'Our only prospect is to be deported': A call for help from African migrants detained in Russia

A temporary detention centre for foreigners near Dukhovshchina, about 60 km north of Smolensk, Russia. Several dozen people are currently held there, awaiting deportation.
A temporary detention centre for foreigners near Dukhovshchina, about 60 km north of Smolensk, Russia. Several dozen people are currently held there, awaiting deportation. © Photo provided to FRANCE 24 Observers team

Migrants from various African countries have reported being arrested and locked up at a detention centre in Russia, around 100km from the Belarusian border. Since the beginning of November, these migrants have alerted the FRANCE 24 Observers team to the conditions at the centre, where they live in fear of being deported.

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Since the summer, thousands of migrants have been trying to reach the European Union by way of Belarus, from which they head toward the Polish, Lithuanian or Latvian borders. At the border with Poland, the crisis is escalating, as authorities do everything in their power to prevent migrants from entering the country.

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Blocked in the middle of the forest along the Polish border, some migrants have opted to turn back, heading east, back to Belarus or even to Russia. 

'We were arrested by the FSB on the grounds that we didn't have a visa to be in Russia'

That was the case for Bertrand (not his real name), who comes from a French-speaking country in Africa.  

I came to Russia to study, but my visa expired in 2016. So I found myself without papers, and I started to do odd jobs.

This summer, I decided to go to Belarus, because I had heard that the country had opened its border posts with the European Union. Finally, in the beginning of October, I arrived at the Polish border, with my friends. For nearly three weeks, we tried to enter Poland, but each time we were sent back. After a while we ran out of food and drink, so we decided to go back to Russia.

In a taxi, we crossed back through Belarus, and then into Russia, but we were arrested by the FSB [Editor's note: the Federal Security Service, Russia's main security agency] in Smolensk at the end of October, on the grounds that we didn't have a visa to be in Russia. 

We went to trial, with no lawyer and an interpreter who didn't speak French well, and the judge said we would be deported. We couldn't say a word.

Then, they brought us to a detention centre, that's where I am now. We are suffering here: we can only shower once a week, we are able to go to the toilets twice a day. [Editor's note: according to other African detainees, the sanitary facilities are dirty, and they can only go outside for 10 to 20 minutes a day.] The food is just bread, soup...

And now our only prospect is to be deported. But we don't know when we'll be deported because they told us it's up to us to buy the plane ticket. Otherwise we will just die in the centre. 

Our Observer's detention centre is in the forest near Dukhovshchina, about 60km north of Smolensk. The Belarusian border is about 100km to the west.

A paper with the details of the detention centre where Bertrand is being held.
A paper with the details of the detention centre where Bertrand is being held. © Photo provided to the FRANCE 24 Observers team

According to our Observer and other people in the centre, there are currently 30 to 50 people there. In addition to Africans, some are said to come from Cuba and Arab countries. They are only allowed to use the Internet between 3pm and 7pm.

The detention centre did not respond to our requests for comment by the time this article was published.

'The only way to avoid being deported is to request asylum'

Fatima Kokaeva, who works for the Civic Assistance Committee, a Russian NGO that helps migrants and refugees, is familiar with these types of temporary detention centres for foreigners. She confirms our Observer's account of the conditions in these centres, and told us about the desperate situation many migrants find themselves in.

These are centres where people arrested without papers are held until they are deported. They are a kind of prison. They have existed since 2016 in Russia: they are almost everywhere in the country. They are under the control of the Ministry of the Interior. 

When people are arrested without papers, they are tried by the Migration Service, which is part of the Interior Ministry. Basically, if they cross the Russian border illegally, they are fined at least 2,000 roubles [about 24 euros], or even imprisoned for up to six years, and then they are deported, unless they have, for example, a Russian spouse or child. The problem is that there is not always a translator at the trial.

A person also detained in the centre near Dukhovshchina told me that the judge had just asked her and others one question: 'Do you know that you crossed the Russian border without a visa?' They answered 'yes'. And then they were not allowed to ask any questions. They broke the law, so they were convicted.

'Russia very rarely grants asylum' 

The only way to avoid being deported is to request asylum. But even if they make the request, they have to pay their fine or even serve their prison sentences. And Russia very rarely grants asylum.

Between March 16, 2020 and September 30, 2021, it was forbidden to deport people from Russia, because of Covid-19. There was even a kind of amnesty: people without visas could register with the authorities. But since September 30, undocumented people who are arrested are once again being sent to detention centres. That said, with the pandemic still going on, it's hard to know when they will be deported.

Normally, the Russian state buys the plane ticket and the person can wait two years before being sent back. But they can also pay for their own ticket if they want to leave sooner.

In Russia, many Africans have been legal residents for years but they may still try to reach the EU, for exemple, if they are in a situation where they can't renew their visa or their asylum application is rejected in Russia.