The number of new U.S. asylum applications by Russians has reached its highest level in more than two decades, a surge that immigration lawyers link to the Kremlin's tightening grip on politics, pervasive corruption, and discrimination and violence against sexual minorities.
Russian nationals filed 1,454 new asylum applications in the 2015 fiscal year ending September 30, up 50 percent from the previous year and more than double the number filed in 2012, when President Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin after a four-year stint as prime minister, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security data obtained by RFE/RL under the Freedom Of Information Act.
It is the third consecutive year that the number of U.S. asylum applications filed by Russian citizens has risen since Putin took office for a third presidential term. A single asylum application can include more than one individual, such as the spouse or children of the applicant.
The data obtained by RFE/RL does not specify the motivations of the applicants for seeking asylum. U.S. immigration lawyers have said the steady rise is likely driven in part by an exodus of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Russians after Putin signed a controversial 2013 law banning the spread among minors of "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations."
Western governments have denounced the law as discriminatory, and rights groups say it has helped foster an atmosphere of impunity for those who commit acts of violence against gay people. Putin insists the law does not infringe on LGBT rights and is merely aimed at protecting children.
Anecdotal evidence from lawyers who work with Russian asylum seekers suggests that the sharp spike in new applications this year may also be tied to an increasing number of Russians claiming to be victims of political persecution and threats or harassment by corrupt officials.
New York-based immigration attorney Alena Shautsova tells RFE/RL that she has fielded an increasing number of inquiries this year from Russians due to their opposition to Putin's policies and actions, including the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last year.
"They reach out to me and they say, ‘Well, we can't live there anymore. How can we immigrate?'" Shautsova says, adding that her clients include both LGBT Russians and those purportedly persecuted for their political views.
Since returning to the presidency, Putin has embarked on a range of domestic policies that have further consolidated the Kremlin's control of Russia's political landscape. He has sharpened the state-owned media's messaging to more closely mirror the Kremlin line and cracked down on foreign funding for nongovernmental organizations, many of which are critical of his policies.
Opposition activists — including prominent anticorruption crusader Aleksei Navalny -- have also been targeted in criminal cases widely seen as politically motivated.
Ismail Shahtakhtinski, a Virginia-based lawyer who works with asylum seekers primarily from Russia and Azerbaijan, says that over the past year he has been contacted by an increasing number of Russians who claim to have been pressured by the authorities to pay bribes, make false confessions, or give fabricated testimony.
"A lot of times the government is trying to build up a case against someone, and in the way of doing that, they try to gather witnesses," Shahtakhtinski says. "They use a lot of fake witnesses and court testimonies. Those are the types of cases that I see a substantial increase [in]."
Immigration Equality, the largest legal advocacy group in the United States devoted to assisting LGBT individuals with immigration matters, says the number of Russians it has met with about potential asylum applications this year is roughly at the same level as in 2014.
The New York-based organization has met in person with 44 Russian nationals so far this year "to determine whether or not they should file for asylum," compared to 47 in 2014, its legal director, Aaron Morris, says.
"There will probably be a slight rise since we have two more months left in 2015, but I don't anticipate hugely bigger numbers," Morris says. "We're also currently representing 52 Russians in LGBT asylum claims, which is, as a raw number, more than last year. I don't know that that reflects the increase, because of the long delays in the system."
Morris says that among the individuals Immigration Equality has met and worked with over the past year, the organization is seeing more instances of LGBT couples from Russia who have married in the United States and are interested in applying for asylum. Fear of physical violence remains the chief factor motivating sexual minorities to flee Russia and seek asylum in the United States, he adds.
"The basic fear for a lot of our clients is the same: It's that there's going to be a skinhead group that attacks them because they look gay or they're known to be gay or they're coming out of a gay club, or gay bar, or somewhere where LGBT people frequently meet," Morris says.
Russian citizens have filed more than 17,000 U.S. asylum applications since 1994, more than 6,000 of which have been approved, according to data provided by the Department of Homeland Security.
The number of new U.S. asylum applications by Russians this year was the largest in a single year since 1994, when the U.S. government received 2,127 applications from Russian nationals in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The United States receives far fewer asylum applications from Russian nationals than the European Union. Russians filed just over 14,000 first-time applications to EU countries last year, though that number was down from more than 35,000 the previous year, according to Eurostat data.
Between 2008 and 2014, however, the United States outranked all EU countries in popularity among Russian asylum-seekers except Germany, France, Poland, and Sweden, according to available Eurostat data.
Radio Free Europe