Samar Kriker has been held for almost a month in a Russian detention centre, where asylum seekers can be locked in cells for 23 hours a day
Russian authorities are poised to deport a Syrian refugee who says he ended up in Russia after a failed attempt to swim from Turkey to Greece to claim asylum in Europe.
Samar Kriker was picked up in early May five kilometres from the tiny Greek island of Chios by the Hero of Russia, a huge Chinese-built tanker bound for Russia.
On arrival Kriker, 27, was taken to Rostov-on-Don, a bustling port city close to the Ukranian border, and transferred to an immigration detention centre - after nearly a month there, he could soon be sent back to Damascus.
A police source close to the case, who asked to remain anonymous, has told Middle East Eye that authorities are now looking to deport Kriker back to Syria as soon as Saturday, following the rejection of his asylum application.
Kriker, a former builder, had been in the water for two days when he was rescued, carrying two inflated basketballs as floats and wearing a pair of flippers and a face mask.
The tanker’s captain, Artem Goncharov, told a Russian news site that Kriker was barely able to speak when he was picked up, and was showing signs of hypothermia.
Kriker was kept in isolation for the first part of the four-day long boat journey to Russia, as the ship’s crew feared he could be carrying an infectious disease.
A picture taken by Kriker reportedly while on board Hero of Russia (NewsLife)
NewsLife, a Moscow-based news website considered supportive of President Putin, published a letter Kriker reportedly wrote after arriving in Rostov-on-Don on 12 May.
In the letter Kriker appealed to Russia’s Federal Migration Service, the government body responsible for migration, to grant him asylum, fearing that he and his family faced a growing threat of death at home in Damascus.
“I travelled to Turkey in early 2015 to look for work. Later, I decided to travel from Turkey to the Greek island of Chios by swimming, in order to claim asylum in the European Union,” Kriker wrote in the shakily handwritten letter, penned in formal Arabic.
At its shortest point, Chios is separated from Turkey by a 13.5 kilometre stretch of the Aegean Sea.
Kriker, who used to work in construction in Damascus, had spent two months practising for the swim in the Turkish port town of Mersin, and thought it would take him 10 hours to reach Greece.
When he began the swim on 6 May, though, he found the waters of the open seas much colder than those he was used to.
Exhausted after two days at sea, Kriker ended up signalling for help from the Russian tanker five kilometres from the coast, when he was likely already in Greek territorial waters.
He had been hoping to travel onwards from Greece, a country facing economic crisis and historically high unemployment rates, to Germany or Austria.
The letter has since been taken down from NewsLife’s website.
Staff at the detention centre where Kriker is said to be held, 70 kilometres outside Rostov-on-Don, said they could not disclose any information about Kriker’s wellbeing, or even whether he was detained at the centre.
However, a Russian police source has confirmed to MEE that Kriker has been held there since shortly after his arrival in Russia, and that authorities are seeking to deport him.
“It’s nearly impossible to get information from the centres, or to meet people in there,” said Vadim Naboychenko, director of the Rostov-on-Don office of the international charity Caritas.
One man who has gained access to similar centres is Dimitri Utukin - a member of Russia’s Committee Against Torture - who investigated conditions at a facility in the western city of Nizhny Novgorod in March.
“Detainees are allowed out for an hour a day to walk around a small yard. For the other 23 hours of the day, they are locked in their cells,” Utukin told MEE by phone from Nizhny Novgorod.
Rooms at the centre Utukin visited held between four and six people, who typically stay less than a week.
“It’s very difficult for a migrant to spend a whole month there – but we have heard of undocumented people being detained for up to a year.”
Russia, along with countries including South Korea, Israel and the United Kingdom, does not have a legal limit on how long people can be detained under immigration powers.
The vast majority of people detained in Russia are asylum seekers, says Utukin, but may struggle to present their cases adequately in a system where it is “impossible” to access free legal advice.
For non-Russian speaking detainees, the situation is much worse.
Though stuck in prison-like conditions, they are unable to access translators because they have not committed a criminal offence, Utukin said.
“If you commit a crime, the state has to give you a translator - but there is no law for this in asylum cases.”
The majority of detainees, Utukin says, are from ex-Soviet bloc countries neighbouring Russia like Georgia and Kazakhstan.
“But if someone doesn’t speak Russian it is a huge problem for them.”
Utukin said he saw a guard at the centre trying to communicate with a Vietnamese detainee using only sign language.
A rare photograph shows the inside of a Russian prison (Siberian Times)
‘Little doubt’ that Russia is breaking its own asylum laws
By May of this year, 1,395 people fleeing Syria had been granted temporary asylum in Russia, according to the latest government figures.
However, according to UN officials, even temporary refugee status does not vouchsafe a future for Syrians living in Russia.
If they breach the terms of their stay, for example by missing a deadline to renew their temporary asylum amid Russia’s notorious web of red tape, refugees can be deported back to Syria.
“These cases do happen,” said Galina Negrustueva, a spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) in Russia. “We are talking about dozens or hundreds of people.”
The Federal Migration Service (FMS) refused to respond to MEE’s request for information about deportations of Syrians, saying they only speak to “foreign journalists accredited by the Russian Foreign Ministry”.
The FMS’s official line is that, by law, Russia is not permitted to detain asylum seekers.
However, Michael Flynn of the Global Detention Project says there is “little doubt” that asylum seekers are routinely detained, but that they are often not included in government detention statistics.
Human Rights Watch has documented mass raids undertaken by the security services in 2013 that resulted in hundreds of people, including asylum seekers, being detained in makeshift camps just outside Moscow.
“There’s a history here that suggests that [Kriker’s story] is very much a possibility,” said Flynn.
Hero of Russia, the tanker that rescued Kriker off the Greek coast (photofleet.ru)
Militarised land borders and outlandish crossing attempts
With Europe increasingly closing its borders to migrants, says Irem Arf, a researcher on European migration at Amnesty International, asylum seekers and migrants are forced to turn not just to dangerous Mediterranean crossings, but also to more outlandish methods like swimming and river navigation.
“I’ve heard of people trying to swim to Greece, although usually from further south,” says Arf.
Small numbers of people still attempt to cross via land from Turkey into Greece or Bulgaria, both EU states, says Arf, though the numbers have fallen sharply since the building of border walls in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
“I’ve heard of affluent young Afghans and Syrians, those with smartphones and GPS, trying to cross via the river between Turkey and Greece. They walk, carrying with them an inflatable boat, and then try to cross the fast-flowing river into Greece.”
Even before they reach the border fences, many are spotted by Greek or Bulgarian security services, who report them to their Turkish counterparts.
Anyone who makes it to the border is likely to encounter ever-increasing numbers of police equipped with cameras and night-vision goggles, according to Arf.
Arf says that there is “indiscriminate border management risks denying access to genuine refugees,” thereby breaching international law.
In 2013, 60 percent of those who managed to cross the land border into Bulgaria were fleeing the violence in Syria, “people in need of international protection,” Arf says.
After Bulgaria’s border wall was constructed, the numbers of people arriving in Bulgaria and Greece from Turkey dropped sharply.
“When the numbers suddenly decrease, what happens to these people? They are either stuck in Turkey, or they are forced to take more dangerous routes, where many lose their lives.”
Kriker has so far managed to survive two months of training, two days at sea and almost a month in Russian immigration detention.
Now, according to NewsLife, Russian officials say he is “ready to be shipped home”.
Additional reporting by Chris Atkinson