The Russian-origin Muslim Diaspora: The Ripple Effects of Conflict
The Russian-origin Muslim Diaspora: The Ripple Effects of Conflict
Women of the Chechen community stand as presidents of associations speak to press in the "Liserons" district in Nice, southeastern France, on 16 June 2020. Political leaders in France earlier that week expressed outrage VALERY HACHE / AFP
Special Coverage 20+ minutes

The Russian-origin Muslim Diaspora: The Ripple Effects of Conflict

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have left their homes in Russia since the 1990s, many fleeing war or persecution. Their welcome abroad has chilled lately due to security concerns. These worries are legitimate, but states should not let them define policy toward this diverse diaspora.

What’s new? Successive waves of migration, often driven by war, have created sizeable communities of Russian-origin Muslims around the world. Over the last decade, host countries have shifted from welcoming to more guarded policies toward these migrants, concerned that some may present a militant threat.

Why does it matter? While security issues require appropriate attention, an over-emphasis on them may blind authorities to the needs of a diverse community. Without multi-faceted support, members may suffer needlessly, fail to thrive or become alienated to the detriment of all concerned.

What should be done? Host nation policies should take into account the complex social, cultural and ideological mix that Russian-origin Muslims represent. Authorities should eschew broad-brush policies that treat entire communities as potential threats, and support programs that encourage migrants to develop a stake in host country society. Access to education is especially important.

Executive Summary

Russian-origin Muslim migrants – many fleeing war or repression at home – are increasingly getting a chilly reception in countries where they seek a safer and more prosperous future. In the 1990s, as deadly conflict flared twice in Chechnya, many migrants were welcomed, whether in some of the former Soviet republics, in Turkey or in Western Europe. But fears of terrorism and insurgency, coupled with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) led authorities who had once seen Muslims from Russia as people in need to see instead people susceptible to Islamist militancy. Border controls have tightened; surveillance has heightened; and host nations have sent many resident migrants back to Russia, notwithstanding the risk of abuse they may face upon return. While some security measures are valid, host states should not allow them to define their relationships with these diasporas. Policies that work to ensure migrants’ stakes in host countries through educational access and other support are critical for helping them thrive and integrate, and for staving off alienation and attendant dangers.

In recent decades, waves of migrants of Muslim origin have left the Russian Federation for a wide range of reasons. Persecution in Russia for their faith or their politics, war in their home cities and villages, threats from co-religionists for social or sexual behaviour, or, for a relatively small minority, the draw of a caliphate in Syria were all among the factors. While some simply wanted a chance at a better life, violence, or the threat thereof, was likely an undercurrent in many individual and family decisions. Once they left, migrants often encountered obstacles on their paths to new homes; they were often required to traverse several borders. Some travelled legally; some did not, driven by both fear and hope.

In their new host countries, Russian-origin Muslims have built new lives, in most cases within close networks based on ethnicity, faith and place of origin. Cultural, social and economic practices vary both depending on where the migrants come from and where they live now. In Ukraine and Turkey, Russian-origin Muslims tend to worship together, apart from others. In Western Europe, they are more likely to attend mosques that draw an international congregation. The longer migrants stay in a given location, not surprisingly, the more integrated in that host country’s social fabric they become, sometimes leading to tension between generations. If many find comfort in ties to their compatriots, others, particularly LGBTQ+ migrants (but also other young people who do not adhere to community strictures) have reason to see safety in distance from other Muslims from Russia, whose social norms they live outside of.

Over the course of three decades, these Russian-origin Muslims, at first warmly received in European Union countries as well as Turkey, Georgia and Ukraine, have seen the welcome fade, to varying extents. The central reason has been concerns on the part of authorities that the migrants harbour groups and individuals who themselves threaten jihadist or criminal violence. Certainly, violent incidents including the Nord-Ost theatre siege in Moscow (2002), the Beslan school attack in the North Caucasus (2004) and a series of high-profile terror attacks in Turkey more than a decade later contributed to this perception. EU countries have raised the barriers to obtaining asylum. Georgia has largely closed its doors. Turkey, after a bout of tight surveillance and detentions, has eased up. Ukraine, for now, is letting people in, but granting asylum or refugee status to very few, regardless of ethnicity, religion or place of origin.

While governments have to keep their populations safe, these shifts in policy risk overshooting the mark and rendering themselves counterproductive. By increasingly making security policy appear to be the lens through which a given host state defines its relationship with these vulnerable communities, it may send the signal that the diasporas are not welcome and miss opportunities to provide the kind of support that can knit them more closely to their neighbours. Indeed, approaches that increase these migrants’ isolation may make it harder, not easier, for them to cooperate with authorities toward the goal of enhanced security for all.

Host state governments should therefore push themselves to adopt more compassionate and supportive approaches to the diverse Russian-origin Muslim migrants who have made their homes under their care. While each government will need to refine programming to suit the particularities of the country and the communities that have settled there, certain principles should guide their action. Innocent migrants fleeing persecution must be afforded protection. Authorities should develop information campaigns so that prospective immigrants know both their rights and the limitations of what they can expect and, where needed, get assistance to better manage asylum and refugee programs. Governments should reach out to diaspora communities and invest in programs that help with social integration. Access to education for migrant children is especially important.

By using these principles to guide their actions with respect to the Russian-origin Muslim diaspora, host governments can meet their humanitarian obligations, promote diversity and resiliency in their own societies and help ensure that the effects of conflict and crisis do not continue to ripple through vulnerable populations.

Kyiv/Istanbul/Tbilisi/Brussels, 12 May 2021

In this episode of War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to University of Ottawa professor Jean-François Ratelle about the diverse Russian-origin Muslim diaspora across Europe, the various challenges faced in transit and host countries, and how to adapt migration policies accordingly.

I. Introduction

Millions of Muslims the world over trace their ancestry and heritage to what is now the Russian Federation. Of these, hundreds of thousands are fairly recent transplants, who have left central Russia or the North Caucasus over the last three decades to seek new homes in Turkey, the European Union (EU), Ukraine and other countries. Their reasons vary, as with earlier migrations, but violence played an important part in many cases. Some fled insurgency and state repression in the North Caucasus. Others sought safety from persecution elsewhere in Russia, either by the state or by their own communities, for their political affinities, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or other characteristics. Others left looking for professional or educational opportunities, to reunite with family or for other personal reasons. Thousands were drawn by the war in Syria, where the Islamic State (ISIS) promised them an opportunity to fight for their beliefs and to live in a self-styled caliphate among like-minded co-religionists.

The Muslim diaspora from Russia is diverse in its ideologies, politics, ethnicities and cultures. As migrants from Russia travel and eventually settle in new homes, they have additional diverse experiences, form new bonds and shape the societies they join. As a result, Russian-origin Muslims around the world represent a large number of perspectives. Indeed, many do not think of themselves as Russian-born Muslims but identify with their region of origin, their ideology, their host country, their religion, their other affiliations or some combination thereof.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community members living in Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia and France as well as experts and civil society actors in these countries, January 2020-March 2021.Hide Footnote

Destination countries have responded differently over time. Both Turkey and many EU countries welcomed those fleeing the wars in Chechnya in the early 2000s, wanting to help the refugees and support nationalists whose dreams of creating an independent state, Ichkeria, came to naught. More recently, Ukraine, facing war with Russia starting in 2014, was initially very happy to see volunteers join its ranks who had combat experience, including against Russian troops in the North Caucasus. But reports of ties to jihadist groups soured attitudes, as did terrorist attacks in Europe and Turkey linked to Muslims originally from Russia. Today, Georgia has all but shut its borders to Russians from the North Caucasus, and EU states have raised the barriers for asylum seekers.

Those who have affiliated with militant groups such as ISIS or participated in criminal activity represent a small fraction of the overall diaspora but further draw the attention of authorities to the larger community.[fn]Notwithstanding the extensive debate about the definition of diaspora in migration and diaspora studies, this report understands diaspora as a group of displaced people maintaining a broad connection with their prior country. For discussion of this definition, see James Clifford, “Diasporas”, Cultural Anthropology, vol. 9, no. 3 (1994), pp. 302-338.Hide Footnote  Sometimes, the result is state interference in daily life, such as monitoring of mosques and schools, and police detentions, especially of young men. Increased scrutiny from authorities and greater difficulties in obtaining asylum combine to leave many new migrants in precarious legal and economic situations. Law enforcement officials may augment migrants’ difficulties when they exchange information with the Russian Federation, which many migrants accuse of pursuing them for political reasons, rather than because they have done something illegal.

Meanwhile, while Russian-origin Muslim communities are tight-knit and interconnected, they also face internal tensions. In Western European countries, generational and ideological schisms have emerged as some migrants embrace these countries’ cultures and find in them opportunities for self-expression and personal freedom – indeed, some fled Russia for this very reason. Others look to insulate themselves and their families from these same outside influences, setting the stage for clashes not just with relatives and neighbours, but sometimes also with authorities, for instance when community enforcement of gender norms clashes with local laws and regulations.

As host governments struggle to develop policies that serve the needs of these communities, a deeper understanding of the Russian-origin Muslim diaspora is a good place to start. This report is the overview for a series of papers, which Crisis Group will publish over the coming weeks, that explore the origins, evolution and current status of this population in Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia and Western European countries (with a focus on Germany, Austria and France). The series draws on well over 100 interviews, virtual and in person, with migrants, authorities, civil society figures and experts in all the destination countries, in other transit and destination countries (such as Poland and Belarus), and in Russia. It pairs insights from these interviews with data gleaned from academic literature, media reporting and NGO accounts. It also benefits from Crisis Group’s years of fieldwork in many of the countries concerned, including Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Turkey.

II. A Brief History of Muslim Migrant Flows out of Russia

Like many other population movements, those of Muslims from Russian-ruled territory have historically come in waves. In the 18th century, Russia’s conquest of Crimea and the Black Sea steppes coupled with its suppression of revolts among the Nogai, a Turkic ethnic group in the North Caucasus, drove hundreds of thousands of Muslims from their homes.[fn]Darya Derin Paşaoğlu, “Migration of the Nogais and Their Settlement on the Ottoman Empire’s Territory”, Zolootordynskaya tsivilizatsiya, no. 10 (2017), pp. 415-419 (Russian).Hide Footnote  In the 19th century, even more people, often referred to as muhajirs (an Arabic-origin term commonly used for Muslim migrants), fled Russo-Turkish clashes in the Caucasus and headed for Turkey or Europe.[fn]Exact figures are hard to come by. For more on this period, see Georgi Dzidzaria, Muhajirs and Problems of 19th-Century Abkhazian History (Sukhumi, 1982), pp. 197-269 (Russian); Anastasia Ganich, Circassians in Jordan: Features of Historical and Ethnocultural Development (Moscow, 2007) (Russian). Also note that muhajir was originally used to reference those who accompanied Muhammed from Mecca to Medina. Now it is commonly used to refer to Muslims who leave places not ruled by Muslims. See the muhajir entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.Hide Footnote In the first half of the 20th century, the 1917 revolution, the subsequent civil war and World War II all spurred smaller relocations of Muslims from Russia. 

More recent events have led to new migrations. In the 1990s, with the Soviet Union’s collapse, people of a wide variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds sought to leave Russia and other Soviet successor states, both because of economic hardship and because such migration, previously unavailable, offered new opportunities, temporary and permanent. Some of those opportunities were related to faith. In the midst of Russia’s post-Communist religious awakening, thousands of Muslims from Chechnya, Ingushetia, Tatarstan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia, Dagestan, North Ossetia and elsewhere in Russia travelled to Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries to study Islam and Arabic, opportunities that had been limited under Soviet rule.[fn]On Russian-origin Muslims and their study in the Middle East, see “Islam” in Michael Burdo and Sergei Filatov (eds.), Modern Religious Life of Russia, vol. 2 (Moscow, 2003), pp. 103, 140, 182, 206, 208 (Russian).Hide Footnote There, they learned different approaches to faith than those that had evolved at home, including, but not limited to, Salafi-oriented teachings. When they returned to preach what they had learned, these young religious leaders often found themselves and their followers at odds with elders and local authorities.[fn]I.L. Babich and A.A. Yarlykapov, “Islamic Movement in Kabardino-Balkaria: Trends and Problems”, Central Asia and the Caucasus, vol. 4 (2003), pp. 162-172.Hide Footnote When pressure on the returnees to conform to local norms turned into arrests and other difficulties, many left again.[fn]Enver Kisriev, Islam and Power in Dagestan (Moscow, 2004) (Russian). Crisis Group consultant’s interview in a previous capacity, migrant from Dagestan, Istanbul, February 2016.Hide Footnote

Although the [first Chechen war’s] origins were more secular and nationalistic than religious, the role of religion grew as the war went on, as Islamists became more prominent in the rebel movement.

This clash between different ways of thinking about God and faith coincided with the first Chechen war, which pitted local separatists against the Russian state. Although that conflict’s origins were more secular and nationalistic than religious, the role of religion grew as the war went on, as Islamists became more prominent in the rebel movement. Faith was also a factor in the violence that spread elsewhere in the North Caucasus, particularly to Dagestan, during the late 1990s and 2000s, as religious leaders took sides in clashes between the state and what were often Islamist movements.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

For the most part, the first Chechen war of 1994-1996 prompted Chechen migration to other parts of Russia rather than out of the country.[fn]Laurent Vinatier, Tchétchènes: une diaspora en guerre (Paris, 2013); Irina Babich, “Endemic Characteristics of Ethno-cultural Integration of the North Caucasians in Modern France”, Central Asia and the Caucasus, vol. 18, no. 2 (2017), pp. 42-57.Hide Footnote It was the second Chechen war, which began in 1999 and lasted a decade, that led to an exodus from Russia: to Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Turkey, Ukraine and many other European countries. The emigrants were predominantly civilians fleeing the fighting, but also included some combatants of various stripes. Not everyone who left did so because of the war, however. As tales spread of easily obtained asylum in Europe, people with economic, social or other motivations followed the war refugees.

During the period between the two Chechen wars, Islam had grown more central to many Chechen separatist ideologies.

Meanwhile, many Muslims found themselves increasingly uneasy in Russia. During the period between the two Chechen wars, Islam had grown more central to many Chechen separatist ideologies.[fn]See Julie Wilhelmsen, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Islamisation of the Chechen Separatist Movement,” Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 57, no. 1 (2005), pp. 35-59.Hide Footnote In the late 1990s, militants and other Islamists established the so-called Kadar Zone in Dagestan, a set of villages whose leaders promised to govern according to Sharia principles. After several years of tension with local authorities, federal and government-aligned forces burned the villages to the ground in the Dagestan fighting that marked the start of the second Chechen war.[fn]Robert Bruce Ware and Enver Kisriev, Dagestan: Russian Hegemony and Islamic Resistance in the North Caucasus (New York, 2009).Hide Footnote The residents left Russia, heading to Azerbaijan and Turkey.[fn]Ware and Kisriev, Islam and Power in Dagestan, op. cit.Hide Footnote

As the second Chechen war raged, Islamic movements continued to spread in Russia. Salafi approaches, imported from the Middle East by way of the many young men who had studied there, gained prominence, but so did various other schools of thought. In Novyi Urengoi, in north-central Russia, for example, a large community of followers of the late Kurdish Sunni Islamic scholar from Turkey, Said-i Nursi, which had founded its own mosque in 1996, continued to flourish.[fn]“Authorities Have Demolished Oldest Mosque in Yamal in Novyi Urengoi”, Slavic Centre for Law and Justice, 4 May 2015 (Russian); “Destruction of the Novyi Urengoi Mosque: Heartlessness of City Authorities or Removal of a ‘Breeding Ground for Terrorism’?”, Russian Federation President’s Council on the Evolution of Civil Society and Human Rights, 5 May 2015 (Russian); Denis Sokolov and Olga Oliker, “Uses of ‘Radicalism’: Elite Relations, Migration, Religion and Violence in the Volga Region and Central Russia”, in Olga Oliker (ed.), Religion and Violence in Russia: Context, Manifestations, Policy (Washington, 2018).Hide Footnote

Militant-minded Islamists in the North Caucasus, meanwhile, embarked on an insurgency that was far broader than Chechnya, carrying out hundreds of attacks in Dagestan, Ingushetia and the rest of the region, as well as in other parts of Russia. Their activities surged as the war in Chechnya quieted, shifting the bulk of violence increasingly to other parts of the region. In the North Caucasus, they targeted military, police, and government facilities and staff, as well as Muslim clerics. Throughout Russia, insurgent-linked suicide bombers set off explosives on airplanes, subways and trains, as well as at public events. The most notorious actions were likely the Nord-Ost siege of October 2002, in which Chechen militants held civilians hostage in a Moscow theatre, and a 2004 school attack in the North Caucasus town of Beslan, carried out by a multi-ethnic group, but also in the name of Chechen independence.[fn]See Domitilla Sagramoso, “The Radicalisation of Islamic Salafi Jamaats in the North Caucasus: Moving Closer to the Global Jihadist Movement?”, Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 64, no. 3 (May 2012), pp. 561-595. See also John B. Dunlop, The 2002 Dubrovka and 2004 Beslan Hostage Crises: A Critique of Russian Counter-terrorism (Stuttgart, 2006); and Robert W. Schaefer, The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad (Santa Barbara, 2011). The 2002 attack is referred to as the Nord-Ost siege because “Nord-Ost” was the show playing at the theatre at the time of the incident.Hide Footnote

In 2007, two years before Moscow declared victory in Chechnya, with its foe-turned-ally Ramzan Kadyrov as republic president, these efforts were unified under the self-proclaimed Caucasus Emirate. Led initially by Doku Umarov, who had claimed the presidency of the unrecognised Ichkeria a year before, the Emirate aimed to unite Islamist-minded insurgents to continue their militant actions to topple Russian rule and establish control of the North Caucasus as a whole.[fn]Aurélie Campana and Jean-François Ratelle, “A Political Sociology Approach to the Diffusion of Conflict from Chechnya to Dagestan and Ingushetia”, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 37, no. 2 (2014), pp. 115-134. See also Sagramoso, “The Radicalisation of Islamic Salafi Jamaats in the North Caucasus”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Russian authorities, faced with this continuing threat, often associated conservative strains of Islam with political violence, regardless of whether there was any connection, and increasingly distrusted Islamic movements of all types.[fn]See Wilhelmsen, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, op. cit. On Russian responses, see also Ruslan Kurbanov and Olga Oliker, “Radicalization of Russian Muslim Communities: Policy Responses and Recommendations”, IREX, November 2007; Gordon Hahn, Russia’s Islamic Threat (New Haven, 2007); and Emil Souleimanov, “Chechnya, Wahhabism and the Invasion of Dagestan”, Middle East Review of International Affairs, vol. 9, no. 4 (2005).Hide Footnote A man who returned to Dagestan from study in Syria in 1999 and remained in Dagestan until 2009 told Crisis Group: “When I returned, people were very carefully checking me out. And then [people tied to local religious authorities] spread rumours throughout Dagestan that I was a Wahhabi”.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, migrant from Russia, Berlin, 9 September 2020.Hide Footnote Another told us: “When I came back to Dagestan after studying in the Middle East, people labelled me as a Wahhabi/Salafi. Except for my own family, I was perceived as a threat, an outcast. … Dagestan became a dangerous place for me”.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s online interview in a previous capacity, resident of Dagestan, Berlin, September 2020.Hide Footnote

Authorities in the North Caucasus built networks of informants, conducted intensive surveillance and took harsher measures as well.[fn]See, for example, “Dagestan: Clearing of Gimri Village isn’t Over, Human Rights Centre Memorial”, press release, Memorial, 15 April 2013. Crisis Group consultant’s interviews and observations in a previous capacity, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia and Chechnya, 2009-2020. Of particular relevance are Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, law enforcement officer, Makhachkala, 2016; Chechen migrants, Vienna, Berlin, Brussels and Helsinki, 2019-2020.Hide Footnote These included brutal interrogations of suspects, their friends and family members, intended both to extract confessions and to identify others for questioning.[fn]risis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, Salafi-affiliated residents, Makhachkala, 2009-2018; Chechens tortured in Grozny, Helsinki, June 2019; Stockholm, July 2019.Hide Footnote Detention, trial and imprisonment followed in some cases. Some people disappeared, leaving their families to believe that they had been murdered. Ex-detainees, human rights workers and police personnel reported that authorities tortured people in custody, and a number of women and men told investigators that they had been sexually assaulted and/or raped. Insurgents allegedly also tortured people they suspected of helping the authorities.[fn]“The Situation in Chechnya and Ingushetia Disintegrates”, Human Rights Watch, 6 April 2004.Hide Footnote

During this period, Muslims left Russia because they felt persecuted for their religious beliefs, for social and economic reasons, and/or because they feared reprisal from the state or insurgents.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Report N°238, The North Caucasus Insurgency and Syria: An Exported Jihad?, 16 March 2016; Jean-François Ratelle, “North Caucasian Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq: Assessing the Threat of Returnees to the Russian Federation”, Caucasus Survey, vol. 4, no. 3 (2016), pp. 218-238.Hide Footnote The (not unfounded) belief that European countries would likely grant refugee status to migrants from Chechnya also drove some to travel west – whether they were actually from Chechnya or not. As both insurgent activities and authorities’ crackdowns on a broad range of Muslims continued long after the Chechen wars ended, Russians who went abroad to study Islam subsequently came back to a less-than-hospitable environment. Such returnees often left home once more – this time for good.

The civil war in Syria, which began in 2011, intensified these trends. The militant strands of Islamism espoused by several rebel groups in Syria, and then the emergence of ISIS, served to reinforce Russian fears that Islamic fundamentalism led to violence.[fn]Mikhail Bushuev, “Radical Islamists stoke Russian anxieties”, Deutsche Welle, 2 January 2014.Hide Footnote

Authorities increased their pressure on Muslim students returning from abroad and government campaigns targeted a diverse set of groups, not just in the North Caucasus but also in central Russia. These groups included Hizb ut-Tahrir, which seeks a global caliphate but insists that it prohibits its members from using violence toward that end; the missionaries of Tablighi Jamaat, who eschew politics; followers of the spiritual teachings of Said-i Nursi, mentioned above; the previously tolerated supporters (and educational institutions) of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric self-exiled in the U.S. and now pursued by the Turkish authorities, who allege that his followers infiltrated state institutions and orchestrated a 2016 coup attempt; and a variety of adherents to Salafi practices and philosophies.[fn]See Alexander Verkhovsky, “The State against Violence in Spheres Related to Religion”; Marlene Laruelle and Natalia Yudina, “Islamophobia in Russia: Trends and Societal Context”; and Sokolov and Oliker, “Uses of ‘Radicalism’: Elite Relations, Migration, Religion and Violence in the Volga Region and Central Russia”, all in Oliker, Religion and Violence in Russia, op. cit.Hide Footnote For example, starting in 2012, authorities in Kazan and Ufa, two cities in Central Russia, began prosecuting Hizb ut-Tahrir members.[fn]Alexey Malashenko and Alexey Starostin, “The Rise of Non-traditional Islam in the Urals and the Volga”, Carnegie Moscow Center, September 2015.Hide Footnote Ever more members of that and other Muslim organisations left Russia. A Hizb ut-Tahrir member said: “When I realised that all our people except me were either in prison or on the run, I got on a bus in Rostov-on-Don for Odessa”.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interview in previous capacity, Hizb ut-Tahrir member from Russia, Odessa, July 2016.Hide Footnote The Said-i Nursi followers’ mosque in Novyi Urengoi, mentioned above, was demolished by authorities in 2015.[fn]“Authorities Have Demolished Oldest Mosque in Yamal in Novyi Urengoi”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The people who faced pressure were mainly men, and when they left, families faced the choice between separation and migrating together

Overall, therefore, more Muslims left the country, some pre-emptively, some after friends and compatriots were arrested, and others following warnings by local authorities. The people who faced pressure were mainly men, and when they left, families faced the choice between separation and migrating together. As one man told Crisis Group: “They [local authorities] told me, ‘Leave. This is such a difficult time, and if something happens now, it will be hard to get you out. It will be hard. It is better that you leave’”.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, migrant from Russia, Berlin, 9 September 2020.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, the overlap between ideology and perceived risk also led communities, religious leaders and local authorities to define and police behaviour and appearance. The specifics varied (and still vary) widely from place to place, with wearing of the hijab, for example, common in some places among some subsets of the population and unusual among others. In Chechnya, head coverings have been mandated for women since 2007, but the more concealing niqab is frowned upon.[fn]“Cover your head, not your face: Women’s dress code in Chechnya”, Caucasian Knot, 3 December 2020 (Russian).Hide Footnote Meanwhile, a 2011 article described hijab in Dagestan as more common among educated young urbanites than anyone else.[fn]Naima Nefliasheva, “Hijab in the North Caucasus: Backwards into the future”, Caucasian Knot, 28 November 2011 (Russian).Hide Footnote Bearded men also sometimes face harassment from authorities, particularly if they wear a beard without a moustache, a practice more common among Salafi-affiliated men.[fn]Naima Nefliasheva, “To shave or not to shave”, Caucasian Knot, 18 June 2012 (Russian); Iuri Volotov, “The best word to describe what’s going on in the North Caucasus is ‘schizophrenia’”, The Village, 1 November 2016 (Russian).Hide Footnote

In the North Caucasus, local government and law enforcement adopted increasingly harsh attitudes and sometimes brutal tactics in the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.[fn]See Alissa de Carbonnel, “Insight: Putin targets Dagestan insurgents as Olympics loom”, Reuters, 31 October 2013.Hide Footnote A man who had worked as a village schoolteacher in Dagestan told Crisis Group: “In 2014, I learned that [name redacted] had been arrested [for abetting terrorist activity] and [authorities] were torturing him because they wanted him to say I had introduced him to a certain [redacted name of insurgent field commander]”. When a human rights activist who had met with the detained man confirmed this information and suggested that the schoolteacher leave, “I gathered my things and went to Turkey the next day”. He later went to Syria and now lives in Germany.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, migrant from Dagestan, Berlin, September 2020.Hide Footnote

Russian-origin Muslims with links to groups seen as “pro-Western” or as particularly critical of authorities also faced pressure. A Chechen woman with family ties to the Grozny office of human rights monitoring organisation Memorial, for example, said she could not find a job because of the connection – and, indeed, that a potential employer had openly told her so.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Russia, Le Mans, 1 November 2019. Non-Muslim Russians with links to “pro-Western” or dissident groups can face similar pressure.Hide Footnote

A number of Muslims from across Russia went to Syria – or tried to. Of these, some were drawn in by ISIS recruiting messages.

A number of Muslims from across Russia went to Syria – or tried to. Of these, some were drawn in by ISIS recruiting messages. The ISIS recruitment campaign in Russia was sophisticated, making extensive use of online mediums, and targeting different genders and demographics with social, political and religious messages. As a result, some travelled to fight, but many went because they believed in the idea of a caliphate – a state governed solely by Islamic precepts – and wanted to help build it. Others followed spouses and other family members.[fn]See Jean-François Ratelle and Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, “Online Militant Jihadist Propaganda Targeting Russian-Speaking Audiences and the Russian Response”; and Sokolov and Oliker, “Uses of ‘Radicalism’”, both in Oliker, Religion and Violence in Russia, op. cit. See also Denis Sokolov, “Love and Jihad: Female Trajectories from North Caucasus to the Islamic State”, Central Asian Affairs, vol. 7 (2020), pp. 123-151.Hide Footnote Most Caucasus Emirate leaders pledged loyalty to ISIS and many group affiliates also headed to Syria, while some who stayed in Russia recruited others to go. While those who remained Caucasus Emirate loyalists tended to denounce those who joined ISIS, some Caucasus Emirate affiliates also travelled to Syria as such, both before and, albeit in much smaller numbers, after the schism.[fn]Mark Youngman, “Between Caucasus and Caliphate: The Splintering of the North Caucasus Insurgency”, Caucasus Survey, vol. 4, no. 3 (2016), pp. 194-217; Jean-François Ratelle, “North Caucasian Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq: Assessing the Threat of Returnees to the Russian Federation”, Caucasus Survey, vol. 4, no. 3 (2016), pp. 218-38.Hide Footnote

Particularly during the lead-up to the 2014 Olympics and after, numerous press reports suggested that local Russian authorities were encouraging and even helping people who wanted to fight in Syria to leave Russia, so as to get people whom the authorities saw as potentially dangerous out of the country.[fn]Elena Milashina, “Caliphate? Bait for fools!”, Novaya Gazeta, 29 July 2015 (Russian); Maria Tsvetkova, "How Russia allowed homegrown radicals to go and fight in Syria”, Reuters, 13 May 2016.Hide Footnote A native of Dagestan now living in Ukraine confirmed: “The authorities intentionally sent religious leaders who had studied in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to Syria. First, they arrested them, then let them go for a bribe with a promise to stay put, and then they gave them passports and didn’t stop them at the border. This was intentional”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan, Kyiv, September 2020.Hide Footnote

Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but experts estimate that anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 Russian-origin Muslims joined ISIS and similar groups in Syria and Iraq.[fn]See Tom Sanderson, Olga Oliker, Maria Donnelly and Denis Sokolov, “Russian-Speaking Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria: Assessing the Threat from (and to) Russia and Central Asia”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 2017; “Prosecutor general: 3,500 Russians have joined Middle East terror groups”, The Moscow Times, 8 June 2016.Hide Footnote The vast majority were adult men, but women and children also took part in these flows, in some cases following or alongside men in their lives and in others driven purely by their own ideological convictions. Some of the prospective fighters and builders of the caliphate never reached their original destinations. They instead found homes in Turkey (one common route to Syria), Ukraine or EU countries. Others arrived in Syria, but later left, either disillusioned by ISIS or disenfranchised by its defeat. While their numbers are not large, especially as so many were killed in Syria, such returnees live among Russian-origin Muslim diasporas around the world.

Today, with ISIS much diminished in Syria and Iraq, European countries limiting migration and a rise in deportations and extraditions of Russian-origin Muslims from the EU, Ukraine and Turkey, the flows of new migrants have dwindled, at least for the time being.

III. Entry Points, Pathways and Destinations

Prior to the second Chechen war, Russian-origin Muslims migrated to other post-Soviet countries, to Turkey and to various European states, much as many other Russians did, and sometimes for the same reasons. Many left to reunite with family members who had left Russia previously. Others leveraged educational and professional opportunities.

As noted, most of those who fled Chechnya as a result of the first Chechen war between 1994 and 1996 went elsewhere in Russia, although some Chechens and others travelled to Turkey and on to various European countries.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote The start of the second Chechen war, by contrast, deepened old and created new paths out of Russia, in several directions. Many of these routes proved popular later on, when Muslims began to leave Russia in larger numbers.

A. Post-Soviet Countries

Former Soviet countries have generally been the easiest places to go for those seeking to leave Russia over the past three decades. Visa-free regimes between Russia and many of these states combined with limited passport checks (a boon for those who lack paperwork) and uneven border controls create well-worn pathways for people to either settle in a neighbouring country or move on elsewhere.

In the late 1990s, Georgia was an important destination. As the second Chechen war began in 1999, refugees crossed the Caucasus mountains from Russia into Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, where the indigenous Kists have longstanding ethnic and familial ties with Chechnya.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, Duisi, Zhokolo (Pankisi Gorge), 10 May 2018; Helsinki, 2019.Hide Footnote In addition to the refugees, a few hundred rebel combatants came to Pankisi.[fn]“The Kremlin is preparing a justification for aggression: Georgian media review of the week”, Regnum, 8 August 2005 (Russian); press release, Chechen Refugee Constitutional Court in Georgia, Kavkaz Center, 28 April 2005 (Russian).Hide Footnote Over the next two years, the Russian government asserted several times that insurgents were planning operations from Pankisi Gorge and that Georgia was harbouring terrorists. U.S. government sources also indicated the presence of al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Pankisi.[fn]A brief overview of these accusations can be found in Elena Pokalova, “Georgia’s Experiences with Foreign Fighters: Global Recruitment, Local Roots”, Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 72, no. 8 (2020), pp. 1378-1402. Also see Jim Nicol, “Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge: Russian Concerns and U.S. Interests”, Congressional Research Service, 6 March 2003.Hide Footnote

As the second Chechen war began in 1999, refugees crossed the Caucasus mountains from Russia into Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge.

In total, perhaps 8,000 people crossed from Chechnya into Georgia.[fn]See “Silence Kills: Abuse of Chechen Refugees in Georgia”, Human Rights Information and Documentation Centre, 2006, p. 4.Hide Footnote Roughly half of them (3,700 in 2002) registered as prospective asylees and began the process to migrate on to third countries.[fn]“Chechen refugee number decreases”,, 7 March 2002.Hide Footnote In January 2002, the Russian government established a repatriation commission, which visited Pankisi several times to arrange the return of refugees to their homes over the next two years. Although many refugees were initially fearful, rendering this commission’s work controversial, some Chechens went back to Russia. Between those who moved on to other countries and those who returned to Russia, numbers in Georgia dropped a great deal.[fn]See “Doc. 9480: Situation of refugees and displaced persons in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia”, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, 4 June 2002.Hide Footnote According to Georgian authorities, only about 230 ethnic Chechens, all formally registered as refugees, now live in Pankisi.[fn]“Islam in Georgia: Policy and Integration”, Caucasian House, 2016, p. 16.Hide Footnote Indeed, since the end of the second Chechen war, although people continue to leave the North Caucasus and Georgia is a popular destination for other Russian citizens, very few Russian-origin Muslims have gone to Georgia. As discussed below, the main reason is that Georgian authorities have consciously sought to limit their numbers.

The second Chechen war also triggered the flow of up to 20,000 refugees to majority-Muslim Azerbaijan. In order to help Baku manage the burden, in the early 2000s, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees set up facilities there to assess prospective candidates for resettlement in European countries, Canada and the U.S.[fn]Salman Musaev, “Chechen refugees in Azerbaijan”, Caucasian Knot, 19 February 2003 (Russian); Crisis Group consultant’s interview in a previous capacity, Chechen refugee leader who passed through Baku, Helsinki, March 2019.Hide Footnote Procedures often dragged out, however, and numerous refugees remained in Azerbaijan for several years before finally boarding planes, for the most part to European countries.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, migrant from Russia, Strasbourg, 9 October 2020.Hide Footnote Russian authorities, meanwhile, tried to intercept former fighters among the refugees by working with Azerbaijan and infiltrating jihadist networks, with sporadic success.[fn]Magomed Bagidov, “Azerbaijan: Chechen fury over UNHCR ‘inaction’”, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 4 April 2002 (Russian). See also David Lonardo, “The Islamic State and the Connections to Historical Networks of Jihadism in Azerbaijan”, Caucasus Survey, vol. 4, no. 3 (2016), pp. 239-260.Hide Footnote By 2010, few refugees remained in Azerbaijan, although some whose documents were not in order may still be there.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, migrant from Russia, Strasbourg, 9 October 2020.Hide Footnote At that point, as part of its counter-insurgency strategy in the North Caucasus, Russia reportedly put increasing pressure on Azerbaijan to return the migrants to Russia, where it could keep a closer eye on some and prosecute others. Baku generally offered migrants a choice: return to Russia or continue on to Turkey.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote

The second Chechen war also triggered the flow of up to 20,000 refugees to majority-Muslim Azerbaijan.

By far the greatest number of Russian-origin Muslims, again mainly coming from the North Caucasus, made their way to European countries via Belarus (including some who went to Azerbaijan, who stopped in Belarus en route). Belarus was appealing because Russian citizens have never needed a visa to enter and because they can also travel visa-free from Belarus to some bordering regions of Poland. Until 2003, one could cross the border under an extended Soviet-era system of tourist vouchers and stamps, applicable to both Belarus and Russian citizens. The vouchers and stamps, although seemingly part of a complex bureaucratic process, were, in reality, readily available for purchase.[fn]Olga Wasilewska, “Analysis of the Visa Policies of Visegrad Countries: Relative Openness. Polish Visa towards Belarus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine”, Stefan Batory Foundation, May 2009.Hide Footnote Thus, as long as one had a Russian passport and funds, transit into Poland was fairly easy to arrange. Limited document checks at some crossing points made things even simpler. Even after Poland joined the EU in 2003 and introduced visa requirements for travellers from Belarus in most cases, one could still reportedly take a train from Brest in Belarus to Terespol in Poland with no documentation at all.[fn]“How to go to Europe and receive an ‘escapee’ status there”, Caucasian Knot, 5 April 2016; “Desperate Chechen refugees crowd Belarus border town with dream of reaching EU”, RFE/RL, 6 July 2016.Hide Footnote

The scholar Kristina Igliska estimates that between 2000 and 2017, almost 90,000 individuals from the North Caucasus, mainly Chechens, entered Poland via Belarus and Ukraine combined.[fn]Krystyna Iglicka, “Chechen’s Lesson: Challenges of Integrating Refugee Children in a Transit Country: A Polish Case Study”, Central and Eastern European Migration Review, vol. 6 no. 2 (June 2017).Hide Footnote Enira Bronitskaya, of the NGO Human Constanta in Belarus, estimates that about 2,000 Muslim migrants per year crossed the Belarus-Poland border between 2017 and 2020.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Enira Bronitskaya, Brest, October 2020.Hide Footnote Bringing these figures together produces the estimate that about 100,000 people travelled through Belarus between 2000 and 2020.

Ukraine’s land border and visa-free arrangement with Russia made it, like Belarus, easily accessible to Russian citizens. Ukraine boasted a small but longstanding Muslim community, including nearly 300,000 Tatars in Crimea and nearly 20,000 Volga Tatars in Donetsk.[fn]The Soviet government violently repressed Crimean Tatars in the 1940s, forcing them into exile, mainly in Central Asia. Many did not survive the journey. They were able to return only after 1967, and large numbers did not do so before the 1990s. Oleg Gabrielian and Vadim Petrov (eds.), Crimean Repatriates: Deportation, Return and Resettlement (Simferopol, 1998), p. 152 (Russian). Population numbers reflect the 2014 Russian census, taken after Moscow annexed Crimea in February of that year. “Results of the Population Census in the Crimean Federal District”, Federal State Statistics Service, 2015. Some 19,200 Tatars were listed in the 2001 Donetsk oblast census, according to the State Statistics Committee of Ukraine, 2001.Hide Footnote The presence of other Muslims, combined with Ukraine’s linguistic and cultural similarities to Russia, made both short and long stays comfortable.

As elsewhere, the first substantial flows came as fighting raged first in Chechnya and later in the rest of the North Caucasus. People who left central and southern Russia in the 2000s came through Ukraine as well. Many sought to reach the EU illegally and apply for refugee status once they arrived.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Russia, Vienna, 27 November 2019.Hide Footnote Others were on their way to Syria.[fn]Ratelle, “North Caucasian Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Some settled in Ukraine; their numbers are difficult to estimate, but certainly are in the tens of thousands.[fn]Salman Sadayev: ‘We want to remain Chechens in Ukraine’”, Kommersant Ukraine, 4 May 2012 (Russian); “In Ukraine there are 27,000 of us”, Molodezh Dagestana, 22 March 2014 (Russian).Hide Footnote

Most recently, Ukraine has become a destination for Russian-origin Muslims coming from Turkey and the EU.

Since the war in Ukraine began in 2014, dissident Russians of various ideologies have hoped to find safe haven there, with varying degrees of success.[fn]Claire Bigg and Tetiana Iakubovych, “Seeking asylum in Ukraine, Russian dissidents get cold shoulder”, RFE/RL, 20 January 2016.Hide Footnote Numbers of Russian immigrants to Ukraine likely peaked the same year, but some 90 people per year, on average, continue to arrive.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, Migration Service of Ukraine official, Kyiv, 4 December 2020.Hide Footnote Their ranks include those who felt repressed due to being Muslims and/or having ties with Islamic and Islamist groups. Unlike Russia and Germany, Ukraine has not banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, making the country an appealing refuge for the organisation’s members, who then assist newcomers with legal challenges, housing, financial support and employment. A handful also came to fight in the war, on both sides, although of these people, only those aligned with Ukraine appear to have stayed.[fn]See “Chechen leader Kadyrov denies sending troops to Ukraine”, BBC, 28 May 2014; “Kadyrov: All the Chechens who fought in Donbas returned home”, Current Time, 31 July 2015 (Russian); and Andrew E. Kramer, “Islamic battalions, stocked with Chechens, aid Ukraine in war with rebels”, The New York Times, 7 July 2015.Hide Footnote

Most recently, Ukraine has become a destination for Russian-origin Muslims coming from Turkey and the EU, who have not been able or have chosen not to stay in those places. In some cases, membership in organisations like Hizb ut-Tahrir is what has made them unwelcome. In others, they disliked the authorities’ heightened attention to Muslims as a group or to themselves in particular. Some fought or were otherwise affiliated with ISIS or the Caucasus Emirate in Syria.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, Caucasus Emirate representative, Istanbul, 2016 and 2019.Hide Footnote

B. Turkey

As Turkey has long been both a transit and a destination country for Muslims leaving Russia, it was no surprise that Turkey welcomed Chechens fleeing the first Chechen war. Both the Turkish government and public were sympathetic to the Chechen cause, and the large Circassian (Caucasian)-ancestry community in Turkey, with its collective memory of past migration waves, may have felt some sense of kinship.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, Chercessin Muhadjir representative from Kaisery, Istanbul, July 2018; and Avar Muhadjir representative from Genikoy, Istanbul, September 2017. Crisis Group interviews, North Caucasus migrant representative, Berlin, August 2019.Hide Footnote During the first Chechen war, many Turks, including but not limited to those whose ancestry linked them to Chechnya and Russia, raised money, organised medical assistance and helped with media campaigns lauding the cause of Chechen independence.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

In the mid-1990s, facing then small numbers of migrants, Turkish authorities set up four refugee camps, termed “temporary shelters”, to house migrants coming from the North Caucasus. Three – Fenerbahçe, Ümraniye and Beykoz – were located in Istanbul and one just across the Sea of Marmara in the coastal town of Yalova. Yalova housing also included facilities originally built for tourists.[fn]Crisis Group interview, North Caucasus migrant living in Yalova, Istanbul, March 2020.Hide Footnote Islamic charitable organisations mobilised to provide assistance as well. An NGO representative estimated that some 7,000-10,000 people stayed in these camps between 1994 and 1999. Turkey also offered citizenship to camp residents; many, perhaps most, of them accepted. The camps stayed open until 2014 to house subsequent inflows of Russian-origin Muslims, though later arrivals received fewer benefits.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Russia, Istanbul, March 2020. Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote

The cooler welcome may have reflected rising security concerns, as well as shifting public attitudes. The increasing prevalence of fundamentalist religious rhetoric among Chechen fighters and reports of their terrorist violence against civilians undermined the sympathy that the Chechen cause had previously enjoyed in Turkey.[fn]Crisis Group interview, North Caucasus migrant representative, Berlin, August 2019; Emma Gilligan, Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War (Princeton, 2010).Hide Footnote The Nord-Ost and Beslan attacks in 2002 and 2004, respectively, discussed above, did particular harm to Chechen fighters’ image in Turkey and worldwide.[fn]See Dunlop, The 2002 Dubrovka and 2004 Beslan Hostage Crises; and Schaefer, The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, both op. cit.Hide Footnote

But the immigrants kept coming. According to a representative of an NGO that provides assistance to Muslims from Russia, some 4,000-5,000 Chechens and Ingushetians came to Turkey after 1999, as the second Chechen war got under way. Most of them settled in Istanbul. In addition, over 15,000 people came from Dagestan, as conflict and insurgency spread there. A local aid provider estimates that perhaps 10 per cent from both groups continued on to Europe, while most of the rest stayed in Turkey.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote

Since 2010, Russian citizens have not needed a visa to enter Turkey for a stay of 60 days or fewer, further easing access, at least initially.[fn]Naima Nefliasheva, “New Mukhajirs from Russia Live in Turkey: Migration of Russian Muslims in the 2000s”, Asia and Africa Today, vol. 8 (2018), pp. 27-34.Hide Footnote Between 2015 and 2016, some 20,000 people came to and through Turkey from Russia.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, October 2020.Hide Footnote Some fled the crackdowns described above. Among them were perhaps 1,000 Muslims who left Russia because of government pressure linked to work on behalf of opposition parties or with human rights organisations.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Finally, in addition to people coming from Russia, some number of ethnic Circassians from Syria have come to Turkey as refugees.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, Kaffed (Federation of Caucasus Foundations) leaders and members, November 2020.Hide Footnote

A sizeable number of migrants arriving in Turkey from Russia over the last decade did so with the intent to travel onto Syria and Iraq.

A sizeable number of migrants arriving in Turkey from Russia over the last decade did so with the intent to travel onto Syria and Iraq. Some of those individuals instead remained in Turkey, but substantial numbers completed their journey.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote Aside from its visa-free entry for Russian citizens, Turkey was geographically convenient, boasting a land border with Syria. At a time when few, if any, countries of origin were warning Turkish authorities about potentially dangerous travellers, its status as a tourist destination also made it possible for people wanting to join ISIS to travel there under guise of embarking upon a vacation, whether they were coming from Russia, the EU or elsewhere, travelling alone or with their families.

Prospective fighters and others en route to Syria also found a Russian-speaking network ready to facilitate their travel. Some travelled first to Georgia by bus, and then by bus to south-eastern Turkey. Others arrived in Istanbul where compatriots provided transport to the south east. There, for example, in Gaziantep, the network supplied apartments while they waited for buses to shuttle them to the Syrian border, which most then crossed on foot with the help of guides.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, woman who came to Syria with her husband, Camp Roj, November 2019. Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, former fighters from the North Caucasus, Yalova, October 2016; Kharkiv, April 2016.Hide Footnote Since the collapse of ISIS, some Russian-origin Muslims who fought or lived in areas the group controlled have relocated to Turkey.[fn]Some former residents of ISIS-held areas spoke to Crisis Group for this project. Crisis Group interview, man from Dagestan born in 1985, Istanbul, 10 March 2020. Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, Russian-origin migrant religious leader, 2016, 2017 and 2019; Caucasus Emirate representative, Istanbul, 2016 and 2019.Hide Footnote

Starting in 2016, flows from Russia to Turkey began to shrink. In late 2015, Turkey significantly tightened security at its Syria and Iraq borders. Ankara’s concerns about ISIS ties among migrants from Russia and their involvement in attacks in Turkey also led to a crackdown on the community inside the country. Authorities raided many homes and businesses and detained hundreds, if not thousands. While most were later released (so long as they were not involved in attacks, recruitment or logistics on Turkish soil), some were forced to leave Turkey. The increased scrutiny made Turkey both a less attractive stopping point en route to elsewhere (be that Syria or the EU) and a less hospitable environment in which to resettle. Although Turkish authorities eventually eased up, some Russian citizens, including people who had long lived in Turkey, moved on to Ukraine or the EU or went back to Russia.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, former fighters from North Caucasus, Kharkov, April 2016; Voice of Islam website editor, Helsinki, March 2018; Nogai migrant from Russia, Istanbul, December 2020.Hide Footnote

C. The European Union

The European Union was a lodestar for many Russian-origin Muslims who had heard from friends and relatives abroad that EU countries offered substantial social and resettlement support as well as the right to live and work throughout the EU, as long as one could get there. For a long time, this information was correct: especially in the early 2000s, even as fighting ebbed, refugees from Chechnya, or those willing to say they were, found a welcome in a number of Western European countries.

But if European countries often offered a safe haven, getting there was a challenge. If an emigrant entered Georgia or Ukraine without paperwork, for example, he or she was stuck, at least for some time, because crossing an additional border was not as easy as crossing those between former Soviet countries. Even where there was a process for getting permission to continue to Europe, as in Azerbaijan, it could drag on, leading some immigrants to take matters into their own hands. Some purchased plane tickets to, say, Morocco, with a layover in Paris, and then claimed political asylum in France.[fn]See Anastasia Kirilenko, “Chechen refugees in Europe: Reasons why they flee Russia and asylum problems”, Legal Dialogue, 26 April 2017; and Vinatier, Tchétchènes: une diaspora en guerre, op. cit.Hide Footnote “We just left the airport in Paris and said, ‘Well, we’re refugees’”, one man said, describing his family’s path to a new home in France after some time in Azerbaijan.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Russia, Strasbourg, 9 October 2020.Hide Footnote

Non-legal options varied. The most direct route to the EU was in a smuggler’s car, driven across the border from Uzhgorod in Ukraine, for example, to Slovakia or all the way to Vienna. One migrant told Crisis Group about paying €2,200 per person to cross from Ukraine to Slovakia in this way.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, migrant from Chechnya, 6 June 2020.Hide Footnote Other options were more convoluted, requiring migrants to traverse forests and follow rivers, travelling on trains, on buses, in private vehicles and on foot. These adventures were commonly undertaken by young men, travelling alone or together. Ukraine was one popular entry point for illegal transit en route to Slovakia or Hungary. One man described his journey to Crisis Group:

I remember we arrived in Ukraine. … We went to Uzhgorod and from Uzhgorod we walked into Slovakia. … There was one village, Petrovtsy it was called, right on the border, where I got on a little bus, and came to Košice. … There I got on a train and came to Bratislava. There I asked a taxi driver [to drive me to the border with Austria]. My brother’s friend had said I needed to reach a place where three bridges cross this one river, and then take the bridge farthest to the right. Once you’ve crossed that bridge, you’ll enter the forest. Follow the river, and go straight up, and you’ll reach barbed wire. So, I reached that barbed wire, and crossed it, and then some 50m later I entered a cornfield. It turns out I was already in Austria.

In Austria, the man was detained by authorities and taken to a refugee camp where some 150 Chechen families, by his count, were already living.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Russia, Vienna, 27 November 2019.Hide Footnote

Former refugees and migrants were among those facilitating the new arrivals’ travel. One of them remembered: “For a bribe, I managed to get my hands on the schedule of freight trains from Bratislava and I sent them to the city. … There are dozens of refugees in different cities. I hid them under sealed trampolines … on platforms with lumber or other cargo”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Russia, Vienna, 26-27 November 2019.Hide Footnote

For many years, Poland provided among the easiest legal routes, with an initial crossing, as noted earlier, in Belarus.

For many years, Poland provided among the easiest legal routes, with an initial crossing, as noted earlier, in Belarus. From Brest, in Belarus, Russian passport holders could take the train to Terespol, in Poland, where prospective asylees could announce themselves as such. Muslims from Russia who took this route found local Polish authorities generally welcoming, particularly during the lead-up to Polish EU membership (finalised in 2004).[fn]Crisis Group online interview, migrant from Russia, Nice, 21 October 2020.Hide Footnote Polish authorities set up processing facilities in Terespol, and prior to 2016, they accepted most, if not all, comers.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, migrant from Russia, Vienna, 26 November 2019; Belarusian human rights organisation representative, 16 August 2020; migrants from Russia, Strasbourg, 9 October 2020; migrant from Russia, Nice, 21 October 2020.Hide Footnote

The Brest-Terespol route was unique in permitting such easy travel and became very popular. But in 2016, Polish officials significantly tightened up their approach and began to turn away most new arrivals who were not documented, rather than viewing them as prospective asylees and refugees and letting them submit applications as such. Officials send Muslim migrants from Russia whom they have rejected back to Belarus by train. The migrants often try to enter the EU again, sometimes by illegal means.[fn]“Poland: Asylum Seekers Blocked at the Border”, Human Rights Watch, March 2017.Hide Footnote

The initial change in Polish policy gave birth to a temporary tent city in Brest as some 3,000 people found their planned journey interrupted. Since then, the numbers attempting to reach Poland via Brest have dwindled. Those who still attempt to cross there often try to pull together the right documents, or facsimiles thereof, or pay bribes.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Enira Bronitskaya, employee at NGO Human Constanta, 16 August 2020.Hide Footnote Numerous people told Crisis Group that corruption greases the transit wheels. A human rights worker relayed that when “an entire family comes to the border guards and they are immediately let through”, other migrants assume “it means that they paid”. She and her colleagues hear reports of “so-called Polish lawyers who facilitate payments to Polish authorities”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote In the meantime, many families live for weeks or months at the train station or in small apartments nearby, trying repeatedly to cross the border by train or illegally with help from smugglers.[fn]Iglicka, “Chechen’s Lesson”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Based on interviews, migrants at these crossings are often unaware of their rights, and border officials do not bother to inform them, instead denying them entry.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Enira Bronitskaya, employee at NGO Human Constanta, 16 August 2020; Crisis Group interview, migrant from Chechnya, Paris, November 2019. See also “Au Belarus, dans le train de l’exil, des tchétchènes bloqués”, 45e Nord, 17 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Once refugees have made their way from Russia to Poland, Hungary or Slovakia, they are generally directed to refugee camps, such as Biala Podlaska in Poland. If they remain there, they undergo assessment for asylum in Poland.[fn]Iglicka, “Chechen’s Lesson”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Poland does not make this procedure easy: migrants report being rejected more than 40 times before even being able to file a legal claim, and the European Court of Human Rights has awarded damages to individuals whom Polish authorities have turned away illegally. Once filed, most of these claims fail: Warsaw refuses over 80 per cent of asylum applicants.[fn]Laurenz Gehrke, “Poland improperly rejected Chechen asylum claims, European Court rules”, Politico, 23 July 2020; Olga Gulina, “What happens when Chechens seek asylum in Europe?”, Riddle Russia, 18 April 2018; “Au Belarus, dans le train de l’exil, des tchétchènes bloqués”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Legally, asylum seekers have no choice: the Dublin II Regulation of 2003 and the 2013 Dublin III follow-on state that the first EU member state to take an asylum seeker’s fingerprints and other data becomes responsible for that person’s claim, except in unique situations such as family reunifications.[fn]The Dublin Convention, signed in 1990, has been amended over the years. The European Union website has additional information about Dublin II and III.Hide Footnote If asylum seekers then travel elsewhere, they risk being returned to the country where they were first recorded present. In some cases, despite the family reunification exception, officials have sent back people with relatives elsewhere in the EU.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, migrants from Chechnya, Stockholm, July 2019; Brussels, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Other than Poland, since the outbreak of the second Chechen war, migrants have generally sought to go to Germany, Austria, France or Belgium.

For this reason, many new arrivals to Poland and other Eastern European countries try to avoid camps and processing and instead seek another destination where they have higher odds of lodging a successful claim and can obtain social benefits, such as Austria or France. They, and those whose asylum claims have been rejected, rely on personal and community networks, legal and illegal, to facilitate their further travel.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, migrant from Russia, Strasbourg, 9 October 2020; Neil Hauer, “Chechen Radicalization in Europe – Communities in Need of Aid”, European Eye on Radicalisation, 7 November 2018.Hide Footnote One migrant told Crisis Group that smugglers charge €2,000-3,000 to transport people from Poland to France or Germany.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Ingushetia, Strasbourg, 22 November 2020.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, some stay in Poland, unwilling to be registered there and thus undocumented, but unable to go elsewhere. Today, there are some 10,000 Chechens in Poland.[fn]Gulina, “What happens when Chechens seek asylum in Europe?”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Other than Poland, since the outbreak of the second Chechen war, migrants have generally sought to go to Germany, Austria, France or Belgium. Not only do all four countries have sizeable communities of people from the North Caucasus, but they also offer generous financial benefits to refugees. Moreover, all four interpreted their non-refoulement obligations under international refugee law to preclude the return of most Chechens and some other North Caucasian Muslims to Russia, where European authorities judged many of these migrants could face serious threats to their life or freedom. As a result, most who reached these countries and sought a home there got one, whether as formal asylees, refugees or through some other legal right to residency. As word spread, more and more came, creating substantial Chechen and North Caucasian populations throughout Europe, and in these four countries especially.[fn]Vinatier, Tchétchènes: une diaspora en guerre, op. cit.Hide Footnote

To be sure, threats and persecution, although very real, were not the only factor behind people leaving. But those applying for asylum knew that of all their reasons to leave Russia, credible claims of persecution could grant them legal residency, while economic or other arguments would not. Numerous migrants report that, as a result, people of non-Chechen ethnicity have claimed to be Chechen in their asylum requests. One woman recalled recognising a fellow asylum seeker in France. “She says, ‘I’m Chechen! I’m from Chechnya!’, and I’m thinking, ‘How is she from Chechnya? She’s Ingush!’ … That family arrived two or three years ago, and it turns out [they got residency] by pretending to be Chechens”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, immigrant from Russia, Le Mans, 1 November 2019.Hide Footnote

Many of the refugees Crisis Group spoke with reported knowing that others had falsified their claims, and a few admitted doing so themselves.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, immigrants from Russia throughout Europe, 2019-2020.Hide Footnote Over time, European authorities have become more stringent, and it is now substantially more difficult to establish a successful case for asylum.

D. Onward Migration

As the discussion above makes clear, people do not always stay in the first destination country they reach. Aside from the “shopping” that goes on within the EU, changes in government attitudes have led some people to rethink their choice of safe haven. One example is the Turkish pressure on Russian-origin Muslim migrants that led a substantial number, perhaps as many as 1,500 people, to relocate to Ukraine, starting in 2015, even as others went elsewhere.[fn]Vera Mironova, Ekaterina Sergatskova and Karam Alhamad, “The lives of foreign fighters who left ISIS”, Foreign Policy, 27 October 2017.Hide Footnote In addition to Russian citizens, Russian-speaking migrants from other countries, including Central Asia, have also left Turkey for Ukraine.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, immigrants from Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, Kyiv, Kharkiv, July-August 2016.Hide Footnote More recently, a number of Russian-origin migrants who had gone to the EU have also migrated to Ukraine, while others have gone from Ukraine to Turkey.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, migrant from Chechnya living in Austria, Dnepr, August 2020; migrant from Dagestan living in Kiev, Istanbul, December 2020.Hide Footnote People who fought or lived in Syria have also found their way to the EU, Turkey and Ukraine, among other destinations.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, Caucasus Emirate representative, Istanbul, 2016 and 2019.Hide Footnote

Some of those who have left the EU report that they did so because they felt increasingly uncomfortable in European countries, whether due to social pressure, attention from authorities or other reasons.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote Conversely, some Ukraine-based Chechens with ties to Ramzan Kadyrov’s government in Chechnya began to feel uneasy there as Ukraine-Russia relations grew hostile after the war started in 2014. Some moved on or returned to Russia.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, migrants from Chechnya, Brussels, June 2019. Crisis Group interviews, Chechen migrants, Dnipro, June 2020; migrant of Kumukh ethnicity, Istanbul, December 2020.Hide Footnote

IV. Life Among the Dispersed

In all the host countries under study, recent Russian-origin migrants have tended to settle in clusters, following compatriots to cities and neighbourhoods, whether in Lviv, Strasbourg or Istanbul.[fn]This section draws on the forthcoming companion briefings to this report, which offer deep dives into the diasporas in particular host countries.Hide Footnote The vast majority settle in urban areas, a result both of official policies (the Turkish government, for example, initially provided housing near Istanbul) and of the need to find employment, interface with authorities for legal reasons, and so forth. Physical proximity is also perpetuated because new arrivals often find housing through compatriots, and apartments pass from one migrant family to another, whether they are owned or rented. Ideology and religious leanings, as well as specific places of origin, also shape settlement patterns and social groupings. Hizb ut-Tahrir members from central Russia have tended to settle around Lviv in Ukraine and Antalya in Turkey, for example, although some also live near Kyiv and Istanbul. Across the board, people originating from a given village tend to rent apartments near one another, as do those who share religious beliefs.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community members living in Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia, France as well as experts and civil society actors in these countries, January 2020-March 2021.Hide Footnote

Physical proximity also reflects, and reinforces, tight-knit communities, although these are far from monolithic.

A. Ideologies, Schisms and Connections

While cultural practices vary tremendously among Russian-origin Muslims, it is religious and political divides that seem to divide them the most. These divisions are generally similar in each host country under study. From a religious standpoint, the main split is between those who adhere to beliefs and practices that developed in Russia in the Imperial and Soviet periods, and those who adhere to fundamentalist interpretations of Islam that have become more popular in Russia and among Russian-origin Muslims since the Soviet Union dissolved. In Ukraine, the various religious affiliations have largely aligned with pre-existing formal Ukrainian organisations and movements.[fn]Salman Sadayev: ‘We want to remain Chechens in Ukraine’”, op. cit.; “Sheikh Ahmed Tamim: Ukraine has recently been trying to turn into a base for recruitment into extremist groups”, Gordon, 4 January 2019; Anvar Derkach, “The head of the Chechen diaspora in Ukraine was identified as a crime boss from the ‘90s”, RFE/RL, 6 May 2018; Teymur Atayev, Islam in Ukraine: Past, Present, Future (2018), pp. 327-338 (Russian); Khamza Karamiogly, “The new muftiyat: Correcting the mistakes”, Krim, 22 November 2016. Crisis Group interview, migrant from North Caucasus, Kiev, September 2020.Hide Footnote Elsewhere, the relationships are ad hoc. In addition, Russian-origin Muslims around the world also maintain ties across borders, reflecting ideological and religious views and geographical origins.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Turkish foundation representative, Istanbul, 26 October 2020.Hide Footnote

The fundamentalists are divided among themselves. Many particularly seek to distance themselves from individuals or groups alleged to be associated with ISIS or the Caucasus Emirate, both for ideological reasons and due to fear that such associations will lead to undesirable attention from authorities. Meanwhile, followers of ISIS and the Caucasus Emirate remain at odds with each other. Hizb ut-Tahrir, banned in Germany and Russia but legal in Ukraine, also raises hackles among many compatriots.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, Russian-origin migrant religious leader and members of his team, Yalova, February 2016; Crisis Group interview, man from Dagestan born in 1985, Istanbul, 10 March 2020; Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, Caucasus Emirate representative, Istanbul, February 2016 and April 2019; Crisis Group online interviews, Circassian community members, November-December 2020.Hide Footnote

Politics overlap with religion, albeit not entirely.

Politics overlap with religion, albeit not entirely. Nationalist Chechens who fought for or supported independence in the first Chechen war include secularists who are uncomfortable with fundamentalist approaches. Both groups are at odds with people tied to Chechen President Kadyrov, who has his own networks in the diaspora, and may similarly distrust at least some Russian-origin migrants who maintain contact with Russia and travel back and forth to see family.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020; Kaffed (Federation of Caucasus Foundations) leaders and members, 3 November 2020. Crisis Group interview, academic specialist who has carried out research on these communities, Istanbul, 11 November 2020.Hide Footnote

Kadyrov’s networks are not the only ones that link Russian-origin Muslims around the world. Many migrants are followers of charismatic leaders who use the internet to reach acolytes. Many of the latter, in turn, are Russian-origin Muslims who studied in the Middle East (eg, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan and Turkey. Generally, these pedigrees command greater respect among Russian-origin Muslims abroad than does an Islamic education in Russia.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, residents throughout Dagestan in 2010, 2011 and 2016.Hide Footnote Moreover, Russian-speaking graduates of any given university join its global network of alumni. Some are affiliated with the large community of international students that formed in Egypt around al-Azhar University at the turn of the 21st century. After the 2013 crackdown on Egypt’s uprising, many of these students made their way to Turkey, Ukraine and EU countries, where they formed a network of their own.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, former al-Azhar student, Makhachkala, September 2016; former student from Medina, Makhachkala, September 2016; Ali Evteev, former mufti of North Ossetia, Istanbul, June 2019. Crisis Group interview, former Jordanian university student, Kyiv, September 2020.Hide Footnote

Many of the notable preachers with broad followings among Russian-origin migrants are based in Turkey. They include Ali Evteev, who runs an online Islamic academy and hosts a YouTube channel with a global audience.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, Ali Evteev, former mufti of North Ossetia, Istanbul, June 2019. Crisis Group interview, participant in Aliv-TV and Medina projects, Istanbul, March 2020. Crisis Group online interview, Medina online lecture listener, Susuman, April 2019.Hide Footnote Abu Umar Sasitlinskii, also in Turkey, runs madrasas and raises money for the diaspora in Africa and Asia. Both eschew violence, although Russian authorities and critics view Sasitlinskii as, in their words, “radical”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, directors of charity associated with Abu Umar Sasitlinskii, Le Mans, July 2019; Stockholm, October 2019; North Caucasus community representative, Istanbul, January 2021. Crisis Group online interviews, members of Ahlu-Sunna scholars’ council in Dagestan, Istanbul, March 2020; London, September 2020; Kyiv, October 2020.Hide Footnote Abdulla Kostekskii (Rabadanov), a Caucasus Emirate leader, now operates schools near Istanbul, including one formerly run by Sasitlinksii.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, Russian-origin migrant religious leader, Yalova, 2016, 2017 and 2019.Hide Footnote He also has many followers in Ukraine.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, Russian-origin migrant religious leader and members of his team, Yalova, February 2016.Hide Footnote

For decades, Islamic charities [...] collected funds from throughout the diaspora for Chechen independence networks and groups tied to North Caucasus insurgencies.

Political fundraising can also create connections that cross borders. For decades, Islamic charities, including some linked to the Turkish and Gulf Arab governments, collected funds from throughout the diaspora for Chechen independence networks and groups tied to North Caucasus insurgencies, including some Caucasus Emirate-affiliated outfits and individuals. Fundraisers asked people who received social benefits where they lived to contribute €50; those who did not were asked for €5. Successful fundraisers report that they often gathered hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, migrants from Chechnya, Vienna, November 2019.Hide Footnote One told Crisis Group that he personally raised $15,000-20,000 per month in Austria alone. Other sources said Austria-based donors would sometimes send nearly $1 million per year and Germany-based donors more than $600,000.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, migrants from Chechnya, Vienna, November 2019.Hide Footnote

Fundraising efforts of this sort were largely curtailed after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate in Syria in mid-2014. At this point, a fundraiser said, “it all went terribly wrong”: donors baulked for fear that not only would their money support ISIS, but also that their contributions could leave them open to criminal charges for support to terrorism.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, migrants from Chechnya, Vienna, November 2019; Berlin, May 2019.Hide Footnote

B. Legal Status and Work

Legal status, in all its varieties, delimits economic options for many migrants. Not all forms of legal residency confer employment rights. Turkey offered migrants who were living in formal camps citizenship in 2014, as those camps were shut down.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Turkish NGO representative, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote But those who were not able to take advantage, or who came after 2014, have temporary resident status.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote This status gives them the right to stay in Turkey, but not to work, attend school or get hospital care unless they apply for and are granted asylum or receive “regular residency”, which requires annual renewal.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote In Ukraine, by contrast, most Russian-origin Muslims have overstayed the three months allowed to entrants without a visa.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, migrants from Dagestan, Kyiv, August 2016.Hide Footnote They have neither the right to work nor the right to remain. In the EU, those who obtain asylum can generally work and enjoy benefits, but as discussed above, rejections have become more common, and people who do not leave when rejected become illegal residents.

Many long-term, established immigrants have found success in a variety of fields in their places of residence. For some, it is Russian migrants around the world, as well as kin and former neighbours in Russia, who facilitate their business achievements. For instance, Beslan Abdmuslimov, originally from Chechnya, owns a large plant in Daugavpils, Latvia, that exports halal meat throughout Europe.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, migrants from Chechnya, Vienna, November 2019.Hide Footnote The religious sector itself employs imams, administrators and other staff. In some cases, these enterprises are substantial, with publishing houses and stores selling devotional videos and other internet materials. On a smaller scale, immigrants also run restaurants and other shops that cater to and employ other immigrants. Russian-origin Muslims are also a substantial presence in the niche sector of gyms focused on combat sports (eg, martial arts and boxing).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, migrants from Chechnya, Vienna, November 2019; Helsinki, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Men and women often do different sorts of jobs. Men are more likely to drive taxis or ride-share vehicles, labour in construction or work in restaurants, especially those owned and operated by other Russian-origin Muslims. The aforementioned gyms are an option for men with the appropriate expertise. Some women also work in restaurants, but more commonly in private homes as nannies or housecleaners. Some men and women teach informally, including Islamic studies, also largely to other migrants.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community members and civil society representatives, Turkey, Ukraine, Germany, Austria and France, July 2020-March 2021.Hide Footnote

Accusations of criminal ties often seem to plague Russian-origin Muslim businesspeople.

Women’s employment can vary both by place of origin and by destination. In Turkey and Ukraine, community members told us, women from the North Caucasus are especially unlikely to work outside their own homes, due to social mores brought from Russia and reinforced in a new environment.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, migrant from Ingushetia, Istanbul, February 2021; migrant from North Caucasus, Istanbul, February 2021.Hide Footnote Some cut hair or do other tasks for fellow migrants in their homes if the household income is otherwise insufficient. In Western Europe, however, women from the North Caucasus, many of whom have been there for decades if not their whole lives, take on substantial breadwinner roles outside the home.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, migrant from Chechnya based in Paris, 12 October 2020. Alice Szczepanikova, “Becoming More Conservative? Contrasting Gender Practices of Two Generations of Chechen Women in Europe”, European Journal of Women’s Studies, vol. 19, no. 4 (2012), pp. 475-489.Hide Footnote

Accusations of criminal ties often seem to plague Russian-origin Muslim businesspeople. Migrants told Crisis Group that from the first post-Soviet wave of emigration, people who had indeed been involved in organised crime made their way to Western Europe. “In Ichkeria, they stole, and in other places, and in Moscow, and when they [authorities] started going after them, they began to run away from Moscow. … [Now], they are here [in Germany]”, said one person originally from Chechnya.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, Muslim from Chechnya, Berlin, May 2019.Hide Footnote

Whether or not there is any evidence of specific individuals or groups having criminal ties, tight networks within diaspora communities mean that host countries often suspect prominent businesspeople of having made their money illegally. In 2012, for example, when Latvian police briefly detained the halal meat mogul Abdmuslimov, the media speculated about what in his “variegated” biography could have sparked authorities’ interest.[fn]“Businessman Abdumislimov freed: Why was he detained?”, Kompromat, 26 April 2012 (Russian).Hide Footnote

Moreover, the legal and extra-legal economic activity of Russian-origin Muslims overlap in destination countries because migrants help one another, including to find employment, which may mean a legal enterprise quietly employs an illegal migrant. Most migrants who work illegally, however, do so because they lack appropriate papers or because they fear losing benefits, not because there is anything inherently illegal in the work itself.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, German civil society representative working with communities from the North Caucasus living in and around Berlin, July 2020; migrant in Vienna, November 2019.Hide Footnote

C. Social Structures and Social Mores

Highly gendered social structures that are traditional in many of these communities combined with insularity in many host countries means that many Russian-origin Muslim migrant women rarely mix with people from outside the community. This practice varies, however, by host country, ideology, place of origin (including urban/rural divides) and the family in question. Recent arrivals from the North Caucasus in Turkey are least likely to mix.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community members and civil society representatives in Turkey, October-December 2020.Hide Footnote Secular migrants to Western Europe and young people who grew up there are probably most likely to do so.[fn]Crisis Group online interviews, migrant in Vienna, November 2019; migrant from Chechnya, Paris, October 2020.Hide Footnote

Women without a male partner or other accompanying family member who arrived in Turkey, Ukraine or Western Europe after having lived in Syria face a specific set of challenges. Most are on precarious legal ground, as authorities in all destination countries will suspect most of them of links to ISIS or related groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community members and officials in destination countries, July 2020-March 2021.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, these women’s religious and social beliefs make work outside the home difficult, exacerbating their financial distress and limiting their independence. Some rely on other Muslims for support, which is more likely to come from more fundamentalist elements of the diaspora that also offer schooling for children.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of Dagestan-origin community who teaches Arabic and fiqh, Kyiv, September 2020. “Is Odessa a ‘sanatorium’ for radical islamists?”, Ritm Evrazii, 29 October 2019 (Russian). Crisis Group consultant’s interviews in a previous capacity, Kyiv and Istanbul, 2016, 2017, 2019, 2020.Hide Footnote

Most [women] are on precarious legal ground, as authorities in all destination countries will suspect most of them of links to ISIS or related groups. Meanwhile, these women’s religious and social beliefs make work outside the home difficult, exacerbating their financial distress and limiting their independence.

Marriage is a path to financial security and legal status for women coming directly from Russia to Turkey and for young women coming of age among migrants in Turkey. Some marry very young as a result. North Caucasian-origin women and girls, in particular, may wind up as undocumented “second” wives, whether due to the specifics of their relationship, religious conviction or pressure from relatives and friends.[fn]Crisis Group interview, academic researcher working on these communities, Istanbul, 11 November 2020.Hide Footnote Although in most destination countries, the women will then legally be single parents to any resulting children, in Turkey, the children may be registered to the husband and his legal wife, creating a variety of difficulties.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Syrian migrants and community centre workers, Şanlıurfa, June 2018. For discussion of this subject, see Crisis Group Report N°253, Mitigating Risks for Syrian Refugee Youth in Turkey’s Şanlıurfa, 11 February 2019.Hide Footnote Russian-origin migrant men, by contrast, are more likely to marry local women in Ukraine, in some cases at least partly as a means of obtaining legal residency. The women in question are generally not Muslim by birth, although some convert to Islam.[fn]How I became a Ukrainian Muslim”, Nakipelo, 20 September 2018 (Russian); “Personal experience: Becoming a Muslim and wearing a hijab in Ukraine”,, 18 April 2018 (Russian).Hide Footnote

Not everyone remains close to the tight-knit diaspora settlements and subcultures that have emerged in destination countries. In Western Europe and Ukraine, some families and individuals look to find a home in host country societies. They do this for their own, variable reasons, but generational factors play a role. More integration-minded younger women and men may live something of a split life, drinking alcohol and engaging with a wide range of people at schools and workplaces away from home, even as they maintain more pious behaviour around their families. Those whose behaviour misaligns with community expectations for their gender may face disapprobation of various sorts.[fn]Irina Molodikova, “Muslim Refugees from Russia: Do the Chechens Bring Their Own Aul from Chechnya to the EU?”, in K. Górak-Sosnowska, M. Pachocka and J. Misiuna (eds.), Muslim Minorities and the Refugee Crisis in Europe: Narratives and Policy Responses (Warsaw, 2019), p. 123.Hide Footnote

In contrast, some young women and men of the second or third generations in Western Europe have become actively more religious, seeking out more conservative approaches to Islam in person and online. This choice can lead to tension with their more secular elders. Some of their number travelled to Syria to fight with or otherwise support ISIS or other militant groups. Within their host countries, some more traditionally minded young people, predominantly Chechens, have used social media to harass their contemporaries, mostly women, who they feel do not comport themselves appropriately.[fn]Soeren Kern, “Germany: Chechen Sharia Police Terrorize Berlin”, Gatestone Institute, 8 July 2017; Molodikova, “Muslim Refugees from Russia”, p. 129; Crisis Group WhatsApp interview, migrant in France, 29 September 2020.Hide Footnote

This phenomenon appears to be less pronounced in Turkey. While Turkish citizens have generally supported government hospitality to migrants from Russia, newcomers have remained fairly insular. Uneven access to work and schooling likely plays a role, as they force recent migrants to establish their own approaches to both.

LGBTQ+-identified Russian-origin Muslims, and especially those from Chechnya, where local authorities have been particularly brutal with gay and bisexual men, often have good reason to avoid diaspora networks.[fn]Crisis Group WhatsApp interview, David Isteev, Мoscow, September 2020.Hide Footnote Many of them left Russia at least in part due to threats from co-religionists.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, migrants in France and the Netherlands, 2020.Hide Footnote They understandably, and likely accurately, view the diaspora as posing physical threats, including of being forcibly returned to Russia.[fn]Crisis Group WhatsApp interviews, David Isteev, Мoscow, September 2020; Russian human rights activist, 30 September 2020. Many LGBTQ+ Russians of Muslim ancestry instead try to integrate into the destination country’s (mainly Western European) secular society and to eschew contact with compatriots. Some LGBTQ+ persons who relocated with their larger family or community live double lives, hiding their identity from family members and other Russian-origin Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group WhatsApp interview, David Isteev, Мoscow, September 2020.Hide Footnote

D. Relations with Local Authorities

The rise of ISIS and its proclamation of a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq divided Russian-origin Muslims around the world. It also drew attention, and distrust, from authorities in host countries that had once welcomed Chechens (and other groups) as repressed fighters for freedom in Russia. A number of high-profile attacks that implicated people with Russian roots over the course of the 2010s exacerbated matters, even as factors specific to each host country meant somewhat different manifestations.

Greater law enforcement attention to the Russian-origin Muslim diaspora takes three forms. One is increased difficulty obtaining the legal right to settle in a host country. The second is heightened ethnic profiling, meaning that authorities view Russian-origin Muslims with disproportionate suspicion, complicating their lives with harassment and a reduced sense of security. The third is actual deportation or extradition to Russia.

In the EU, the situation has shifted gradually and unevenly, partly reflecting debates in EU countries about cultural integration and immigration. EU countries also suffered several terrorist attacks linked to ISIS and Caucasus Emirate networks, and authorities unearthed several cells that were planning more attacks and/or transporting people to Syria and Iraq.[fn]Michail Logvinov, “The Caucasus Emirate: A New Source of Threat for Europe?”, Zeitschrift der Gewerkschaft der Polizei, 2013 (German); “Czech police uncover suspected North Caucasus terrorist cell”, Radio Free Europe, 3 May 2011; “Terrorisme : plusieurs hommes arrêtés à Strasbourg et dans le Puy-de-Dôme, ce que l’on sait”, Actu Strasbourg, 27 April 2021; “Belgian security forces arrest 16 in crackdown on Chechen groups”, Financial Times, 8 June 2015.Hide Footnote Today, Muslim migrants from Russia seeking asylum in the EU face much higher burdens of proof, and much lower rates of success, than did those who arrived earlier. In Germany, for example, 95 per cent of applicants are now rejected.[fn]“Chechen Refugees in Europe: Reasons Why They Flee Russia and Asylum Problems”, Legal Dialogue, 26 April 2017.Hide Footnote People who do not receive asylum or have another legal claim to stay in the EU face deportation to Russia.[fn]“Asylum seeker deported from Germany ‘disappeared’ in Chechnya”, OC Media, 9 April 2021; “How to travel to Europe and obtain asylum status”, op. cit. Crisis Group interview, migrant from Chechnya, Berlin, March 2019.Hide Footnote

Today, Muslim migrants from Russia seeking asylum in the EU face much higher burdens of proof, and much lower rates of success.

In late 2015, Turkey jettisoned its previously laissez-faire attitude toward Russian-origin Muslims with a crackdown. Ankara’s view of the migrants had begun to shift with the rise of ISIS, and it soured further after a series of high-profile attacks in Turkey, such as the June 2016 bombing at Istanbul airport, attributed to Akhmed Chataev, an ISIS leader originally from Chechnya.[fn]One-armed recruiter”, Meduza, 30 June 2016; “Chatayev: The man suspected of the attack in Istanbul”, Deutsche Welle, 7 February 2016.Hide Footnote Large-scale detentions of Russian passport holders followed. Although Turkey does not formally deport those it detains, some said they were pressured to leave the country as a condition of release.[fn]Crisis Group staff and consultants’ interviews in previous capacities, Muslims from Russia, Antalya, May 2017.Hide Footnote Others were released, but then subject to increased scrutiny that, combined with continued legal uncertainty, also led them to leave.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Circassian-origin Turkish expert studying the community in Turkey, February 2021.Hide Footnote Today, Russian-origin Muslims report that the pressure has eased, but they do not feel they have the freedom of movement that they had prior to 2015.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, migrant from the North Caucasus, Istanbul, December 2020.Hide Footnote

Ukrainian authorities, for their part, welcomed Russian-origin Muslims at first. Early in Ukraine’s conflict with Russia, in 2014-2015, they made it easy for a small number of combat-experienced Russian citizens of Muslim ancestry coming from Europe and elsewhere to join the fight on Kyiv’s side.[fn]Crisis Group interview, representative of volunteer battalion, Kyiv, 2020.Hide Footnote But in time, Kyiv, too, became concerned about the risk that they might be hosting affiliates of jihadist groups, and authorities began devoting more attention to the small number of Russian-origin Muslims – and their Russian colleagues’ accusations that some of these people had ties to Islamist militants in Syria and elsewhere. It is hard to say if Ukrainian authorities approved fewer asylum requests as a result, because they approve so few in general, and most Russian citizens arrive in Ukraine as visa-free tourists. Some simply stay on. Human rights defenders, however, speculate that anti-Muslim bias among Ukrainian security personnel makes things that much harder for Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, human rights activists, Kyiv, June-August 2020.Hide Footnote In the meantime, Ukrainian authorities have increased surveillance in areas where migrants live and congregate.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Caucasus Emirate and Takfir wal-Hijra representatives, Kyiv, September 2020.Hide Footnote

Then there is the question of extradition of people Moscow wants returned to face trial, often on accusations of criminal, terrorist or insurgent activity. Critics say Moscow makes a practice of abusing the Interpol system, for example putting out arrest notices for people who have committed no crime but are political opponents of the state. A number of prominent Muslim leaders from Russia who are on Interpol lists say authorities have accused them of crimes because they were too critical of, or insufficiently compliant with, Russian authorities.[fn]Natasha Bertrand, “How Russia persecutes its dissidents using U.S. courts”, The Atlantic, 30 July 2018.Hide Footnote At the same time, Russian law enforcement is an active participant in global efforts to identify, arrest and prosecute people wanted for terrorist acts or major crimes. These people include ISIS and Caucasus Emirate fighters in Syria and Iraq. There is little question that some of the people on Russian Interpol lists also fit into this category. Somewhere in between are insurgents who took up arms against Russia in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus. For many years, EU countries and others offered them asylum, while Russia branded them as criminals.[fn]Elena Milashina, “Chechens in Europe”, n.d.Hide Footnote

Turkey rarely extradites or deports people to Russia, or to any country where they do not wish to go. Indeed, one reason a number of Russian-origin Muslims have ended up in Ukraine is that they were compelled to leave Turkey, did not want to return to Russia and sought a haven where they could speak the language.[fn]Crisis Group staff and consultant’s interviews in previous capacities, Muslims from Russia, Antalya, May 2017.Hide Footnote But Ukraine, too, is not necessarily a safe haven. Ukrainian human rights and other activists are often frustrated by authorities’ willingness to extradite people to Russia where they may risk torture. Sometimes, Russian-origin Muslims in Ukraine are able to avoid extradition on these grounds.[fn]Ukraine Court Ruling on Extension of Extradition Arrest for Zelimkhan Belkharoev, 751/7997/16-к, 7 October 2016 (Ukrainian); Anwar Derkach, “FSB and SBU: Extradition by the books?”, RFE/RL, 17 November 2016 (Russian). Beklharoev, a mixed martial arts fighter whom the Russian government accuses of having fought in Syria, was initially detained after he had used a forged passport. After the European Court of Human Rights intervened, he was remanded to house arrest, only to either destroy his bracelet or, as his lawyers argued, be kidnapped and rearrested. He was subsequently granted refugee status and released from prison. “ECHR declined to consider the case of Ingush fighter Belkhoroev”, RFE/RL, 3 July 2018 (Russian).Hide Footnote EU countries, meanwhile, including notably France, also continue to extradite individuals to Russia. Human rights organisations have identified a number of cases in which people who were deported or extradited to Russia were later tortured or killed.[fn]You can’t hide in Europe. Chechens return home, accused of terrorism”, BBC Russian, 2 November 2018.Hide Footnote

V. Georgia: The Outlier

Georgia has a substantial Muslim population and many of its people speak Russian. As discussed above, during the course of the first Chechen war, a number of Chechen refugees fled over the mountains into Georgia, finding safety among the Kist.

After the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, Tbilisi undertook an outreach policy in southern Russia. It allowed Russian citizens from the North Caucasus to visit without a visa and supported Russian-language television programs that sought to highlight problems facing the region.[fn]Ivlian Khaindrava, “Georgia’s North Caucasus Policy in the Context of the Post-August ‘New Realities’”, International Alert, July 2012, pp. 77-85.Hide Footnote This policy came to an end, however, in 2012, due both to a new government in Georgia that sought to calm relations with Russia and to the revelation that an insurgent network was operating in Georgia. It was made up of ethnic Chechens and Ingushetians as well as Georgian natives, all of whom had come from EU countries. The situation came to a head in August, when Georgian authorities detected seventeen of these insurgents trying to cross into Dagestan.[fn]“Report by the Public Council Established by the Public Defender about the Special Operation Conducted at the Village of Lapankuri in the Lopota Gorge on 28 August 2012”, Office of the Public Defender of Georgia, Tbilisi, 2014 (Georgian); “Georgians among Islamists killed near Russian border”, BBC, 3 September 2012.Hide Footnote After they refused to surrender, most were killed in a Georgian special forces’ operation.[fn]“Saakashvili speaks of provocation attempt after deadly clash at border”,, 31 August 2012.Hide Footnote

Georgian authorities also soon realised that the country was a stop on North Caucasians’ route to Syria, via Turkey, and that Georgian citizens were also following this path, joining and in some cases leading ISIS and Caucasus Emirate fighting units there.[fn]Giorgi Goguade and Sergi Kapanadze, “Daesh and Challenges Facing Georgia”, Georgia’s Reforms Associates, November 2015, p. 7; Bennett Clifford, “Georgian Foreign Fighter Deaths in Syria and Iraq: What Can They Tell Us about Foreign Fighter Mobilization and Recruitment?”, Caucasus Survey, vol. 6 (2018), pp. 62-80; “Ukraine detains top Islamic State commander”, RFE/RL, 15 November 2019.Hide Footnote Tbilisi cracked down hard, with intrusive surveillance of its own citizens and residents coupled with strict limitations on entering the country, with a long list of names banned from entry. The State Security Service, which enjoys a largely free hand, is in charge of these efforts.[fn]“National Strategy of Georgia on Fight against Terrorism”, State Security Service of Georgia, 2019; “The Report of the State Security Service of Georgia, 01.08.2015-31.12.2015”, State Security Service of Georgia, 2015, pp. 10-12.Hide Footnote Border personnel are instructed to scrutinise the papers of any traveller whose birthplace is in the North Caucasus.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Thus, even those who are not on any list face an inconvenient and exhaustive screening crossing the Georgian border. Increasingly, few even try. Nor have Muslims from central Russia generally tried to find new homes in Georgia. Simply put, Georgia has made itself unwelcoming, and Russian-origin Muslims have largely stayed away.[fn]Crisis Group consultant in prior capacity interview with Russian citizen in Tbilisi, May 2016; Crisis Group WhatsApp interview, migrant in Vienna, September, 2020.Hide Footnote

VI. Alternative Policy Approaches

The reasons why Russian-origin Muslims leave their home country vary greatly, and the lives they find in destination countries do as well. But political violence and threats are very much at the forefront as shaping factors for their migration and the ways in which diaspora societies are structured. They also affect how local authorities relate to and interact with these communities.

Suspicion toward the diaspora can, however, increase its tendency to isolation, and, ironically, limit authorities’ capacity to engender cooperation that could prevent new threats from taking shape.

Increasingly, local law enforcement agencies in host countries view Russian-origin Muslims as threats to public order, fearing that they harbour violent actors with an interest in carrying out terrorist or other illegal acts. In some cases, they are right – such networks do exist, and they have done harm to host countries, as well as to the diaspora itself. Suspicion toward the diaspora can, however, increase its tendency to isolation, and, ironically, limit authorities’ capacity to engender cooperation that could prevent new threats from taking shape. Host nations also face the dilemma of designing immigration policies that treat migrants and asylum seekers fairly and humanely while preventing abuse of the system by criminals. While specific recommendations for addressing these challenges will change from country to country, certain overarching principles tend to apply across the board, including the following:

  • While host countries should recognise that Russian-origin Muslims may have violent actors in their ranks, they should avoid treating the collective as suspect and eschew heavy-handed approaches to security. In Western countries, including the U.S. and Canada, community policing and multi-agency approaches have been helpful. Western countries have also had success with proactive efforts to involve migrant and other marginalised communities in their own policing.[fn]See, for example, Eric Rosand, “Multi-Disciplinary and Multi-Agency Approaches to Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism: An Emerging P/CVE Success Story?”, The Prevention Project Organizing against Violent Extremism, 2018; Jennie Sivenbring and Robin Andersson Malmros, “Multiagency Approaches for Countering Violent Extremism”, NordForsk, 2019; and “National Strategy on Countering Radicalization to Violence”, Government of Canada, Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence, 2018.Hide Footnote For example, rather than rely on informants, local police can actively build ties with communities, including through liaisons, and work to recruit migrants into their ranks. This task may not be easy, and it will likely require community engagement to lay the groundwork. In the long run, however, it will increase mutual understanding and likely help decrease mistrust. Host countries should also share experiences to continue building a body of knowledge about policy toward returning fighters and criminality in tight-knit communities.
  • Host countries should also ensure access to education for Russian-origin Muslim and other migrant children, to prevent the development of both a generation of unschooled young people and of substandard underground schools that may be linked to militancy. Host countries should offer schooling to every family regardless of its legal status in the country, even to those that have been denied asylum. Some might think this practice would encourage families to stay, but no Crisis Group interviewee cited lack of secular educational opportunity as a reason to leave. Host countries should also provide language and skills training for adults and children, which will help improve information flow. Community centres can offer courses that do not require identification for enrolment. Community members should be encouraged to lead in developing these programs, both to support integration goals and to help ensure that opportunities are inclusive (eg, allowing for gender segregation, where appropriate, and providing child care for students).
  • Authorities in countries hosting Muslim migrants from Russia will presumably continue to cooperate with the Russian Federation in law enforcement investigations and prosecutions. Host country judges and courts hearing extradition cases, however, should be attentive to the increased risks faced by Russian-origin Muslims if they are returned to Russia.[fn]See “‘Surrender to Kadyrov’s mercy’: Russian asylum seeker deported from France handed over to Chechen police”, Meduza, 12 April 2021; “How to travel to Europe and obtain asylum status”, op. cit.; and Mairbek Vatchagaev “Chechen Diaspora Suffers as West Seeks Common Ground with Moscow on Fighting Terrorism”, The Jamestown Foundation, 29 September 2016.Hide Footnote In cases where they have committed criminal acts under the host country’s jurisdiction, it may be possible for the guilty to be tried and, if sentenced, serve their time in host countries. EU countries that appropriately view Russia as a Safe Country of Origin for most Russian citizens should include exceptions for citizens of Muslim ancestry and/or who are LGBTQ+, who face a different set of risks if they return.
  • States should also improve their due diligence to prevent abuse of the Interpol red (arrest) notice for political purposes. As discussed, Russian-originated red notices sometimes appear to target non-criminals who are wanted primarily for political transgressions. One way to manage this risk is to ensure that host country intelligence agencies more systematically vet information provided by foreign governments that is relevant to an asylum or refugee case. They should confirm that foreign states’ accusations of wrongdoing – those assessed as part of refugee or asylum adjudication and Interpol deportation procedures – are valid. They should also verify that government documents provided to demonstrate risk are genuine, since, as noted above, both types of fraud occur. Private and international donors should support civil society and watchdog organisations to help provide informed oversight.
  • Resettlement and other assistance providers in host countries need resource support and adequate training to ensure that they can identify and reach vulnerable sub-populations, including but not limited to women and girls forced into marriage for economic reasons and LGBTQ+ persons who may need protection from their families and communities. Programs targeting migrants for assistance, including job and language training, should also prepare their staff so that they are sensitive to the concerns of LGBTQ+ Russian-origin Muslims (and other groups), including the desire of some to avoid contact with compatriots.

VII. Conclusion

Around the world, diverse, vibrant communities of migrants of Muslim origin from Russia are building new lives, redefining their societies and contributing to those of their host countries. Like past waves of migration, more recent ones will result in lasting changes, both for the migrants and their new neighbours. While violence and war may have been among the strongest factors driving population flows, authorities who continue to see Russian-origin Muslim communities predominantly through these lenses risk creating self-perpetuating problems, rather than solving the very real challenges of integration and development. Host governments should take the time and effort to better understand the needs of these communities and develop programs and policies that reflect this understanding. In this way, they can help ensure that one of the ripple effects of conflict, in these cases at least, is a more peaceful and prosperous future.

Kyiv/Istanbul/Tbilisi/Brussels, 12 May 2021

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