Legal Adviser to the Nigerian Community in Russia, Dr. Tony Abugu, in this interview with KAYODE BELLO, spoke on challenges faced by Nigerians who run to Russia for succour, the immigration hassles they face, prostituting to survive, trafficking and sundry issues.
• Why Russia Turns Down Nigerians’ Request For Asylum
It does appear that the actual population of Nigerians in Russia is still an issue of conjecture. As one that relates and works with them, do you have an idea of the actual figure?
The population of Nigerians in Russia is thought to be about 10, 000, if not more. In Moscow alone, we are more than 5, 000. However, when you are talking about the population of Nigerians in Russia, it includes hustlers, students, and businessmen. In fact, all categories of Nigerians because we have a registered association her. It is at that level that we discuss issues affecting us and I am the legal adviser of the Nigerian community. This position I have held for two tenures.
There are about 89 regions that make up the Russian Federation. In Saint Petersburg, we have some Nigerians there. Same applies to Volgograd, far east, as well as, far north parts of the country.
How safe are these Nigerians in Russia?
For over 20 years, there were racially motivated attacks and the scenario was very bad when we were still students. I had a similar experience when I was still young, but now I can tell you that such situations have greatly reduced and the Russians are now opening up to the outside world as they only recently hosted the World Cup, where they displayed an impressive level of hospitality. In other words, they are more welcoming now. However, have it at the back of your mind that there is no area in the world where racism does not exist. That said, I would advise people to go about their normal businesses and not look for other people’s trouble because sometimes, Nigerians are usually the cause of their problems.
Human traffickers appear to be looking towards Russia, either as a destination or as a route. Any advice to the government on how to nip this in the bud?
Well, before the FIFA World Cup, there were repeated calls to the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) chief to intervene. We even learnt she was to come to Russia to address some of the salient issues we raised, but importantly, there should be sustained campaign against human trafficking among Nigerians because the governments cannot stop it. NAPTIP should reach out and work in conjunction with the Russian Embassy and the Nigerian community in Russia with a view to monitoring the activities of agents that bring people to Russia. It is the duty of the Foreign Affairs Ministry to liaise with the Russian Embassy on behalf of the Federal Government, and to properly scrutinise Nigerians that are coming into Russia, and for what purpose they are coming over here. There should be recourse to all the standard practices as far as international travels are concerned, and all needed clearances should be presented at the final port of entry. Anyone that does not have a good reason for travelling to a foreign country would end up constituting a societal nuisance to the host country. Some Nigerians that come without valid reasons end up spoiling the image of their compatriots that are here through the nefarious activities that they carry out.
The second advice I would like to offer is for the Russian Embassy in Nigeria to tighten its visa procedure in order to fish out those attempting to leave the country without genuine reasons. Stopping these people on their tracks would ensure that they don’t come over to add to the existing problem that Nigerians here have. Getting visa through the so-called agents to enter Russia is very easy, but it becomes a big problem for some of these Nigerians to even renew these visas when they allow them to expire because the process of renewing the visa is more difficult than getting it. That is why coming in is easier and this is not the country you could compare with.
In the United Kingdom when your visa expires and you want to relocate back to your country, the authorities would help take you to the airport free of charge, but here, the visa you came in with needs to be renewed before you leave. In order words, you need valid visas to come in and go out.
So, the campaign for reorientation by NAPTIP should not stop. In fact, NAPTIP should from time to time embark on serious campaigns and reorientation of girls that embark on this journey. These girls are trafficked here in the guise of coming to study or work in shops, only for their passports to be ceased by their traffickers. They are afterwards made to pay their traffickers between $45, 000 to $50, 000 to get their freedom. If they tell you the ordeal that they go through in doing this job of prostituting, you would hate even listening to the ordeals that they pass through. Some of them are attacked with knives and such dangerous things. Some of them run naked out of the house just to save their lives. So, these are the kind of things that play out in this very dangerous venture.
What crimes and vices are Nigerians most likely to be involved in in Russia?
Nigerians are engaged in money laundering, and obtaining by false pretence. Even though this is reducing, the greatest problem that Nigerians are involved in are document-related, especially expired passports. Majority of them come into the country to hustle and do not have any specific thing to do. In fact, they just feel okay that they have been able to find their way to Europe, and before long, they are planning to leave Russia for another country in Europe, and in most cases, they are either deported or they allow themselves to get deported voluntarily.
Nigerians in Russia have also been involved in rape cases. As I speak to you now, we have a rape case involving a Nigerian with a Tunisian, which sentence was recently passed. It is the Nigerian Embassy that mandated me to handle that case, and cases here are being turned upside down at times, but if you have a strong advocate to push your case further, it might reduce the sentence.
Before the rape case, there was a murder case involving a Russian and a 27-year-old Nigerian lady from Benin City in Edo State. Some of her colleagues were alleged to have been drowned by Russians after having sexual intercourse with them. This issue became a public resonance that the Nigerian Embassy needed to intervene.
The deceased 27-year-old lady came here in search of greener pastures but was allegedly murdered by a Russian that disappeared afterwards. Even though the murder took place a while ago, the Nigerian Embassy reopened the case, after which the consular got me involved. The case recently ended on May 27 and the Russian that committed the murder was jailed for 18 years. Besides the jail term, there was also compensation for family of the deceased.
But what, in your own view, lures Nigerians into prostitution in Russia?
Initially, it was only indigenes of Edo State that were involved in prostitution in Russia. But of late, girls from almost all major tribes and states in Nigeria are into it. I have cause to believe that they would not have resorted to this if their parents were capable of supporting them financially, or if they had things to do to earn an income. But the entire scenario gets worse when their parents are the ones now encouraging them to go into this sexual slavery, which will lead some of them to untimely death. In fairness to some of them, they arrive in Russia with the hope of going to the university; working as shop attendants or doing some menial jobs to take care of their tickets, only for their travel documents to be confiscated. It is at this point that some of them are left with no option than to yield to the pressure, especially because of oath of allegiance, which they swore to. These are the major reasons that I see as being responsible for their involvement in prostitution.
What are the legitimate things that foreigners in Russia can do?
There are legitimate jobs that foreigners that have their papers can do in Russia. But to get a good job in Russia, a foreigner must first of all get his/her residence permit; working permit of at least a period of one year. Once these things are in place, a foreigner can work in a bar or in a restaurant. He can also be employed as driver by the embassy as a local staff member. There are a lot of local staff members that are not diplomats. Apart from drivers, they can also be employed as cooks, or to take care of other administrative tasks. So, it is easy for those whose papers are in order to take home up to $1, 000 monthly in paid employment or to open their small business, run them and make profit.
It should be stated clearly that no employer is ready to take anyone that does not have papers because when they are arrested, Russian laws stipulates that the employer would pay close to one million ruppies, close to $20, 000. So, nobody wants to risk that. When you have papers, you can also work in schools as a teacher, as some Russians are taking English lessons to be proficient in English language. Being a university graduate, one can teach Russians English language on hourly basis, and can even lecture. So, there are jobs, but you have to legalise your stay in Russia.
Do illegal immigrants have rights and privileges in Russia?
In Russia, legal migrants are the ones that have rights. Based on their status, illegal immigrants do not have rights as much in Russia because they are seen as people who are violating the country’s immigration laws, and people, who constitute a menace. The Russian government does not give them social amenities like in the United Kingdom, or the United States.
How is asylum seeking in the Russia?
If one is seeking an asylum in the Russian federation, he/she has to go through the normal process as specified by the law. Those who end up being granted asylum are those who really deserve it. Of late, Nigerians are not benefiting from it because there is no war going on in Nigeria. Those claiming to run away from terrorists-induced killings and so on hardly get this. People that benefit from this are people from Congo because of the long-raging war going on there and in other African countries. Nigerian asylum seekers of late are not benefitting. They are always rejected because of the absence of war in their country.
How were you licensed to practise in Russia?
The usual practice has always been that you have a degree in international law. I am a specialist in international law, but I now confine myself to mainly administrative law because it is concerned with practical issues that I handle here. Again, another reason that I am focusing on administrative laws is because of the migration challenges that people from Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, and people from other English-speaking African countries have as per their documents. So, first of all, you need to get an accredited legal firm that you would work with. They are the ones that would prepare the documents that would allow you to work in Russia. You can also operate as an independent legal consultant to the government.
Here in Russia, there is a difference between a lawyer and an advocate. Advocates have broader scope of where they really practice, but lawyers’ areas are streamlined. They can as well treat criminal cases but limited to private criminal cases where there is specification.
To practice as an advocate, you might need to pass a qualifying examination and then undergo an internship for a period of two years. After this, you might work as an independent legal consultant, which is basically what most of us do. At this level, you might not need to go for any licensing, but if you are attached to a particular legal firm, you have to obtain a licence from the Ministry of Justice. You thereafter file your returns, as well as, specify your area of activities, which you must strictly comply with as they are being controlled.
The Russian language is central to learning and doing business here. How much of it do you speak?
I arrived here in 1988, and it took me a year to study the language. Not just studying it, but getting proficient in it as well because lawyers and medical practitioners need to know the language and its fundamentals. So, the period of one year is enough for people that are in the legal field to reasonably grab the language, but that does not really set aside the fact that not everyone is able to grab enough of what they need to know. Luckily, when I arrived this country I made a lot of friends who were Russians; who spoke at that time little English, which enabled me penetrate in terms of speaking Russian. So, meeting them improved my language skills because it helped me to blend properly, Russian and English language. So, I started speaking Russian early, compared to most of my rivals, not of course at the level to have understood to be an expert, but communication wise.