The story of five Russians who have lived for months in a South Korean airport to avoid being called up to combat in Ukraine
The Russian men now have inside jokes with the South Korean staff they see every day at 6pm at the Burger King in Terminal 1. They spend the day walking around, smoking cigarettes or learning Korean. They wash their clothes with bath soap.
For this five men who fled Russia to avoid conscription in the war against Ukraine, the incheon international airport it has been their temporary home for the last three months.
They arrived at the airport, located about 50 kilometers west of Seoul, in October and November seeking asylum. But South Korea, which has a low refugee acceptance rate, judged that they were not even eligible to apply and rejected their applications. The men appealed the decision, and three of them will know on January 31 if their appeal is accepted.
“This is our last chance here in Korea,” said one of the men, 31, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety in the event of an attack. possible repatriation.
They are part of the more than 180,000 Russian citizens who fled their country after President Vladimir Putin declared a “partial” military mobilization of reservists for his war in Ukraine on September 21, leaving countries across Europe grappling with the possibility of opening their countries to exodus.
Some of those affected by the order fled, while others left because they feared that the government would conscript all able-bodied men in its desperation to find fighters.
Vladimir Maraktaev, a 23-year-old university student from the Republic of Buryatia in Siberia, received the draft notice on September 24 and left his home that same day without his fiancée. Many Russians have already died to fight a war he opposes, he said.
“I don’t want to hurt people. I don’t want to die either. But I think this conflict is extremely political,” she stated. “It is an imperialist war in my opinion, conquering a neighboring sister nation. I have all the respect for the Ukrainians for defending their home.”
It is the first time Maraktaev has visited South Korea, a country he said he chose as his destination after reading about the country’s former presidents convicted and imprisoned for crimes, including corruption, which he described as “amazing.”
“It is hard to see, in any world, Russian leaders being accused and actually confirmed of anything: corruption, bribery, etcetera. … I found it really refreshing,” she stated.
A 30-year-old, who spoke on condition of anonymity Fearing for his safety, he said he left Russia right after receiving his recruitment notice on September 28 because he had protested at anti-government rallies and had been investigated for his stance. It was already unsafe for him to be at home in Siberia, and even less safe after his order, he said.
Fearing that they would send him to the front, he left his wife and son at home and ran away. He crossed into Kazakhstan and settled on South Korea because it was a democracy, he said.
He and two others who arrived at Incheon airport in October will find out on January 31 if they meet the requirements to apply for refugee status.
If they succeed, they will be able to leave the airport and enter South Korea until their status is determined, which could take up to a year, said their lawyer Lee Jong-chan with Advocates for Public Interest Law. The other two men – Maraktaev and the 31-year-old – will have their first court hearing on January 31.
Under South Korean law, people can apply for refugee status at a port of entry, such as an airport, and are interviewed for pre-screening. If they meet the requirements to apply, the immigration office refers them to a refugee control. The Ministry of Justice did not want to specify why it rejected his request.
Lee said his clients were turned away because evading military service is not a criterion for refugee status.
South Korea, which also requires all able-bodied men to join the military at age 28, takes conscription evasion very seriously. But Lee has appealed the decision, arguing that Russians fleeing the draft who disagree with the war should be treated differently.
“A person forced to serve in Korea who simply leaves the country to avoid military service and applies for refugee status, say in the United States, would have a hard time getting it. It’s understandable,” she said. “But if the people who are at risk of being forcibly recruited in a war-torn country like Russia they flee because they oppose the war, we generally see that as a reason to be considered a refugee.”
South Korea has called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “illegal and illegitimate” and has joined the West in imposing economic sanctions. But she, too, has been cautious in her bilateral relationship with Moscow, rebuffing kyiv’s repeated calls for lethal weapons, though she has increasingly provided indirect military support.
Lee was optimistic that the men would get an audience, since their cases are similar to those of hundreds of Yemenis and more than 1,200 Syrians who came to South Korea fleeing the war in their country. Most of those applicants were ultimately denied refugee status, but were granted one-year humanitarian visas. It is not clear how the government will decide the case of the Russians.
In 2019, before refugee claims plummeted due to the coronavirus pandemic, South Korea recognized 79 of 15,452 applicants as refugees and granted humanitarian stay permits to 230 people that year.
The most urgent thing for now is to get the men out of the airport, Lee said.
Until then, the Russians sleep in a small waiting room in the departure area that houses eight other men. There is a shower with dodgy hot water. They receive three meals a day: pastries and orange juice at 8 in the morning, rice and chicken at 12 noon, and again pastries and orange juice at 5 in the afternoon.
At 6 pm, they go to Burger King to buy something else to eat. The staff recognizes them as foreigners living at the airport. They have an irregular sleep schedule because their hours and days get mixed up, and they often end up at the 24-hour Dunkin’ for a bite to eat or a coffee. In the duty-free zones they don’t like loitering, since they can’t buy anything without a boarding pass or passport, which were confiscated, they say.
“Not only do we know the airport, but the airport knows us,” says the 31-year-old. “I have never smoked cigarettes, but I started smoking here. Now I live in the smoking rooms.”
Your Russian credit cards are being declined due to financial sanctions imposed on Russian banks. So they hang out around a gate where flights to Kazakhstan usually take off, chatting with Russian-speaking tourists who can give them cash in exchange for money transferred from their Russian bank accounts.
Even a five-star airport like Incheon, among the busiest and cleanest in the world, can be scary if it’s the only place you can be. They’re bored, anxious, nervous and hopeful, and they’ve been through every part of Terminal 1 that allows them to. They miss the fresh air and walking outdoors.
The two men say they are preparing for a long wait at the airport.
“I think we are quite stoic,” says Maraktaev. “Well, we have to be, we just have to be patient, we have to be mentally strong.”
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