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Close to 90% of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses applicants refused asylum in Finland

Asylum applications from Russians shot up in 2017, after the country's top court deemed the religion an extremist group.

Jehovan todistajia lehtitelineen vieressä.
A Jehovah's Witnesses outreach stand in Helsinki. Image: Ismo Pekkarinen / AOP

Only about 10 percent of asylum applications from Russian members of the Jehovah's Witnesses have been approved by the Finnish Immigration Service (Migri) since the eastern country banned the religion's activities in 2017, says a Migri official.

Last year citizens of the Russian Federation made up the second-largest nationality applying for asylum in Finland, behind Iraqis.

Senior Migri inspector Otso Paasi estimates that about one-third of the 490 applications for international protection from Russian citizens were submitted by Jehovah's Witnesses members. As Finnish immigration authorities do not keep statistics about applicants' religious beliefs, Paasi stresses that this is just an estimate.

Migri has no official policy for handling asylum applications from Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses community. Paasi says some 90 percent of the applications have been rejected since the ban began in Russia.

"All applications are evaluated on an individual basis. The applicant's narrative is considered relative to information on the country, and an assessment is made about whether the applicant would be at serious risk of their rights being violated upon returning home. We evaluate things that have already happened to the applicant and assess the applicant's profile as a Jehovah's Witness," he says.

A report from a Migri fact-finding trip to Russia last winter confirms that Jehovah's Witnesses members' property has been seized, their homes have been searched, and they have been arrested. Others have been remanded into pre-trial detention, sentenced to house arrest and forbidden from travelling, and had false charges filed against them.

Applications down so far this year

Otso Paasi says the between 200 and 600 Russians apply for asylum in Finland each year. Numbers from the first half of 2019 indicate a decline when compared to last year's tally.

A spokesman for Finland's Jehovah's Witnesses community Jukka Palonen says that there are probably many reasons for the slowdown, but the high percentage of negative Migri decisions is probably one of them.

"Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia are certainly aware of what's happening, as they are closely following the situation," he says.

About 175,000 Jehovah's Witnesses are estimated to reside in the Russian Federation. Since the 2017 ban, it is thought that about 5,000 or so have left the country.

"The situation in Russia is a bit like the one under the communist Soviet Union. Our people practice their religion there as they see fit, but the circumstances naturally limit what they can do. Not everyone wants to leave," Palonen says.

Several human rights organizations have criticized Russian treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses. The European Union and the United States have both taken a stand on the actions of the Russian authorities, demanding that Russia respect people's freedom of religion and assembly.

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