Yesterday the proposed visa ban on Russians to the EU was widely discussed. One Twitter user, responding to a criticism of it, wrote:
“But the proposals I’ve seen would only limit tourist visas. Doesn’t that mean that Russians would still be able to move to the EU for study and work, or to apply for asylum there?”
These kinds of responses reveal that people don’t seem to know that tourism visas are the only realistic and timely way of leaving Russia if you are at risk. What other possible visa would people be applying for – business? (Where’s your letter from your employer and permission for leave from them) Student? (see below). There really are very few grounds for Russians (and the majority of people on this planet) to claim the freedom of movement that we in Europe and NA take for granted.
Tl/dr – human rights orgs themselves highlight tourism visas as one of the most effective ways of getting to a safe place where claiming asylum is possible.
Asylum is not an option
Let’s quickly address asylum: you need a credible fear of persecution and this is almost impossible to prove or even document for the vast majority of even those who qualify. Just taking the US case, regardless of nationality 60-70% of asylum cases are denied outright. In recent years, Russians seeking asylum to the US via the southern border were more fortunate – only 30% were denied. In the US case, as in other jurisdictions, it may not be possible to even present oneself ‘non-adversarially’ to claim asylum (because of the Catch 22 that the border crossing to claim asylum from within the US was only possible to undertake ‘illegally’).
Once again, it still seems most people don’t understand that Russians cannot claim asylum by going to an embassy in Moscow and presenting themselves – a staple scene of many Cold War films. Other issues I won’t go into here: the shift to demanding written documentary evidence to support a claimant’s narrative; the disturbing cases of deportation (not extradition) of Russian nationals back to Russia from the EU even when they clearly documented high risk of harm (Chechen cases). In the one case of political asylum I was involved in (as a material witness) the case only moved forward because of written evidence from ‘figures of authority’ within the EU, and because of some institutional support from the EU colleagues – without an existing tourist visa (she previously had an academic one but it expired), this person would not have been able to claim asylum in the first place. Some good write ups here of the US process. Meduza wrote up here the sobering facts of how hard it is to get political asylum from Russia in the EU. It covers the case of trying to claim asylum without already having a visa (for example using a transit flight): in short there’s a high risk of rejection and deportation.
‘It won’t hurt genuine need for Russians to travel’
Again, this shows how little people understand. People travelling for non-tourist purposes make a lot of use of tourist visas for reasons that should be obvious, but clearly are not. You need to be in a privileged position in terms of professional network to qualify for an official invitation to get an academic visa – you need a cast-iron reason. A Russian scholar who wants to visit a UK archive to do ground-breaking research? Who’s your UK sponsoring institution? You don’t have one? Tough. You need a bilateral formal agreement between your Russian employer and the UK uni – things that are now largely impossible because of Russian rectors’ support for the war. Want to attend a conference to present important work? We will let you come – only you’ll have to pretend you’re not affiliated to a Russian university. However, without that official affiliation you won’t be able to prove to the embassy issuing the academic visa that you have a need to travel. You also will get in trouble with your Russian employer (who funded your research in the first place and expects you to acknowledge that support when you attend conferences – indeed it’s a condition of your employment) and won’t be able to get your trip funded (attending an international conference may cost over $1000 in out-of-pocket expenses). Finally, people seem to think ‘some kind of official visa’ would solve the problem of Russians fleeing – well again, even an official Schengen usually only covers 90 days. What about after that?
After the war started I followed the efforts of two colleagues who were openly anti-war, who were at risk of arrest and dismissal, and both of whom applied for academic visas to an EU country. One was able to get the visa, but only after pulling strings with the cultural institute attached to the embassy. The other, despite having all the necessary documentation, is still waiting for her application to be processed. ‘If I’d known, I would have just booked a hotel and got a tourism visa to Spain’, says that person.
What about student visas? Well yes, if you’ve got an unconditional university place (!) or you’re studying at a fee-paying private school, sure, no problem (we don’t want to upset those Rich Russians who already successfully laundered their cash through our banks). Oh, and you need to prove access to over £9000 cash.
Let’s be honest: this is about the enjoyment of punishment
So, of course to Ukrainians this sounds like ridiculous special pleading. By all means, if the EU or other states want to limit mobility of Russians they should make a blanket ban and just come clean – this is about collective punishment, not helping Ukraine, not security. Most of all, it is about making the handwringing majority feel better about themselves (‘our government is doing something’). I don’t want to resort to psychoanalysis, but those who propose such measures with gusto should reflect on how their need for fulfilment via punishment mirrors that of people engaging in hate speech – the frisson of hate, the jouissance that is more than satisfaction, but the erotic payoff element of aggression.
But surely governments could be doing something different – more constructive in aiding Ukraine and countering Russia? Indeed, the rush to impound yachts and immovable property owned by some of the most disgusting propagandists and two-bit thieves revealed that even after 2014, EU states were perfectly happy to allow these people to become residents and even citizens – as long as they laundered their money via local property markets.
‘Be careful what you wish for’
Or rather: what you impose on others, sooner or later gets imposed on you. One of the characteristics of deglobalization, or rather global segregation, is that liberal and authoritarian states are great at learning from each other. Migration rules start off as merely reciprocal between states, but soon spiral out of proportion and become the plaything of the bureaucratic logic of information and accounting bloat. Once again, those with UK, EU or US ones can be forgiven for remaining largely ignorant.
For a long time, the main barrier to Russians visiting the UK was cost – not just of the visa which could cost many hundreds of pounds, but the necessity to prove significant means well in excess of average wages. More recently both Russians and British people have been subject to an arms war in information harvested from them and torture by application form. Here’s just some of the information needed for a Russian visa:
your employer’s address and telephone number and your employment history; your parents’ dates of birth, dates of death, and place of birth; the exact dates of your previous visits and their purpose; your social networking account IDs; all other countries you visited in the last 10 years (dates and purpose); name of your bank; your national insurance number (perfect for fraud); all your expired passport details [here I personally have to give information going back to 1990]; the employment status and details of your spouse if they work for the state; the usual declarations about criminal convictions, crimes against humanity, terrorism, extremism, offenses within Russia, psychiatric or mental disorders ‘dangerous to society’, drug-use; children’s passport numbers and data along with addresses and dates of birth; information about relatives in Russia.
I would stress, most of these demands from the Russian state are due to mirroring UK demands from Russian applicants.
‘Be careful what you wish for’ because tomorrow it may apply to you, and populist migration laws can quickly spiral out of control. By the end of the year I’m sure we’ll be discussing internment of anyone who held a Russian passport after 1991. I didn’t even mention the propaganda victory a visa ban would hand regime ideologues like Soloviev.
Let’s step back: what would an anti-Putin response from the West look like in immigration terms? Well, while I’m personally against discrimination on grounds of education, wealth, and skills, why not offer incentives for Russians with qualifications (perhaps especially skills that otherwise would support the war effort in Russia) to leave?
Finally, if you’d like to read an interesting write up of the important signaling effect of political emigration from Russia, this article by Laura Henry and Elizabeth Plantan is interesting.
‘Exit shows that the regime is vulnerable and that grievances are widespread, increasing “common knowledge” among citizens and setting off an “information cascade” that could increase protests. However, beyond a certain threshold, exit could drain the protest movement and depress voice…. Exit is anything but a “safety valve” for the regime.’