, van der Burg has now decided to extend the suspension for a further six months period – until 29 June 2023. The Dutch Foreign Ministry is expected to publish a new report on the situation in Russia, including the position of conscripts, in the first quarter of 2023. That would allow for better guidelines on how to decide on asylum claims made by Russian conscripts. The suspension means that for the time being, Russian conscripts who have asked for asylum in the Netherlands are treated as asylum seekers. They are temporarily allowed to stay and entitled to reception conditions as guaranteed by the EU reception conditions directive. They are not treated as refugees and, for example, not allowed to freely enter the labour or housing market.
Russians evading mobilisation
While the predicament of Russian conscripts is characterised as unclear, the state secretary says to have “sufficient information” to decide individually on asylum applications made by Russians who claim a fear of being mobilised. Contrary to what was suggested by some Dutch media, this is no formal change of policy. Up to now, there was simply no special Dutch asylum policy for this category of draft evaders. Back in September, in response to the Russian mobilisation, van der Burg told the press that claims of Russians evading the draft would be decided on an individual basis. He added, however, that Russians refusing to fight would not be expelled because “we know for sure that they will be persecuted”.
That assessment now seems to have changed. Firstly, van der Burg’s letter says that the Russian mobilisation formally ended on the 31 October. This suggests an instruction to the Dutch immigration service to deny asylum claims on the basis of there no longer being a well-founded fear of being mobilised. Secondly, in the underlying advice of his ministry that was made public together with the letter, it is suggested that Russians can avoid being mobilised by bringing legal or other complaints. According to the advice, such appeals are “in practice almost always granted because the Russian authorities wish to prevent negative public attention for mobilisation efforts”.
Although both assumptions may find some basis in factual reports on Russia, they are not fully convincing. First, it has been reported that – in the absence of a formal decree ending it – Russia’s mobilisation has covertly continued. The Dutch assessment would anyhow become obsolete if Russia indeed decides on a new major mobilisation effort. Second, information on the circumstances in which Russia allows for exemptions to mobilisation are scarce and contradictory. A Reuters report mentions that appeals before multiple Russian courts against draft decisions “led nowhere”. Overall, the picture that emerges from Russian mobilisation efforts is one of chaos and arbitrariness. To say that asylum claims may be denied because the mobilisation is over or because Russian law facilitates conscientious objection therefore seems to be an oversimplification – and would be open to legal contestation.
No common EU approach
One may sum up the Dutch policy as one that meets EU and international obligations on asylum on paper, but that in practice aims at withholding Russian asylum seekers from formal refugee status. Tellingly, the ministerial advice stipulates that it would be undesirable if the Netherlands would become “the first EU Member State that signals that Russian asylum seekers cannot return to Russia.” This fits the well-known asylum dynamic of “the race to the bottom”: EU Member States lowering national asylum standards for a fear of become more attractive than their European neighbours.
In theory, this dynamic should be countered by the establishment of common norms and guidelines set by Brussels. But the EU remains highly divided on the matter of granting Russians asylum. The guidelines of the European Commission on how to deal with the influx of Russians avoiding mobilisation that were published in September focus on security concerns only. They merely voice the platitude that Russians have the right to seek asylum. It is welcome that the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA) published a 66-page country of origin report on military service in Russia on 16 December, dealing specifically with the period since 24 February when war broke out. The report was drafted by the EUAA together with the migration departments of France and Germany. It was reviewed by both the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Dutch Migration Department. The report deals extensively with the position of Russian conscripts and mobilised Russian personnel, including the possibilities to avoid military service and the question whether conscripts are deployed in Ukraine.
The Dutch policy could and arguably should be based on the report. The Dutch ministry knew fully well that it was forthcoming. But ever since the creation of the EU agency for asylum, the Dutch immigration service prefers to rely exclusively on country reports of the Dutch Foreign Ministry. This go-it-alone attitude is lamentable as it frustrates European solidarity and mutual trust.