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"We are human beings, we are not numbers" - Russian refugees in the Netherlands despair of waiting for a response from the IND and go on an indefinite hunger strike

06.07.2023

"There are seven of us living in different refugee camps in the Netherlands. Many of us have been waiting for our second interviews for over a year’s time. We are sick and tired of knocking on the closed doors. We decided to do something that at least would draw the authorities' attention to our problem."

Stas Vokman, an asylum seeker from Russia, is a photographer and an LGBT person. He is also a participant in the ongoing hunger strike declared by a group of Russian refugees in the Netherlands.

"This action is not against the country, but against the heartless bureaucratic system that excludes us from society."

Previously, Stas lived and worked in Moscow. He faced difficulties there as well –employers would fire him when they found out details about his personal life –but overall, he hoped for the best. He attended protests, supported the opposition, and believed in change.

Then the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Several times Stas got arrested for participating in anti-war protests, and the Russian law enforcement agencies were watching him closely.


Stas, photographer. Came to the Netherlands from Moscow

"After what happened in Bucha, I realized the naivety of my expectations. It became clear that there was nothing left to hope for in Russia," says Stas.

Embassies became reluctant to issue any visas, and there was no more time to search for better options. Stas bought a one-way ticket and flew to the Netherlands via Armenia. He surrendered at Schiphol Airport and requested asylum.

The Dutch authorities agreed to take in the photographer and settled him in a refugee camp in Wageningen – but that's where things got stuck.

Stas has been living in a dormitory for 14 months and has been unable to obtain a personal identification number (BSN) so far, which should have been issued within 6 months upon arrival according to the rules. Consequently, he cannot find work because it is nearly impossible to get hired in the country without a BSN. He has no right to open a bank account or start his own business, and he can't even get a basic long-term public transport card without a citizen number.

"We are stuck here, as if caught between worlds. We have no way back, but they won't let us integrate either.

In the camp, every day the uncertainty about the future weighs heavier on us. It feels very oppressive. Some people go crazy, some start using drugs –it's a common story in refugee camps.

(Medialoft wrote about how refugees live in the camps and how the procedure for obtaining documents is organised here)

We wanted to work, to contribute to society, to pay taxes –to be useful to the new country that gave us shelter. But instead, we're just sitting here, consuming our own and the state's money."


Alexey, animator, courier. Came to the Netherlands from Moscow

Stas says that many refugees, for example from Turkey and Yemen, have already had their interviews and received documents, even though they arrived much later than him.

"According to the law, refugees should have their interviews, receive final decisions, and start processing documents within 9 months. Last year, the IND (Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service) extended the timeline to 15 months. I don't claim to know for sure, but based on my information, only people from Russia received letters freezing the interview deadlines.

At the same time, I see people who have arrived just recently getting permissionsfor their interviews already now. The system for distributing the coveted access to meetings with the authorities,and consequently to obtaining documents,is completely opaque and very confusing.

I can now say that the majority of those 'stuck' are people from Russia, although some Russians have already received permission – not in a predictable order, but according to some unknown logic."

The group started their hunger strike on July 4th and is planning to continue until the positive outcome. Among the protesters are not only LGBTQ+ people, but also just refugees. What they have in common is that they are all from Russia.

(An entire documentary film was made about the asylum process in the Netherlands for LGBTQ+ persons by Medialoft. It can be seen here).

"Before starting this action, we tried every method. We wrote to the camp management, to the main COA (Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers) office, to a few other organizations. Everywhere, it was either polite refusal,or no response at all. Some of the hunger strikers already have court decisions in their hands stating that delaying of their interviews is illegal – but it doesn't affect the very decision making process in any way."

I’d want you to understand that we are simply desperate, which is why we decided to take this step. Before starting the hunger strike, we informed the camp management and COA. Some participants mentioned that there were attempts to pressure them out of partaking in the action, but overall, the attitude was sort of 'you have the right to protest, it's your right'."


Anton, a hospital nurse. Came to the Netherlands from Moscow

Stas reached out not only to COA but also to COC, an organization that specifically helps the LGBTQ+ community. However, he received a polite refusal from them,as well. The organization stated that they would not deal with this issue despite their motto "We care about ensuring that LGBTQ+ individuals are heard."

Stas says that he will continue the hunger strike, even though he has had a fear of hunger since his student days. But now he is just out of options:

"I decided to fast for as long as necessary. If needed, I will switch to a dry hunger strike. I am tired of waiting, tired of having my life put on hold, and no one to even tell me how much longer they will keep me in this suspension."

If the hunger strike doesn't work, Stas plans to engage in solo picketing outside the IND building:

"If they arrest me, well, that's good because it means they will start a case. And then they will be forced to give me a BSN," he jokingly remarks.

The group emphasizes that the hunger strike is by no means an attempt to say that something is wrong with the country. It is a specific protest against the refugee reception system that prevents them from reintegrating into society.

"I have already built my circle of connections in the Netherlands, and I really like this country. I feel how I am changing for the better here. I have become more open and freer. And I see no reason why I should not defend my rights –in the most peaceful and harmless way possible. I was promised safety, integration into society – and that's all I want. To open my own photography studio, work, and contribute. I won't accept being isolated by the system."


Dmitry, a designer. Came to the Netherlands from Khabarovsk

Dmitry, another participant in the hunger strike, has also been in the Netherlands for 14 months and currently resides in an Amsterdam camp.

"I'm from Khabarovsk," Dmitry explains. "In Russia, I wasn't openly gay, few people knew about my personal life. I worked as a designer in a company. And then one day, the financial director, who happened to know about my being LGBTQ, started asking me strange questions in front of my colleagues: 'Dmitry, you know, I'm personally homophobic, are you homophobic too?' I didn't know how to react, especially since it was clear she was openly mocking me.

And then an incident happened at the gym.

An unknown man approached me while I was taking pictures and asked, 'Are you posing here for your boyfriend?' I looked completely normal, I just had my hair dyed, but many people dye their hair nowadays. I thought it was a joke, so I responded with a smile that if he wanted, I could send him the photo. But he grabbed me by the throat and whispered in my ear that people like me should be eradicated.

After that, I realized I couldn't stay in Russia. I gathered some money, bought a ticket to the Netherlands, and flew here with layovers through Dubai and Serbia –and now I'm here."

Dmitry has a court decision stating that the IND must provide him with clear interview dates by May 4, 2023. But the IND stated that the court decision does not influence their work, and they are not subject to any penalty sanctions.

Dimitry also sent letters to the Camp management and the COA head organisation about the hunger strike and even came to speak to a COA representative in person:

"They told me it's not the best idea and reminded me that COA does not influence the IND. They also mentioned that attracting extra attention to refugee camps is not a good move on my part. Nevertheless, I felt somewhat relieved after that conversation. At least they listened to me."

Dmitry plans to end the hunger strike after receiving some clear response from the IND or any other organization that can provide specific interview dates. Currently, he cannot work properly (BSN allows only 24 weeks of employment per year) and does not understand what awaits him in the future.

"I am grateful to this country and all its structures for accepting me. When I lived in Russia, I couldn't see life; everything around me was deteriorating. Now I can truly live and breathe freely.

But I fear for my future. I'm afraid that the legislation in the Netherlands could change, and they would send me back to Russia, where the treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals is worse than that of stray dogs. What will happen to me there?

I am tired of waiting, tired of the impersonal emails from the IND, and I just want certainty and a clear answer. It is important for me to know that I have hope for the future."

By Irina Iakovleva

Story/the Netherlands

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