Refuge or Asylum? Snowden’s Options in Russia

Edward Snowden file photo

(RIA Novosti – MOSCOW, July 17, 2013) It took fugitive former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden more than three days to submit an official request for asylum in Russia, after he voiced his intention to do so at meeting with human rights activists last Friday in his Moscow airport refuge.

According to Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, who helped Snowden with the process, the fugitive former eavesdropper needed to study all the peculiarities of Russian law before applying. Snowden told activists last Friday he was going to seek “temporary political asylum” in Russia, but was later told there is no such thing in Russia. That left Snowden at least three other options to consider under Russian law:

1. Political asylum. A very rarely used option and probably the most complicated of all. By law, political asylum in Russian can be granted to a person who faces persecution on political grounds outside the country. A request for political asylum must be submitted to the Federal Migration Service (FMS), but has to be ultimately decided by the Russian president himself according to the Constitution. That would probably foster even greater political tension between Russia and the United States, something President Putin has plainly said he does not want. According to human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina, whose NGO helps asylum seekers, Russia has granted political asylum only once in its modern history: to the former president of Azerbaijan, Ayaz Mutalibov, back in 1999.

2. Refugee status. This can be granted by the FMS to foreigners who fear persecution outside Russia on the grounds of their faith, citizenship, race, nationality, or on social or political grounds. A request has to be considered within up to three months, but may take longer in some cases. Applicants also have to undergo medical checks and fingerprinting. Refugee status is granted for three years and can eventually be prolonged. Between 1997 and 2007 Russia received 25,931 refugee status requests from nationals of 87 countries. About 33 percent of them (or 8,683) were approved, according to the FMS website.

3. Temporary asylum. The option chosen by Snowden, and probably the easiest and fastest to arrange. Temporary asylum is a non-political status, and can be granted to a person who has been either refused refugee status, or those who cannot be sent out of Russia “for humanitarian reasons.” Senior Russian officials, including President Putin, have repeatedly said Moscow cannot give Snowden up to the United States because he could potentially face capital punishment there. That should be grounds enough for the Federal Migration Service to approve his request in the near future. The application procedure takes up to three months. Temporary asylum status is granted for 12 months and may be prolonged annually. With temporary asylum, Snowden can choose to stay at one of the migration service’s special refugee centers and work legally on Russian territory.

According to official statistics on the FMS website, some 43 percent of requests (or 2,446 individuals) for temporary asylum were approved between 2001, when the provision was brought into law, and 2007.