Migrant Lives

The High Stakes Of Putin's New Passport Policy

Crossing borders in and out of post-Soviet Russia is about to get more complicated, especially for Ukrainians.

Immigration officer conducts raids in St. Petersburg
Immigration officer conducts raids in St. Petersburg
Artem Nikitin

MOSCOW — Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s been possible for a Ukrainian, a Tajik or a Kirghiz to travel to and from Russia without a passport — and vice versa. But changing this freedom of movement has been on the Russian government’s agenda for two years.

In 2012, President Vladimir Putin gave the government three years to sign an agreement with these neighboring countries regarding the movement of their people within Russia. Citizens of Belarus and Kazakhstan, both members of a customs union with Russia, will still be able to travel to Russia with their domestic documents.

Last week, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev took the first step by signing an agreement with Tajikistan. Of course, given the current crisis, the most important country to resolve this with is Ukraine.

It is an issue with vast effects, touching most ethnic Russians outside the borders and migrant workers from all former Soviet Republics.

Recent statistics show that there are currently 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens living in Russia, as well as 1.17 Tajiks and 337,000 Kirghiz nationals. Last year, 3.3 million Ukrainians visited Russia — nearly three million of them for work. Remittances from Tajik migrants living in Russia make up 42.2% of Tajikistan’s GDP.

At the same time, 50% of Russians have been to Ukraine and 25% have relatives there, according to a recent survey. Because only 10% to 15% of Russian citizens own a passport, the majority of them would face significant bureaucratic difficulties if one was required to travel to Ukraine.

An inadequate system

Until the end of the 1990s, Russia didn't require any passport or visa for travels to and from former Soviet states. This was a matter of convenience. Many people still used their Soviet documents at the time, and most didn't dream of traveling outside the former Soviet Union. It seemed useless and expensive to require them to get new documents just to travel to Russia.

Most former Soviet countries have now implemented systems that require citizens to use a passport whenever they travel abroad. That includes trips to Russia, but states have each solved the problem differently.

The price of getting a passport could be a serious obstacle for the 40% of Tajiks living on less than $2 per day. Obtaining the document only requires a couple of hours in line, but it can cost between $20 and $75.

On the other hand, 95% of the country’s citizens already have passports, the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Reuters. The problem is that most Tajik workers arrive in Russia by train, which requires them to travel through Uzbekistan. Even for transit, Uzbekistan requires everyone entering the country to have a passport. This means that requiring a passport will have no effect on illegal immigration into Russia.

Funny papers

The truth is, it’s not so important what documents travelers use to cross the border. What's important is that someone can tell what's written on them. And that is a major problem for both Tajiks and Kirghiz.

According to our information, Russia complained to Kirghizistan about illegible documents for the first time in 2005. Money for new equipment was “diverted,” and instead of new printers, the documents are printed on substandard machines.

“The photo is scanned on regular paper, which causes the likeness to be fuzzy,” says Vasili Kravtsov, a former employee at the Kirghiz migration offices. “Kirghiz people all look the same to the Russian border control, which makes it pretty easy to travel with someone else’s passport.” To solve these problems, a biometric passport with fingerprints could really help.

The Kirghiz aren’t opposed to traveling with a passport, but they would like them to be printed in Russia, preferably on Russia’s dime.

Near the Russian-Kazakh border(Photo: PeretzP)

Ukraine doesn’t have the resources to print massive numbers of passports either. At the end of last year and at Russia's behest, talks began about requiring a passport to travel between Ukraine and Russia. Those talks have been halted since the Ukrainian crisis began.

After Russia annexed Crimea, several Ukrainian politicians started talking about either requiring visas to travel to Russia or closing the border entirely. Nonetheless, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arsenii Yatsenyuk said in March that his country was in no hurry to require passports for travel to and from Russia.

Checking your travel history

One of the most important functions of a passport is that it allows someone to easily see the history of a person’s border crossings. I was once stuck in a “holding station” in a Moscow airport because the border guard could not immediately see my travel history. It took some time to convince him that I had traveled from France by train, through Germany, Poland and Ukraine because of the Icelandic volcano, not because I was carrying drugs.

On the other hand, that knowledge does not help control migrants, although it does allow border control to immediately detect “suspicious” visits to hot spots.

Passports are important to Georgia, however, because they do not allow people to enter the country if they have stamps from disputed territories such as South Ossetia.

Russia already controls migrants by stamping the migration card, which is often excessively checked by the police. “There are even more problems with the migration cards than with the interior documents,” says Vyacheslav Postvnin, who was vice president of the Federal Migration Service from 2006 to 2008 and the head of a migration-related fund. “They usually have 25% to 50% of the necessary information, which is filled in by the migrant him or herself, often illegibly.”

That, along with problems transliterating migrants’ names into Latin letters, is why it’s often impossible to enter the name of a migrant into a database correctly.

Passport blockade

The Federal Migration Service is convinced that requiring passports would make it easier to control immigration. It would, the service says, make things more difficult for illegal migrants and would prevent “slaves” from working for free at construction sites because the “employers” would have taken away their ID documents. But is that really true?

Under the current system, migrants without a work permit can stay in Russia for 90 of every 180 days. They were previously allowed to stay for 90 days, but could easily leave the country for a day and then come back. Now, migrants who try to do that are fined and barred from entering Russia for three years.

Kravtsov, from the Kirghiz migration offices, says that many migrants are running into this problem. Immigration officers have also become more strict, sometimes even incorrectly fining migrants who don’t live in the same region where they received their work permit. So it’s possible to fight illegal immigration without passports.

Having a passport won’t necessarily help migrants in their interactions with the Russian police. If, for example, guest workers want to avoid being deported, they can always say they lost their documents. In those situations, the police have no choice but to let them go in return for a bribe. There’s no reason to believe someone couldn’t similarly “lose” his or her passport.

In the reverse situation, if a police officer seizes a migrant’s documents and demands a bribe to get them back, the migrant’s embassy has always come through and provided the documents necessary to prove the person’s identity, Kravstov says.

As for the workers forced to work for no pay at construction sites, they are usually working out of fear of reprisals or in the hope of receiving some money. In those cases, the “employer” usually has bought off police officers, who make sure that the modern-day slave is returned to the work site before making it to the embassy.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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