Ivanov, a Russian in his 30s, traveled to Korea in mid-September to seek asylum and avoid conscription in Russia’s armed invasion of Ukraine.
“[Russia’s attack on Ukraine] cannot be justified under international law,” Ivanov said in an exclusive email interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, who agreed to use a pseudonym to identify him. “It is a war that is unacceptable.”
He described his experience as “terrible” after taking to the streets with his friends to hold anti-war rallies after the war broke out.
According to the Justice Ministry, 537 Russians entered Korea from March to September and applied for refugee status. The Russian-Ukrainian war began on February 24.
Until last year, less than 100 Russians in Korea applied for refugee status. In fact, the number of asylum seekers from Russia was so low that they were categorized as “other” in statistics compiled by the Ministry of Justice. By nationality, Chinese submitted the most applications, 301, followed by Bangladeshis with 233, Nigerians with 164, Indians with 148 and Pakistanis with 131.
Ivanov’s hometown is Buryatia, east of Lake Baikal in Siberia, and 30% of the 980,000 inhabitants of Buryatia are of Mongolian origin.
South of Buryatia is Mongolia and it is adjacent to Central Asia, where many Koryoin reside – ethnic Koreans living in post-Soviet states. Ivanov grew up with Koryoin friends, who were heavily influenced by traditional Korean culture.
Ivanov was looking for a job after graduating from university.
As the war dragged on, sporadic protests took place across Russia.
Rumors of a draft decree began circulating over the summer.
The BBC’s Russian Service reviewed reports of more than 6,000 confirmed battlefield casualties and found that by early September ethnic minority troops, including Buryatia, had lost 600 soldiers , while only 15 people killed were from the Moscow region.
“I thought I would be dragged into the battlefield and die, so I finally chose to leave the country,” Ivanov said.
“There were a lot of deaths among the Buryats because of the war,” he said. “Tensions increased when some Russian media outlets were shut down, and more and more of those who oppose Kremlin policies began to leave the country.”
Ivanov fled in early September.
He first flew to Mongolia, then took a flight to Korea.
“It was largely because of a Koryoin friend who lives in Korea,” he said.
But the barrier to entry was high.
Ivanov applied for refugee status, but the Justice Ministry’s immigration office at Incheon International Airport refused, saying the application was made without a legitimate reason. He was stuck at the airport.
Meanwhile, the draft government notification arrived at Ivanov’s home in Russia after Putin called up 300,000 reservists to support the military campaign in Ukraine on September 21.
With the help of the Center for Refugee Rights Nancen, Ivanov filed a lawsuit on September 29 asking for the withdrawal of the rejection of his refugee claim.
Immigration authorities eventually reversed their decision and decided to send Ivanov back for refugee screening on October 12. Finally able to leave Incheon International Airport, Ivanov stays with his friend Koryoin.
It is not known whether Ivanov will be recognized as a refugee. Despite the recent increase in applications, no Russians have been recognized as refugees since the start of the war.
“Most of the refugee applications submitted this year are still being processed,” said a Justice Ministry official.
Justice Department data obtained by the Refugee Rights Center showed that it took an average of 23.9 months, or almost two years, for asylum seekers to receive the first screening decision. The average screening period has been extended due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the ministry.
Ivanov has repeatedly told the refugee rights center that he did not flee because he was afraid of war, pointing out that he had served in the army for more than a year.
Instead, he said, “I don’t want to die on another country’s land, nor a war for the sake of a government I don’t support.
“Russia is full of corruption and undemocratic conditions,” Ivanov said. “The attention of the international community is our only hope.”
BY SHIM SEOK-YONG, SEO JI-EUN [[email protected]]