Measuring a Country by Its Olympic Asylum Seekers: Russia vs. UK

by Jason Dzubow on February 4, 2014

in Asylum Seekers, International

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If imitation is the highest form of flattery in art, immigration is the highest form of flattery in politics. The decision to move to a particular country demonstrates the belief that that country is worth living in. So as the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia approaches, it will be interesting to compare the number of athletes who seek asylum in Russia to the number who sought asylum during the 2012 Games in Great Britain.

Sochi-o-path

Sochi-o-path

To make this comparison, we first have to determine how many athletes sought asylum in 2012. I have not seen a concrete count of the number of athletes who “defected” during the 2012 Games. This is because asylum is confidential, and so the British government has not published any figures on Olympic asylum seekers. However, one source estimates that at least 20 athletes and coaches defected during the Games. Cameroon had the most defections: Seven of its 37 athletes did not return home.

When athletes (or anyone) seeks asylum, we can assume that there is a “push” and a “pull.” The “push” is the bad conditions in the home country that lead the person to flee, and the “pull” is the good conditions in the country where the person seeks refuge. The “pull” of the UK is obvious: It is  a developed, liberal democracy that generally respects human rights and offers opportunities (educational, professional) for its residents. People fleeing persecution (or economic deprivation) would generally be lucky to start a new life there.

The “pull” of Russia is less obvious. For one thing, Russia is not known as a welcoming destination for non-Russians. Racism and xenophobia are problems, and many minorities have been targeted and killed. Homophobia is also rampant, and institutionalized (though the mayor of Sochi claims that there are no gays in his city). In terms of its economy, Russia is not as an attractive destination as Western Europe or the U.S., but it is better than many places. Finally, the Russian language is not spoken by nearly as many people as English, and so this might create some disincentive for potential asylum seekers. For all these reasons, I doubt we will see many athletes defecting to start new lives in Russia.

To be fair, many of the source countries for asylum seekers do not send athletes to the Winter Olympics. But even if they did, I doubt many of them would desire to resettle in Russia. Conditions there are simply not conducive to starting a new life, particularly for people who come from Africa or Central Asia.

There have, of course, been a few high profile asylum seekers in Russia. Edward Snowden is one, but I don’t think he deliberately chose Russia as his destination country. Instead, it seems he got stuck there on the way to somewhere else. So the Russians really can’t claim him as someone who had a burning desire to resettle in their country.

Another immigrant to Russia is Gerard Depardieu, a “tax refugee” from France who (sort-of) left his homeland due to high taxes and (kind-of) settled in Russia. I suppose in Mr. Depardieu’s case, there was a “pull” from Russia, but that seems more to do with his friendship with President Putin (who summarily granted him citizenship last year) than with his desire to seek a better life there. Indeed, though Mr. Depardieu has citizenship and an address in Russia, it is unclear how much time he actually spends there.

The bottom line is, I don’t think Russia is seen by many as a desirable place to resettle, and I expect that we won’t see many athletes defecting during the upcoming Games. Perhaps the Russians will be pleased by this (Russia for the Russians!). But maybe upon reflection, they will find that it demonstrates a darker truth about the culture and society that they have created.

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