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Open Arms to Russian Wealth, Cold Shoulder to Asylum Seekers

Migration statistics show that 347 Russian citizens have been granted asylum since 2008 – compared to nearly 2,600 ‘golden visas’ for Russian millionaires in same period

Handful of roubles. Photo: Peter Titmuss/Alamy

Open Arms to Russian WealthCold Shoulder to Asylum Seekers

Statistics show 347 Russian citizens have been granted asylum since 2008 – compared to nearly 2,600 ‘golden visas’ for Russian millionaires in same period

Only 347 Russian citizens have been granted asylum in the UK since late 2008, compared to nearly 2,600 ‘golden visas’ given to Russian citizens who could afford to invest significant sums in the UK.

A little more than 200 of these golden visas were issued to Russian millionaires in the seven years since the Government pledged to stop corrupt oligarchs exploiting the system, along with 250 of their family members and dependents. 

But, while wealthy Russians were welcomed to the UK with open arms, people seeking asylum from the increasingly oppressive regime received a colder shoulder. Of just under 1,000 asylum claims made in the time period following the introduction of the golden visa, only 347 were successful. 

‘Tier One entry clearance visas’ – nicknamed the ‘golden visa’ as it is given to wealthy individuals who can then apply to become British nationals – were introduced in the 1990s and then ramped up in 2008. The visas were scrapped last month, after the Government came under increasing pressure to drop the scheme accused of providing opportunities for corrupt elites to access the UK. 

To qualify, foreign nationals had to invest a minimum of £1 million (raised to £2 million in November 2014) in the UK – either in bonds, share capital or companies. A £2 million investment would allow them to apply to settle within five years. If they invested £5 million, the wait was reduced to three years; with £10 million, it was just two years.

The 2020 Russia Report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee found that “exploitation” of the golden visa scheme meant the UK was becoming a “particularly favourable destination for Russian oligarchs and their money”. 

The Chatham House think-tank described golden visas as a “national embarrassment” in its report on kleptocracy. It claimed that “serious flaws and loopholes” remained in the system, even after reforms were implemented in 2015. 

Twenty-two golden visas were issued to wealthy Russians last year. There were 35 successful asylum claims from Russian citizens in the same period. 


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Human Rights Crackdown

Vladimir Putin’s regime has been characterised by its aggression towards neighbouring countries, neo-fascist philosophy, and a crackdown on human rights. 

In 2014, he banned protests that had not been given prior permission from the authorities. A year earlier, he passed the so-called “gay propaganda” law that purports to “protect” children from homosexuality. The regime also partially decriminalised domestic violence in 2017. 

Dissident voices have faced persecution, imprisonment and even assassination. The journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed in 2006; nine years later the Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead. As Russian forces targeted nuclear power plants in Ukraine, the current leader of Russia’s political opposition Alexei Navalny was on trial, after an attempt on his life was made in August 2020.

Navalny was poisoned by Novichok – the same nerve agent used against Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in 2018. While Skripal survived the assassination attempt, local woman Dawn Sturgess died. 

This was not the only attack against Russian dissidents on British soil. Former spy Alexander Litvinenko was killed in November 2006, having been poisoned by polonium-210 during a meal at a London restaurant. 

Feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot felt the sharp end of the Russian President’s crackdown on human rights after three of its members were arrested and sentenced to two years in prison in 2012. Their crime? Performing an anti-Putin song inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The band members were released in 2014 in advance of the Sochi Winter Olympics, along with the Arctic 30 – Greenpeace activists that had attempted to board a Russian oil tanker. 

Meanwhile, civil society groups have been repeatedly targeted by the regime. In recent days, Moscow-based NGO, the International Memorial, has been searched by security forces. In the run-up to Sochi, Amnesty International had its offices raided. The intimidation followed a warning from Putin to top officials in Russia’s security services, the FSB, to beware of NGOs that may “meddle” in the country’s internal affairs.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, there has been a domestic crackdown against anti-war protestors, with thousands arrested. Police officers in Moscow have been filmed stopping people and checking their phone messages.  

Seeking Asylum

The majority of Russian citizens seeking asylum in the UK were female, at 495 compared to 475 men. Of these, 184 women were granted asylum, along with 160 men. 

That women were more likely to claim and gain asylum may be linked to high rates of sex trafficking from Russia to the UK, with women and girls more likely to be trafficked into the sex industry and Russia named as one of the “worst offenders” when it comes to modern slavery.

People aged 30-49 were most likely to claim and gain asylum – with 118 successful claimants since 2008. A total of 79 people aged under-18 were granted asylum in the time period analysed, along with two individuals over the age of 70. 

Some asylum claims had multiple decisions against them. One case from the first quarter of 2020 had 14 decisions. The Home Office definition of decisions reads: “The number of first outcomes (initial decisions) on asylum applications (main applicants only) or on people who have applied for asylum (main applicants + dependants). It also includes those who have been resettled to the UK.”

Since the launch of the golden visa scheme, Russian citizens with close links to Vladimir Putin invested in building influence across a wide swathe of the British establishment – including PR firms, charities, academic and cultural institutions. This all contributed to a ‘reputation laundering’ process.

Wealthy Russian individuals who became British nationals via the scheme could also donate to political parties, with questions raised about what due diligence checks were taking place before the acceptance of Russian money. 

Additional reporting by Sascha Lavin

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