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The treatment of military deserters and political dissidents in Russia


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In December, Asylos and the Dutch Council for Refugees jointly published two country of origin information reports on Russia, focusing on the treatment of military deserter and of political dissidents. These were published in response to two reports by the European Union Agency for Asylum (‘EUAA’) on these issues dated April and June 2022.

The EUAA is the EU body responsible to publish country of origin information reports, providing the objective evidence used by EU member states to make their asylum decision. These reports are essentially the equivalent of the Country Policy and Information Notes (‘CPIN’) used by the Home Office in the UK.

Both the Asylos and the EUAA reports make an interesting and useful read, especially considering that the CPIN documents published by the Home Office on Russia are not particularly up-to-date, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And as reports of many on the front line continuing to desert their posts over the last few months and seek asylum across the continent, asylum applications from former soldiers may become more common. At time of writing, there is no CPIN available on the Home Office website covering the treatment of military deserters in Russia. In terms of political dissidents, a CPIN is available here but it has limited information on how the situation changed following the invasion of Ukraine.

Treatment of military deserters

As explained in this previous post, Russian men fleeing conscription and evading military service will not automatically be granted asylum. Those seeking asylum on this basis will need to show something more than just risk of prosecution on return as prosecution does not automatically amount to persecution. In this context, up-to-date evidence on the potential risks on return is crucial.

The Asylos report, which should be read in conjunction with the EUAA report, gives an overview of the relevant criminal code provisions and potential criminal sentences faced by deserters for evading military service. Depending on the circumstances, sentences can range between 1-10 years in custody. Whilst both reports acknowledge that there is limited evidence of deserters being prosecuted in the Ukraine context, the Asylos report provides evidence of some cases where evaders were threatened with criminal sentences and detention for refusing to take part in the fighting in Ukraine.

The Asylos report also provides some background evidence, albeit quite brief, on the condition of prisons in Russia. The report highlights how Russian prisons are overcrowded, hygiene conditions are very poor and, most importantly, prisoners are often reported to be mistreated, tortured and sexually assaulted whilst detained. This constitutes important background evidence as, even in cases where an asylum seeker might not be able to prove that they meet the definition of refugee under the Convention, they can potentially argue that they would be at risk of ill-treatment upon return to Russia if facing imprisonment and therefore they could be granted humanitarian protection.  

Following the publishing of the Asylos report, the EUAA published a full report on military service in Russia. Whilst most sections expand and update the report published in April, I would recommend for anyone working on these cases to look at the section on violation of humanitarian and human rights law by the Russian forces in Ukraine. The section highlights the severity of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Russian army in Ukraine.

This is particularly important as if an individual can show that they objected to military service to avoid committing war crimes, they may be granted asylum on the basis of their political opinion. Whilst the assessment will be made on a case-by-case basis, this objective evidence is certainly helpful.

Treatment of political dissidents

The EUAA report covering the treatment of protestors, journalists, and human rights defenders in Russia since the Ukraine invasion was published in June 2022. Similarly to the Home Office CPIN, the report outlines the increased risks faced by those who oppose the Russian Government and speak out against the invasion of Ukraine. The report focuses on the risks faced by those actively protesting and reporting against the authorities.

The Asylos report adds to this and covers a broader range of dissidents and the risks faced by them. It reports that individuals have been faced with high fines, harassment and arbitrary detention just for posting comments on social media criticising the Ukraine invasion. It essentially makes the point that individuals do not necessarily need to be journalists or activist to be at risk of persecution and that even acts that would normally not be considered protest (such as a comment on social media or holding a blank piece of paper in the streets) can create a real risk of harm. Those who are accused of spreading false information can, in fact, face criminal charges and potential prison sentences.

The Asylos report covers specific risks faced by children, students, artists, feminist activists, and individuals opposing the war on religious grounds. This section is particularly interesting for UK practitioners as the Home Office CPIN does not cover the risks faced by these specific categories in any detail (albeit it does briefly mention the treatment of artists).

The Asylos report concludes by providing some further background evidence of the violent response by police to protests as well as evidence of torture and ill-treatment faced by those detained by the Russian authorities.


In light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the number of asylum applications made by Russian nationals in the UK is increasing (according to the Home Office statistics for the last quarter, the figure has doubled compared to 2021), albeit the figures are still quite low compared to other nationalities. With reports of many on the front line continuing to desert their posts over the last few months and seek asylum across the continent, applications from former soldiers may become more common.

Considering the conditions in Russia on the evidence available, military deserters might be able to succeed if they can show that they evaded service to avoid committing war crimes. Conditions in detention should also be explored and argued in these cases, as there is plenty of evidence available of prisoners facing torture and ill-treatment.

For political dissidents, the arguments might be slightly easier. The evidence discussed in these reports clearly points to the fact that individuals can be perceived as opposing the government, facing prosecution and persecution just for posting critical comments on social media or being in the proximity of an anti-war protest.

Interested in refugee law? You might like Colin's book, imaginatively called "Refugee Law" and published by Bristol University Press.

Communicating important legal concepts in an approachable way, this is an essential guide for students, lawyers and non-specialists alike.

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Francesca Sella

Francesca Sella

Francesca is an immigration and asylum solicitor at the Scottish Refugee and Migrant Centre at JustRight Scotland, Scotland's legal centre for justice and human rights.