MOSCOW: One morning in February, Olga Nikolayenko arrived at the Center for Adaptation and Education of Refugee Children in Moscow, a program she has been directing for the past three years. But a group of municipal employees barred her from entering the building. They had arrived earlier that morning, broke down the doors, changed the locks and set up their own alarm system.
For 20 years, the center has been help refugee and migrant children ease into Russia’s school system. Now, its premises are no longer accessible to Nikolayenko, the centre’s volunteer teachers, and the 70 children from Afghanistan, Africa, Syria and Chechnya who had been studying Russian, English and maths there in preparation for enrolling in the Russian school system in autumn this year.
One of the municipal officials told Nikolayenko that the city had notified the center, which was a property of the municipality, that it was terminating its lease. This termination apparently gave him the authority to break down the door and confiscate the organization’s equipment.
The center is a project of the Civic Assistance Committee, a leading independent Russian civil society group that protects the rights of migrants and asylum seekers through direct services and advocacy.
In May 2015, the authorities notified Civic Assistance that they would be ending the lease. The notice didn’t explain why the department suddenly decided to terminate the lease after 17 years, nor did officials bother to offer any explanation when Civic Assistance asked. Civic Assistance corresponded with the city government in an effort to reverse the decision. Russia’s ombudsman and the head of Russia’s presidential human rights council also wrote letters of support. City Hall told the centre to wait for a court decision. But the municipal property department apparently decided not to wait for the outcome of any hearing.
In April 2015, about a month before the city informed Civic Assistance that it was ending the centre’s lease, the Justice Ministry put Civic Assistance on the list of groups considered “foreign agents,” a label used to brand groups that receive funding from abroad and are engaged in any of a very broad range of work deemed to fall under the category “political activities.” More than 100 groups were demonized as spies and traitors with this label under the 2012 “foreign agents” law. Some chose to shut down rather than carry on under this damning classification. Civic Assistance is pressing on with its work, but the law is taking a toll on its operations.
Although no official has confirmed that the center’s eviction notice was linked to Civic Assistance being branded a “foreign agent,” the connection is fairly obvious, and the only plausible explanation.
The Moscow Education Department has a network of schools that help migrant children learn Russian, but they won’t work with children are undocumented, whereas the centre works with children regardless of their legal status. With the refugee crisis affecting much of Europe, this is an especially bad time to play politics with vitally needed services.
The eviction also exposes the cynicism in the government’s claim – supported by Russia’s Constitutional Court – that the ”foreign agent” designation does not lead to stigmatization or impediments to the work of non-governmental groups. The court’s ruling said the law seeks merely to “identify them as special entities involved in political activity in the territory of the Russian Federation.”
In fact, the center’s eviction is a powerful example of the dangers that the law poses for the independence of civil society movements.
The Russian government’s overzealous scrutiny of the “political” nature of the organization’s work is blatantly dismissive of the essential services it has been providing to these refugee children, many of whom have fled death and destruction in their own countries.
It’s been almost two months now, and the Moscow Department of Property has not offered the center any space, old or new. A museum in Moscow offered to rent out space, but insisted that the lease contract exclude Civic Assistance. Meanwhile, the center has been organizing lessons in offices of other organizations, which can be problematic for the children and their families.
But the children who studied in the center in Moscow aren’t the only ones who have become victims of the law. In August, the Federal Migration Service pressured a landlord to evict Civic Assistance volunteers in Noginsk, 21 miles (34km) from Moscow. They had been renting a private home to run a learning center for children whose families fled the war in Syria in order to prepare them for school in September. Fortunately, the volunteers eventually found another place to hold the lessons.
Even if the city signs another lease for the education center, it would be like sticking a band-aid on a snake bite. The foreign agent law is toxic and its damage is quickly spreading to different spheres. Due to lack of defined rights and the resultant political and social marginalization, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are easy victims.
The Russian government needs to scrap this law and foster a normal working environment for independent organizations. Ensuring that Civic Assistance can continue providing its services to children of migrants and asylum seekers without hindrance would be a good place to start.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.