Russian LGBTQ+ asylum seekers face uphill battle to make claims in EU

At risk of persecution in Russia, many struggle with discrimination and tough European immigration policies, resulting in mental health crises, extended waiting times and rejections.
Aleskandra Bykova and Tatjana Argunova in Wickede, Germany, on March 6, 2024. Courtesy of Tatjana Argunova.

By Thibault Spirlet

Thibault Spirlet is a human rights freelance journalist based in London whose work has been published in the Daily Express, Politico Europe, Factal and AFP.

15 Apr 2024

Victoria Tsvetkova burst into tears when she heard her asylum claim was denied in January. 

The 30-year-old Muscovite, who identifies as non-binary, fled Russia in the early days of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 with her girlfriend Anna. They applied for asylum in Finland in April 2022.  

Nearly two years later, after four rounds of interviews, the Finnish immigration authorities denied her claim, finding that she and her partner were not “at a risk of serious violations of rights” because they did not openly express their sexual orientation in Russia in the past. 

“I cried a lot in front of the police officers because being told that in my face was more than I could handle — it was really awful,” Tsvetkova told The Parliament. She appealed the decision in January and is expecting a decision by the summer. 

Tsvetkova told the Finnish authorities that she and Anna did not have the right to get married, live together or have children through IVF or adoption in Russia, which led them to develop depression, suicidal thoughts and panic attacks. 

She argued that, as a private children’s tutor, she also risked being fined or even jailed if she ever revealed her sexual orientation to her employer, since Russia’s ban on ‘gay propaganda,’ expanded in late 2022, carries particularly heavy penalties for sharing information around LGBTQ+ themes with children.  

And after volunteering with an LGBTQ+ organisation in Finland, she said her prospects of being persecuted in Russia escalated. In rejecting her claim, she said, Finnish authorities were essentially telling her and Anna to “hide” their sexual orientation in Russia: “You were able to hide yourself before so you will be able to do it again.” 

Slim chance 

Despite the hostilities between Russia and the EU, most borders remain open and asylum seekers are still able physically to travel to Europe, so long as they can obtain a visa. Finland has closed its land border with Russia and certain ports, but other ports and airports remain open. Russia’s land borders with other EU countries remain open. 

But Russians hoping to claim asylum in Europe have the odds stacked against them. Roughly two-thirds of the decisions for Russian asylum seekers, who numbered about 23,000 last year, are rejections, according to the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA). By comparison, about a quarter of Syrian asylum seekers were awarded refugee status in 2023 and almost half of Afghans received it, per the EUAA

I cried a lot in front of the police officers because being told that in my face was more than I could handle — it was really awful.

Andrew McKinlay, a press officer at the EUAA, said the agency does not isolate data on LGBTQ+ asylum applicants as EU member states are not required to provide such information. 

Aleskandra Bykova and Tatjana Argunova, a Russian lesbian couple from Yekaterinburg, applied for asylum together in Germany last year.  

The two women fled Russia last year, flying to Armenia and Turkey before crossing the Balkans, including Croatia, where local authorities stopped them.  

Instead of seeking asylum in the capital Zagreb, as instructed by immigration officers, they continued their journey on foot towards Germany.  

Germany’s immigration services did not recognise them as partners. And while Bykova’s prior asylum claim is still pending in France, Argunova may be sent back to Croatia in accordance with the EU’s Dublin Convention, which states that asylum seekers must file their claim in the first EU country in which they arrive.  

The two women are living in temporary refugee accommodation in the town of Wickede, near Dortmund, and are appealing the rejection decision in a German court. If that fails, they could face their biggest fear — being separated. 

“It makes you hysterical, it traumatises you even more because when we finally reached Germany, we thought we were in a free country, we can be who we truly are. We wanted to integrate and then we were placed in a camp,” Bykova told The Parliament. “You can’t win.” 

Mental strain 

LGBTQ+ people fleeing persecution in Russia struggle to obtain the required documentation to support their asylum claims, such as evidence of persecution or membership in the LGBTQ+ community, according to Evelina Chayka of the European Queer Alliance of PostOst Community, or EQUAL PostOst. 

Chayka says such cases stem from discrimination and stringent asylum policies in some EU countries that may not fully recognise persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity as grounds for asylum. 

For those whose asylum claims are being processed, obtaining refugee status can take up to 21 months while waiting in deplorable conditions in camps without guidance, medical or psychological support, according to Harlem van Hayzer, founder and board member of Dutch non-profit LGBT World Beside.  

The organisation recorded five cases of suicide among Russian-speaking LGBTQ+ asylum seekers staying in Dutch camps in just one year. “The number of suicide rates is really high,” van Hayzer said. 

Dzam Kataev, a 28-year-old gay Russian asylum seeker supported by the organisation, says he developed suicidal thoughts while waiting in a refugee camp in the Netherlands. He finds it “absolutely not surprising” that people would want to take their own lives in such circumstances. 

“I see how people are degrading here — they start using drugs, drinking alcohol because waiting for months, if not years, without knowing when the process will end is mentally challenging,” he told The Parliament

Kataev has been invited to only one interview since he filed his asylum application in May 2023. To this day, he doesn’t know when the second interview will take place. He started taking antidepressants to cope with the wait. If his claim is successful, his boyfriend will join him from Georgia on a fiancé visa. 

“I don’t want to put him through what I’ve been through,” he said. 

In its 2024 annual review, ILGA-Europe, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group, found a widespread lack of safety among asylum seekers in the Netherlands' immigration system, with more than half reporting feeling unsafe and three-quarters reporting going “back into the closet,” or concealing their sexual orientation. 

No return 

The three couples The Parliament spoke to all said that going back to Russia now is not an option.  

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Kremlin has intensified its crackdown on free speech and dissent by imposing sentences of up to 15 years on anyone who spreads information that goes against its narrative on the war.  

At the same time, it has taken aim specifically at LGBTQ+ rights: besides the expansion of the ‘gay propaganda’ ban, the government has banned sex reassignment surgery and hormonal therapy, while classifying the “international LGBT movement” as an “extremist organisation.” 

Tsvetkova is hoping that these changes will bolster her appeal in Finland. Under the new Russian legislation, anyone taking part in or financing an LGBTQ+ organisation is punishable by up to 12 years in prison. Both she and her partner Anna are now volunteering at the LGBTQ+ EQUAL PostOst organisation, which she says means they could be sentenced upon their return to Russia. 

If their applications are denied, she says they would either apply for asylum in other European countries or the United States. “We’d have to leave the Schengen area and go somewhere — probably Turkey — because we Russians don’t need a visa there, and unfortunately, we don’t have any money or any other emergency fund.” 

 

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