Elena Fanailova

Elena Fanailova
Photo: Alexander Tjagny-Rjadnal

What does the term refugee mean to you?

An individual who is forced to leave his homeland or his region as a result of military operations, humanitarian or natural disaster, because of political oppression, threats of imprisonment for ideological reasons, persecution on racial, religious grounds, social problems (poverty, hunger, life threatening situation because of poor health care, etc.), discrimination based on sexual orientation and on other grounds. An individual who is looking for another country or a safer and more prosperous region of his own country for temporary or permanent residence. He is ready to deal with temporary difficulties related to adaptation (living in camps, underpaid work, non-permanent residence documents) in order to save his life or improve its quality. I also consider forced immigrants as refugees.

Is flight from poverty less legitimate than flight from war or political oppression?

Under no circumstances. Typically, an escape from poverty on closer examination of its causes and motives turns out to be related to political regimes and threats posed by them. The so-called "Sausage Emigration" from the Soviet Union in the 70's-80's was associated with the dissatisfaction with the entire way of social life in the country and the total control of the state over any kind of activity up to arrests and prison terms for some types of private enterprise. Refugees from African countries to Europe escape from such poverty that comes close to death from starvation and loss of families and communities.

And what about flight as a result of environmental problems?

The answer is in the same field as the previous one: environmental problems are associated with political regimes, the level of the state's or the oligarchic monopoly of natural resources. Russian ecologists (Suren Ghazaryan, Eugene Vitishko (from the NGO "Environmental Watch on North Caucasus") or Constantine Rubakhin (from the movement "In Defense of Chopyor") were forced to emigrate because they were criminally prosecuted for environmental activities which touched upon the interests of high officials and monopolies including the Russian President and circles close to the Kremlin.

When does one cease to be a refugee?

When a refugee receives the documents of a permanent residence status in the country, a job that matches his qualifications and a relevant salary or allowance, he moves to the status of an emigrant. Psychologically, he might not to stop feeling a refugee.

Is there a natural right to asylum?

There is an nternational Law, legally determining the obvious. These are the Convention and the UN protocols.

If yes: is this right unconditional, or can it be forfeited?

I consider it an essential right.

Do you think that the number of refugees a society can absorb is limited?

I believe that there are such countries: USA, Canada, Australia.

If yes: where do you draw the line, and why?

These possible limits are based on the size of the country, the level of its economic development and the political culture, as well as on the elites' ability to calculate the responsibility for refugees' flows and the level of xenophobia in their own countries. America in the XIX and XX centuries accepted such a high number of refugees and immigrants no European country would be able to deal with. If a country is capable of ensuring the refugees' flow with a place to stay and to adapt them to a normal life, this is its positive limit. Its negative limit is the obligation to accept refugees during wars and disasters, which might reach an unlimited extent. However, the general perception of the "refugee crisis", for example, as a result of the Syrian conflict, is somewhat exaggerated, which is noticeable, when looking at the statistics and the ratio of the refugees and the population in these countries.

Are there privileged refugees in your country, i.e. refugees that are more welcome than others? If yes: why?

After the outbreak of military actions in the East of Ukraine, there have been a lot of articles about how warmly Russian refugees from the Donbass were welcomed in the different regions of Russia. Then it turned out that the state and the government officials lacked resources and goodwill to provide these people with housing and jobs, and that local residents in actual fact did not have such a kind attitude towards the refugees. The explanation for the first wave of the warm welcome is simple: “These are Russians, victims of the new illegitimate Ukrainian government, people of the same ethnic group as us!” This attitude is largely a consequence of propaganda. Russians from Chechnya or Abkhazia (from the time period of military actions) were not received by society "warmly", they simply did not exist in the field of public attention or public concern.

Do refugees in your country receive fair treatment?

My country even treats its own citizens unjustly. All of the Russia's problems are reflected in the problems of the refugees. Labor migrants from Central Asia are exposed to a particularly unfair treatment, the guardianship authorities are allowed to take away their children; Saint Petersburg was shocked by the death of Umarali Nazarov, who was illegally taken away from a Tajik family.
Refugees from the war zones in Moldova and Abkhazia do not have any official status at all; all of them, to my knowledge, solve their problems by themselves.

Would cuts in the social security system in your country be acceptable to you if they were to facilitate the absorption of more refugees?

The reality is such that the Russian budget for education and healthcare is being enormously reduced in favor of the military budget. The question, in my opinion, is thus not properly formulated: the budget for social needs should involve all the humanitarian costs, including assistance to the refugees.

What are the requirements for successful integration?

- on the part of the refugees?

Learning the country's language and the refugees' and immigrants' readiness for integration in society.  Not to break the law. To study the language at least at the level of a daily use. To try to behave according to the social norms common in the country.

- on the part of the citizens of the host country?

To provide workplaces in the white sector of the economy by the host countries. To comply with the international obligations regarding the refugees' reception. To provide legal aid, to ensure a decent level of housing, employment, education.

Do you know any refugees personally?

Yes. My husband's close relatives, refugees from Sukhumi, a Russian-Georgian family. Their house was shelled, they managed to escape in the last moment to their relatives in Moscow. They have not received any official refugee status. Some of my colleagues, writers and journalists who left Central Asia during the time of the armed conflicts in the early 90's and after the establishment of a dictatorship there. My students from African countries who used the opportunity to study as an opportunity to leave conflict zones and poverty (my graduate student was Tutsi, Department of Journalism of the Voronezh University, 1994). My friends from Sarajevo, now living in Ljubljana (they were taken as teenagers from under shelling during the siege of the city by the Yugoslavian army). The aforementioned Konstantin Rubakhin, an environmental activist and political refugee. A few more political refugees because of the "Bolotnaya Square case". Several colleagues from the Radio Liberty in Prague – political refugees from different generations and countries. A few of my LGBT friends who left the country as a result of discrimination. In July, as a journalist I met with refugees from Donetsk and Crimea in Lviv, these are Russians, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars who fled their homes after the Crimea's annexation and the outbreak of military actions in the East of Ukraine.

Do you actively support any refugees?

As said above, refugees are not an alien group of people to me, enough of them are among my relatives, so the question sounds a bit strange in my case. Let’s call it "collaboration".

How will the refugee situation in your country develop

a) over the next two years?
b) over the next two decades?

Since it is impossible to predict how the political situation in Russia will develop in two years or twenty years from now, it is difficult to predict anything, including the refugee situation.

Can you imagine a world without refugees?

Unfortunately, it is unlikely to eradicate the causes of the phenomena: wars, disasters, social inequality, xenophobia.

If yes: what does it take?

Huge efforts on the part of mankind.

Have you or your family ever been refugee?

Comp. the answer to question "Do you know any refugees personally?"
Plus the experience of my grandmother's family who fled from the famine in Eastern Ukraine in the 30's of the last century.

Do you think you will ever be a one?

- If yes: why?

I can. As a result of persecution for the professional activities of a journalists working for an American company, as a result of being a writer expressing democratic, pacifist views which go against the course of the country's leadership. As a result of disagreeing with the political course of Russia directed towards militarization and military expansion.

- How do you prepare yourself?

I do not think anybody can prepare for this.

- To which country would you take refuge to?

To one of the countries of Central Europe.

How much “home” do you need?*

I confess, the whole world is interesting to me. I'm afraid that 'Homeland' is a very old-fashioned model.

*This question was taken from Max Frisch’s questionnaire concerning “heimat”.