Five Russian men escaping conscription have been living in a South Korean airport for months

(CNN) — Five Russian men who fled Russia following the government’s military mobilization order last September have been stranded at Incheon International Airport in South Korea for months after authorities refused to accept them.

Three of the men arrived at the airport last October and two in November, according to their lawyer Lee Jong-chan.

Lee said the South Korean Justice Ministry rejected their applications for refugee status, leaving them stranded in the departure lounge for months while they awaited a ruling on their appeal. “They are provided with one meal a day, which is lunch,” Lee told CNN. “But the rest of the day they live on bread and drink.”

They can shower, but they have to wash their clothes by hand and they can’t leave the departure and duty-free areas,” Lee told CNN. “They have limited access to medical care, but no mental health support, which is important considering their precarious situation,” he added.

The “partial mobilization” of Russian citizens to fight the country’s war against Ukraine sparked angry protests and sparked a mass exodus when it was announced last September. Many rushed to risk land border crossings or bought airline tickets to leave the country.

The collective data showed that more than 200,000 people fled Russia for Georgia, Kazakhstan and the European Union in the first week after the mobilizations were announced.

“I don’t support what’s happening, so I decided I had to leave immediately,” a man who left for Belarus previously told CNN.

“It feels bad because there are a lot of my friends, there are a lot of people who don’t support the war and feel threatened by what’s happening, and there’s no democratic way to really stop this, not even protest,” the man had said.

Men up to age 60 with no criminal record are eligible for compulsory military service. Previous military experience is not always required.

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Soldiers who refuse to fight and refuse to return to the front are reportedly being held in cellars in occupied Ukrainian territory and facing desertion charges.

Only those convicted of sexual crimes against minors, treason, espionage or terrorism are exempt from compulsory military service.

The South Korean Ministry of Justice has dismissed their applications as “unworthy of evaluation,” arguing that refusal of compulsory military service is not grounds for recognition of refugee status,” according to Lee, who accessed the document from the ministry.

His refusal to serve in the Russian army “must be recognized as a political reason” considering that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was “condemned under international law,” Lee said.

Rights groups have called on the South Korean government to accept the men as refugees.

“Those who apply for refugee status while escaping political and religious persecution in their home countries are entitled to protection under international law,” read a statement from a South Korean rights group. . The men were likely to be “detained or forcibly recruited” if they returned home, the group added.

“They are political refugees facing persecution.”

The men appealed the decision, and three of them will face their first ruling on January 31, during which a court will decide whether their case is “worthy of evaluation,” said Lee, their lawyer.

If the court finds in their favour, the Ministry of Justice will have to review the men’s applications for refugee status.

Conscription is a sensitive issue in South Korea, where military service is compulsory for all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35.

Not even the country’s athletes or K-pop superstars are exempt from military service. Conscientious objection, illegal for decades, was not allowed until a landmark ruling in 2018. However, religious groups have continued to raise concerns about forms of “alternative service” that involve working in prisons for three years.

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