by Virginia Ottolina
The number of people forced to flee their country due to the violent civil war between the government and the rebel forces in Syria is on the rise. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) updated the number of Syrian refugees to 2,202,439 – more than one million of whom were registered as refugees during the first five months of this year. The UNHCR estimated that if numbers continue to grow at the present rate, three million people will have left Syria by the end of 2013. With these skyrocketing figures, Syrians are the most displaced nationality on Earth today. Unfortunately, this analysis underreports the crisis, as the official numbers published by the UNHCR only refer to the registered refugees. According to the UNHCR website, unregistered refugees and about 4.5 million internally displaced people in Syria were not included in the study.
Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt host more than 99 percent of Syrian refugees. Surprisingly, Russia is not on this list, despite the fact that it is a traditional Syrian ally and that it has the economic resources to support them. A lot has been said about the stand Russia took together with China, when it vetoed any UN action against President Bashar al-Assad. Yet, little has been said about the fact that Russia has not provided significant financial or practical assistance to Syrian refugees.
In relation to the numbers, the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (UN OCHA) announced that by September 2013, about three billion dollars had been donated to provide food and shelter to aid Syrian refugees. The United States, for example, contributed 27.9 percent of this sum, at $818 million, while Russia donated only 0.6 percent of the sum, at $17.8 million. Despite the small amount of the monetary contribution, 2013 has marked an increase from Russia’s $2.5 million in 2012.
In terms of logistic assistance, Russia granted refugee status to only 500 Syrians. The procedure to enter Russia and obtain the refugee status or any other form of legal stay permit is far more complicated than in other countries. Nevertheless, while they are waiting for their permits, asylum seekers may move freely within the country and start their integration process in the community. In addition, refugees receive accommodation in sanatoriums, instead of camps and tents, which is the case in many other countries.
Despite the low amounts of monetary aid Russia donated to Syrian refugees, the Russian Republic of Adygea sets a positive example because it provides an environment for easier integration of the Syrian refugees into the local community. Adyge people, also called Circassians, are an ethnic group native to Circassia. When the Russians conquered the Caucasus in the 19th century, numerous Circassian families had to flee the Caucasus and find safety in the Ottoman Empire, especially after the Russian-Circassian War of 1862. Later on, in the 20th century, the families who settled in the Golan Heights region, in Syria, had to face the Israeli occupation and many fled to Damascus. After this complex population movement, these Circassian families are now back in Russia. Therefore, while fleeing Syria, their country of origin, they are also “coming home” to the place their ancestors came from, rebuilding a connection with the old homeland and seeking a new peace.
For the Syrian families who have Russian roots in Circassia, the integration process was easier than in other parts of Russia, such as North Ossetia. Syrian families with roots in North Ossetia tried to seek asylum in the land of their ancestors, but were rejected. The reasons behind this rejection were more than likely cultural and religious. Most of the Syrian refugees are Muslim, despite being descendants of Ossetian origin, while the majority of the Ossetian population today is Christian or adherents to the native religion. Fear is the prevalent feeling in this circumstance; the different religion is considered an insurmountable obstacle for integration, leading certain regions of Russia to close their borders to refugees.
The Russian news outlet Russia Today recently published a documentary about Syrians who found refuge in the Republic of Adygea. It states that some refugees are eager to go back to their homeland, while others are happy to discover their old cultural roots and wish to be integrated into the Russian community. Many of the interviewed refugees are well-educated and once held high positions in Syria as teachers, entrepreneurs or bankers. Today they have to start from scratch. The skills and knowledge they have are useless in Russia, as there is little advantage that most of them speak some Adyghe, which they learned from their parents who were still linked to Russia and its culture.
The UNHCR found that more than a half of the registered refugees are children. It is hard for them to adapt to a new life in Russia, especially because they do not speak Russian or Adyghe, the two main languages spoken in Adygea. Their situation is different than that of their parents’ because for them Russia is a completely foreign land that they do not have the capacity to understand. Despite the difficulties that these children encounter in the new land, they are in a favored position relative to most of other children who fled Syria and are currently living in refugee camps. These children had to leave school at the beginning of the conflict and have no hope to enroll again any time soon.
There is still hope that these young Syrian refugees will become educated Russian citizens, with economic and social opportunities is expressed by a Syrian mother in the documentary: “I want for my children to live in peace, away from war. They will learn Russian, they will got to school and to university. They will become Russian citizens and I think we will too, it’s a matter of time only.”