why Russians fleeing conscription should be treated as refugees


People fleeing across borders are a feature of armed conflict. We first saw millions of Ukrainians flee the country when the Russians invaded Ukraine in February of this year. Now there are reports of hundreds of thousands of Russians fleeing their country to avoid the first Russian mobilization since the Second World War.

So how should the West react to young Russian men fleeing to avoid military service? Politically and legally, according to international law, they must be protected.

Conscription to military service has a long history dating at least to ancient Egypt. But it slowly disappeared with the professionalization of the world’s armies. However, conscription remains a rite of passage in more than 100 countries – including Russia which has a long and difficult conscription practice.

Refusal to perform military service also has a long history. In Europe, Saint Maximilian of Tebessa (in Algeria) was executed in AD 295 for refusing to serve in the Roman legions because of his religious beliefs – the earliest record of a conscientious objector. In recent decades, tens of thousands of Americans fled to Canada to avoid the Vietnam Warthe Kurds have sought protection in the UKxto avoid serving in Turkey’s war against them and American soldiers having deserted to avoid serving in the invasion of Iraq.

Today, international human rights law and international humanitarian law impose limits on conscription and international refugee law requires states offer protection to some of those who flee it.

As border states worry the massive influx young Russian men, there are a range of practical reasons for other countries to offer protection to Russians fleeing conscription. Clearly, providing sanctuary abroad compromises Russia’s ability to raise an army to continue its fight in Ukraine. It also strengthens the Russian expatriate community and its opposition to the invasion.

European politicians since the beginning of the conflict debated grant special allowances to Russians who desert or evade military service.

Russians fleeing the border to Finland after the announcement of a broader conscription policy.

Beyond strategic self-interest, there is a need to offer protection to at least some of those fleeing on the basis of the international humanitarian, human rights and refugee treaties we have signed. In general, human rights law prevents states from returning individuals to cruel and inhumane conditions. And, while refugee law does not automatically protect Russians who escape conscription, it has historically recognized a range of circumstances in which those fleeing conscription are entitled to protection.

What the law says

Applying these obligations to the case of Russians fleeing conscription it is complicated (recent UK government guidance on asylum seekers fleeing conscription has 14 pages), but we can identify at least three overlapping categories which are entitled to our protection.

First, a person is entitled to protection if their conscription is extralegal, discriminatory or results in inhuman treatment. In the occupied territory of Ukraine it is illegal (and a war crime) for civilians to be drafted into military operations against their own country, even by the mandatory governments in power (as the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic).

Good luck guys: an Orthodox priest gives Russian conscripts a furlough.
EPA-EFE/Arkady Budnitsky

It is also increasingly clear that the way conscription is carried out in Russia (as in so many other places) is not just random, but target. Protesters demonstrating against conscription were immediately served with conscription orders and ethnic minorities seem at disproportionate risk of conscription.

Once in the military, some recruits face more than just the risk of battle. Hazing can be extreme and living conditions are often desperate.

Second, a person is entitled to our protection if his conscription has a substantial possibility of implicating him in internationally condemned acts. This includes war crimes and crimes against humanity. Of Bucha at Izyumevidence emerges of the execution and torture of civilians and prisoners of war.

While it is dangerous to generalize, the commission of such acts seems so widespread (and committed with such impunity) that there is a substantial possibility that any Russian soldier in Ukraine could become by force complicit in such crimes.

Third, a person is entitled to our protection because of their beliefs or their personal situation. Like Saint Maximillian, many have religious beliefs that forbid taking up arms, whether in war of self-defense or aggression. Such conscientious objection has long been recognized as a reason for protection as a refugee.

Others may have personal circumstances that make military service particularly dangerous. Racism, religious discrimination and homophobia are endemic in the Russian military, resulting in targeted abuse and deliberately place these people in more risky situations.

But while it is clear that we must offer protection to large numbers of Russians fleeing conscription, international law and policy have their limits. Although the numbers are likely to be much smaller and the policies more difficult, we must remember that international law also applies to Ukrainians fleeing conscription.

But international law also has its limits, as revealed by its use of oxymoron terms like “military justice” and “law of war”. With regard to conscription, we have not yet fully resolved the blatant sexism rooted in the (and more widespread) Russian practice of enlisting only men.

In practical terms, the ability of potential conscripts to flee has also been limited by our desire to collectively punish the Russians for the invasion by imposing border closures and stricter visa requirements. The transfer of refugee flows of Ukrainian women and children to Russian men will inevitably affect public opinion in Europe and beyond.

In order to uphold the international human rights obligations that Western countries often cite to underpin their support for Ukraine, the West must publicly commit to providing sanctuary for these ordinary Russian men who oppose the war. and want to avoid conscription.


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