Russian-origin Muslims in Western Europe
International Crisis Group, 30 July 2021
As migration increases, European nations are fine-tuning their asylum and resettlement policies, including toward the Russian Muslims who have been heading west for decades. These countries should continue enhancing information for migrants and community policing to make sure that stereotypes stay out of their decisions.
What’s new? The diverse Russian-origin Muslim communities in Schengen zone countries face increasing pressure from once-welcoming governments, which are now increasingly likely to view them as dangerous and linked to terrorism or crime.
Why does it matter? While real concerns exist in some cases, European authorities risk compounding humanitarian harm if they make refugee, asylum and other decisions about this population on the basis of erroneous or inadequate information.
What should be done? Many Schengen zone countries have already set policies that are sensitive to Russian-origin Muslims’ various needs. Nevertheless, all can do more to prevent the hardening of stereotypes, improve information access, and take care when it comes to extradition and deportation of those at risk.
Substantial numbers of Muslim migrants from Russia have been settling in Europe for decades. The biggest recent flows, consisting mostly of people from the North Caucasus, followed the Soviet Union’s collapse and the ensuing wars in Chechnya and neighbouring regions. Warmly welcomed, Russian-origin Muslim communities in Schengen zone countries grew quickly. Those in France, Germany and Austria are now tens of thousands strong, and experts estimate the total number of Russian-origin Muslims in the European Union (EU) at 200,000.
These people have both integrated into host country societies and developed their own political and social institutions. But there are challenges. Vulnerable individuals require protection, including sometimes from violence emanating from within the population. Stigma may lead authorities to deny refuge to newcomers in genuine need. Governments already working to address these problems should focus on ensuring that immigration procedures are fair, that local authorities understand Russian-origin Muslims’ specific needs and that migrants receive the support they need to thrive.
European countries have seen a change in migration trends with respect to Russian-origin Muslims over the past three decades. If flows of the 1990s and early 2000s consisted primarily of Chechen nationalists fleeing war, today’s new migrants represent wide ranges of religious and political belief, and their migration reflects a more varied set of dangers and other motivations. In some cases, schisms within the migrant community, such as those between the more and the less religious, or between those who define their politics in part through opposition to or support for Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, create substantial tension and even strife.
Some community members support militant political action, even if most do not. Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ persons of Russian-origin Muslim ancestry often find themselves unsafe even in Europe, due to sometimes violent pressure from compatriots to conform to gender norms. All these factors make for a dynamic picture that combines isolation and integration, generational divides and mutual support networks.
At the same time, faced with an influx of refugees from around the world, Europe’s 26 Schengen zone countries have adapted their asylum, refugee and law enforcement practices. Russian-origin Muslims are among the communities they now view with some concern, fearing ties to the Islamic State (ISIS) or criminal groups among both newcomers and settled populations. While some migrants are, indeed, linked to violent and/or criminal groups, most are not. The challenge for both communities and authorities, then, is simultaneously to ensure long-term security and prosperity, avoid arbitrary decisions based on stereotyping and ethnic profiling, and protect the rights and interests of the host country, the communities and their individual members.
As European authorities continue to refine their immigration, asylum and law enforcement policies, many are working closely with existing communities, including Muslim migrants from Russia. But stereotypes can continue to creep into policies and practices. Host nations should continue to enhance the security of all residents by emphasising community policing, improved information flows to new and prospective migrants, and diligent review of extradition and deportation requests.
This paper is part of a series that Crisis Group is publishing on the Russian-origin Muslim diaspora. It describes how this population has made new lives in Schengen zone countries, with an emphasis on France, Germany and Austria. It assesses the variety of challenges faced by these communities and recommends measures that authorities can take to improve their own approaches to both migration and interaction with a diverse and complex population.
The series also includes an overview report and entries that focus on the origins, evolution and status of the Russian-origin Muslim populations in Turkey, Georgia and Ukraine. The series draws on well over 100 interviews, virtual and in person, with migrants, authorities, civil society figures and experts in destination and transit countries as well as in Russia. It pairs insights from these interviews with data gleaned from academic literature, media reporting and NGO accounts. It also benefits from Crisis Group’s years of research and analysis in many of the countries concerned, including Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Turkey.
Among Schengen zone countries, France, Germany and Austria have been the most popular destinations for Russian-origin Muslim migrants since the early 2000s, when these people began leaving Russia in larger numbers.
Most members of Russian-origin Muslim communities, now hundreds of thousands strong, came to the West from Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus, such as Ingushetia and Dagestan. Much smaller numbers came from central Russia and other parts of the country. Russian-origin Muslims have tended to settle in clusters in Western Europe, with concentrations in France around Paris, Strasbourg and Nice; in Germany in Berlin, Brandenburg, Hamburg and Cologne; and in Austria around Vienna, Graz and Linz. Smaller communities also exist in Belgium as well as in Nordic countries, including Norway and Sweden. In recent years, these settlements have grown both because of continuing waves of migration from the North Caucasus and because of natural increase.
It is difficult to find useful data on Russian-origin Muslims in Schengen zone countries, because different countries track immigration differently or not at all, making the numbers hard to compare. One reason they do so is that, as discussed below, migrants from outside Chechnya have at times – particularly during periods of hot conflict – claimed to be Chechens on arrival in a Schengen zone country in the hope of improving their chances of obtaining asylum.
Another reason is that analysts and authorities sometimes conflate North Caucasians of non-Chechen origin, and sometimes all Russian-origin Muslims, with Chechens, and/or count only those they see as Chechens. Against that backdrop, an estimate presented by DOSH magazine and based on unofficial data puts the Chechen diaspora in the EU at roughly 200,000 people – a figure that may include at least some number of Russian-origin Muslim migrants whose ancestry is not Chechen.
To break things down by country for some of the largest populations: in Germany, where most Chechens and other Muslims from Russia live in Berlin and Brandenburg, assessments tend to estimate what they define as the Chechen population at between 50,000 and 60,000 people.
In France, authorities do not collect data on ethnicity, but the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons indicated in 2019 that 16,120 Russians have some form of protected status (mainly asylum) and that most of them are Chechens. Experts, however, believe the number of Chechens in France to be similar to that in Germany or a bit larger, roughly 65,000 to 70,000 people including undocumented migrants.
Austria may have the largest proportion, within the Schengen zone, of North Caucasus refugees as a share of its overall population. Large communities live in Vienna, Graz, Linz, Carinthia, Steiermark and Tyrol. In 2020, the Austrian Information Resource estimated the number of Chechens in Austria at around 35,000 out of a total population of just under 9 million. (By comparison, the populations of Germany and France are just over 83 million and 67 million, respectively.
III. Faith, Ideology and Schisms
Religious and political views among recent Muslim immigrants from Russia in Western Europe vary greatly. Differences align substantially, if imperfectly, with immigrants’ reasons for migration, as well as age, gender and other factors. Nationalists who fled Russia with the demise of the secular Chechen state they had hoped to build tend to remain secular and focused on Chechen independence.
Fundamentalists who fled in part to practice their specific Islamic beliefs are, by definition, more religious, and some are interested in global Islamic political movements. A number of young people born and/or raised in Western, Northern or Central Europe have also embraced fundamentalist Islam, and some of them, too, are interested in global and local political Islam, though others are not. Other young people, by contrast, have little interest in religion or politics tied to it.
The dream of an independent Chechnya, or Ichkeria, led to the first Chechen war (1994-1996). That war ended a self-proclaimed independent state under the leadership of Dzhokhar Dudaev. The second war, which began in 1999, lasted a decade. At its end, strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, aligned with Moscow, was at the helm of the region, and many of those who had fought him had fled the country.
In many Schengen zone countries, these immigrants were viewed as persecuted dissidents, and welcomed warmly by both the authorities and the public. Prominent leaders of the movement formed what they called a “government in exile” in their new homes, led by London-based Akhmet Zakayev, the former prime minister of the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Zakayev’s followers view themselves as the successors to the briefly independent Chechen government and the representatives of the global Chechen community.
Because people affiliated with these movements were at the core of migration into Europe, secular Chechen nationalism was for many years the dominant ideological viewpoint among Russian-origin Muslims in EU countries. Today, however, its influence has faded in the face of an increasingly religious community seized with a broader set of political causes.
Community members and scholars agree that religiosity has grown among Russian-origin migrants. Both debate the reasons and the demographic breakdowns. One scholar reports that younger people are generally more religious than their Soviet-raised elders. Other scholars suggest that education may also play a role, such that younger and less educated Chechen women, in Norway, at least, are more attracted by Islamic law and practices than customary ones.
One migrant, however, said women from Chechnya living in Norway are more religious, on average, than those in France, arguing that the former are more likely to choose faith as a form of political expression or rebellion against more secular parents. Another migrant emphasises the fact of migration itself, rather than age, gender or education, hypothesising that people “came to adopt Islam after they migrated to Europe … because of information access”. In Europe, she explained, people can easily find a variety of teachings and viewpoints online and in person, without fear of drawing the authorities’ attention, an increasing risk in Russia.
Some of this religious discovery happens largely within the Russian-origin community. Some does not. In countries such as Germany, Belgium and Austria, where the Russian-origin Muslim populations are large, the migrants run mosques and centres that primarily serve their compatriots. Most Russian-origin Muslim migrants in the Schengen zone, however, attend multi-ethnic mosques.
Increased religiosity has affected how individuals view the struggle in Chechnya and the North Caucasus more broadly, weakening the role of secularism among Chechen nationalists. Many up-and-coming activists in Europe, for example, emphasise an Islamic vision for the region’s future: they want a new Chechen state to be Islamic as well as independent.
At the same time, political organisations that unite secular and religious Russian-origin migrants and emphasise working with host country institutions to forward community interests have become increasingly influential. The Bart Marsho Association, headquartered in France, aims to bring together Chechens living in Europe and to counter what it terms “extremism” in their ranks.
The Assembly of Chechens of Europe, created in Strasbourg in 2019, has similar aims.
The organisers of these groups reject Zakayev’s leadership and express frustration with the self-proclaimed government in exile. In the words of one migrant:
The Zakayevites say only they have a right to represent the Chechens. Their official site published a resolution requiring all associations that represent Chechens in Europe to register with some kind of ministry of justice of theirs [laughs]. We, of course, immediately replied that we would not do this in any way, because, firstly, their ministry has no legal basis, and we will register only where we are – in the countries where we are located. Creating some other kind of legal structure would be a sort of separatism. ... They say: “Come here, you should be with us” ... not alongside us, but under our leadership, subject to our supervision and accountable to us, such that we will check everything you do.
Not everyone is a member of one of these circles. Members and allies of the armed jamaat structure of the anti-Russian insurgency in Chechnya, Dagestan and neighbouring parts of the North Caucasus, and the Caucasus Emirate which replaced it, part ways with both secular Chechen nationalists and host nation-focused political groups.
More than a few fundamentalists, secularists and others who are simply uninterested in politics disagree ideologically with all of the above.
The sharpest divide among migrants in Europe, however, may be between those whose politics and ideological sympathies are limited to the North Caucasus, whether their methods are violent or not, and their compatriots who both take a more global view and support militant groups such as ISIS. Among Russian-origin Muslims, some ISIS affiliates and sympathisers are from the second generation, the one raised in Europe. They discovered fundamentalism and violent political ideologies on the internet or through social networks, both those limited to people with roots in Russia and those that were more international.
Some then travelled to Syria. Ideologically, this group has much in common with people who followed similar paths in Russia (whether they took up arms there or not), but who did not fight in Syria, having instead migrated to Europe. But their opinions also put them at odds with many other Russian-origin Muslims, whose views can be summarised by the words of a man who has long lived in Denmark: “A whole division of Chechens died in someone else’s war in Syria”.
Although numbers are disputed, one migrant from Chechnya believes the numbers of ISIS affiliates born in Schengen zone countries exceed those of natives of Russia. One migrant told Crisis Group:
More people went to Syria from here [Austria, Germany, France, Poland] than from Chechnya and the North Caucasus. I know six people from Poland who died in Syria. I knew them personally. ... They left, they said goodbye to me, they gave their things away [and] gave away their last €100.
Whether or not more fighters came from Europe than from Russia, Russian-origin Muslims do appear to have been overrepresented among foreign fighters coming to Syria from EU countries. According to official estimates, they accounted for roughly 5 to 8 per cent of the foreign fighter contingents in Syria from Germany, Belgium and France, a high number given their small proportion of the overall immigrant population.
Meanwhile, 40 to 50 per cent of foreign fighters from Austria were Russian migrants. One reason may have been that ISIS and other militant recruiters were effective in targeting Russian-origin Muslims in both EU countries and Russia. A migrant in Vienna told Crisis Group: “The propaganda was superbly staged. There were imams and preachers. There were videos in Chechen and in Russian saying: ‘Come’”. Some, he said, also saw the fight in Syria as part and parcel of, or training for, an eventual fight in Chechnya: “They had the will to fight and were not able to go to the Chechen Republic. ... I remember they wanted to go to Syria in order to then go to Chechnya. … Such naive plans”.
Today, with the ISIS caliphate (though not the organisation itself) defeated in Syria, researchers and authorities see less evidence of active recruiting among this community.
But the internet remains a primary means by which people research ideologies and connect with one another, building new networks. “If one preacher says things that do not agree with their passions, their desires or their point of view on some issue, then the youth instantly find another preacher who supports their point of view”, a migrant living in Nice told Crisis Group.
Some community members worry that this “ideology shopping” leads young people, especially, toward more and more extreme views, and perhaps actions, rather than religious study and understanding.
ISIS-affiliated views can still be found on the internet, as can the perspectives of fundamentalists opposed to them, such as that of Abdulla Kostekskii, a Caucasus Emirate leader based in Turkey who has a large following in the Schengen zone and who lauded the murderer of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty. Still, if the internet is a starting point for many, in-person interactions also play a role. Scholars report that government sources identified many Muslim migrants from Russia as active members of what those sources termed extremist circles which met at underground mosques in Berlin (Perleberger Straße), Graz (Taqwa) and other European cities between 2013 and 2016. Chechens also reportedly dominated similar circles in the German city of Bremen.
Another critical dividing line is that between people tied in various ways to Chechnya’s government, led by Ramzan Kadyrov, and those opposed to it, and often to Russia’s national leadership, on political, religious or other grounds. Many in the opposition have faced serious persecution as a result and a substantial number of people left Russia due to pressure from and fear of local or federal authorities. Migrants report that Kadyrov has a large network of loyalists in EU countries who migrated there, sometimes under false pretences, in part to ensure his economic and political influence over compatriots in Europe.
Kadyrov’s people, they say, are particularly active in the German cities of Kiel and Cologne. Indeed, many Chechens and other North Caucasians believe that Kadyrov-linked networks are responsible for a series of assassinations of migrants, especially those critical of Kadyrov, in Austria, Germany, France and Sweden.
Many migrants said they fear Kadyrov-linked networks. Indeed, a few people cited such worries as their reason to decline conversations with Crisis Group.
Community members said, moreover, that they cannot be certain who among them might be linked to Kadyrov and how. Even those who faced oppression often left family and friends behind in Russia, with whom they maintain ties. Like other migrants, those from Russia send money home to support relatives, and some estimate that remittances from abroad may account for a quarter of real estate investment in Chechnya.
Moreover, those whose reasons for leaving had more to do with family reunification, opportunity or other factors unrelated to the government see no reason not to have business and other relationships with people in Russia, including those tied to Kadyrov. As one man told Crisis Group:
Those who are loyal to the Kadyrov regime are more secretive. If they hang out with the Ichkerians somewhere, they will never say that they support Kadyrov. For example, I have never met anyone who would say directly to my face that Kadyrov is a good person. [Meanwhile,] different people go home [to Chechnya], and it is not necessarily true that those who go home are loyal to Kadyrov. People, who are not wanted [on criminal charges] there and so on, they can and do go home. They have families there: father, mother, relatives. [They] build their houses, put their farms in order, then they go back – such a situation exists. It’s a fuzzy line.
In EU countries, government officials and journalists often portray Chechen and other North Caucasus communities as very closed and tightly knit.
But these communities are also extremely diverse. While most members indeed remain close to others from Russia, many, especially those who grew up in host countries, are no less connected to other networks.
But the ties that do exist make it possible for the community to enforce social mores, provide services and organise politically.
Social behaviour correlates with religious and political ideologies and with migration waves and age, although the relationships are imperfect. People who came at the start of the second Chechen war are less insular than those who came later, but more insular, for the most part, than their own children and grandchildren. The very religious may be more likely to stick together – but not always with compatriots from Russia. A variety of factors, including, first and foremost, a culture that emphasises family and community closeness, tie migrants from the North Caucasus to one another.
Shared beliefs, traditions, foods, languages and experiences also play a role. So do similar experiences of trauma experienced in Russia, in the process of leaving Russia and in destination countries. Continued ties with family members and others in Russia, alignment with or fear of the Kadyrov government and its emissaries in Europe, and the benefits of having a business and social network rather than starting from scratch also perpetuate close relationships.
The Soviet-born secular Chechen nationalists who came in the early 2000s tend to maintain close ties with one another. They often share a history of participation in the nationalist and independence movements in the last years of the Soviet Union and during the first Chechen war.
Not all are Chechen: many ethnic Kumyks and other Dagestan natives participated in the first Chechen war and came to Europe alongside the Chechens. Most of those migrants received residency and work permits in EU countries soon after their arrival and have not had particular financial difficulties. They send their children to local schools and, while they encourage them to learn their ancestral languages and visit family still in Russia, they feel that they are raising young Europeans. Longstanding migrants are also likely to have business partners and friends who are not Russian-origin Muslims. Some of their children have married outside the communities.
The most insular Muslim migrants from Russia to the EU tend to be those who left Russia due to real or perceived religious persecution or because they took part in the insurgency in the North Caucasus. For example, many Ingush and Dagestanis came following the violent repression of Salafism in the North Caucasus in the 2010s.
Many fundamentalists were tortured or threatened by security forces, compelling them to seek refuge in Western Europe. Among them, veterans of the Chechen wars and the Caucasus Emirate travelled to Europe to flee Russia’s counter-insurgency campaign. The veterans and witnesses of combat are often traumatised, and some have recurring health problems as a result of conflict and related privation. Some experienced torture. Many also had an incomplete or interrupted education. “The generation born in the 1980s who mainly fought in the second Chechen war never studied at school; it is most difficult for them to adapt”, explained a Vienna-based migrant from Chechnya.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can impede integration into host countries. In Poland, which most Russian-origin Muslims traverse to reach Western Europe, very few mental health resources are available to migrants. Although other European countries offer more, trauma is a consistent factor in many migrants’ lives. Aside from contributing to distrust of government institutions or law enforcement agencies, it can manifest in social and family interactions, crime, domestic violence and self-harm.
Although the majority of the Russian-origin Muslims in Europe define themselves as religious, more recent migrants are perceived as very religiously observant, either because they were raised as such by religious parents or because they found their way to faith through friends, the internet or other means.
One migrant said: “Here [in France] I began to read, gain knowledge [about Islam]. I noticed that many began to consciously come to Islam after immigration. Access to websites and online sources is not restricted here. ... For example, the [internet forum] that I used, which was called the Sala forum, was closed by law enforcement agencies in Russia. Over there, one cannot get access at all”. Some of these young people are socially affiliated with primarily Russian-origin fundamentalist networks, while others find multi-ethnic communities.
At times, young people’s religious awakening causes tension with secular parents, who fear there may be a path from religious fundamentalism to alignment with ISIS or other militant groups.
Some parents and other community members view such newfound religiosity as rebellious. Said one Paris-based migrant:
Young women are wearing hijab as a form of protest or rebellion. They’re a community of their own. They found one another. They show up for all the events, dancing Chechen dances in their hijab, odd as that is. But they are mentally the same as they were before – they still want to dance. … It has more to do with protest against their parents, who wanted them to be secular but control their lives in other ways.
Secular, comparatively young Muslim migrants from Russia who were either born in EU countries or arrived there as children and people who fled persecution in the North Caucasus or elsewhere in Russia for their sexual orientation are often well integrated in host nation societies. Many have attended schools and colleges in the EU. While people in this category build close ties with a range of others, many also have family ties with compatriots. Some, in effect, live in “two worlds”, adopting traditional cultural practices when with their families and contemporary European youth culture at school, at work and in other social situations.
But if some maintain parallel social circles, others simply avoid their compatriots. Some people, for instance, fear attack or persecution linked to their sexual orientation or gender expression. Secular or not, North Caucasian cultures are traditionally highly patriarchal, with tightly defined gender roles, although of course individual realities vary greatly. This phenomenon manifests also in substantial burdens on women. One academic specialist told Crisis Group: “Women are under huge pressure to perform according to rules and customs of their heritage”.
But regardless of gender, people whose behaviour is out of line with these norms may face rejection, and even physical harm, from relatives who see them as having brought the family dishonour.
Patriarchal attitudes are not limited to older generations. In recent years, self-styled “morality police” have appeared among ethnic Chechens, particularly in France and Germany. These young men try to intimidate other young people, often women, whom they accuse of misconduct.
One man said he received social media threats after posting a comment on his Instagram page denouncing the oppression of women in the Caucasus, and that a friend faced online harassment after posting a photograph of herself with a man wearing an earring. A scholar describes videos posted online by ethnic Chechens in Germany in which they threaten to punish fellow community members, mainly women, for flirting with non-Chechen men or frequenting discotheques. The enforcers tend to target Chechens, rather than Muslims, or even Russian-origin Muslims, in general. But their attacks accentuate the pressure on secular young adults to adjust their behaviour when they are with other community members, to avoid being targeted or endangering their friends.
All these difficulties are especially acute for those identified as lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual, or otherwise queer and/or gender nonconforming. Some community members Crisis Group talked to reject the very notion that there are Russian-origin Muslim LGBTQ+ people.
In Russia, LGBTQ+-identified people can face substantial dangers from local authorities, the communities in which they live and their families. Repression is particularly severe in Chechnya, where an organised 2017-2018 crackdown on gay and bisexual men drew international public attention. Victims told Crisis Group of enduring threats, assaults and torture in which their own families were sometimes complicit.
Russian human rights activists told Crisis Group that young women living in the EU have been kidnapped and sent to Chechnya for “re-education” because family members were unhappy with their behaviour or lifestyle. To track down and capture these women, according to these accounts, relatives leveraged the networks that connect Russian-origin Muslims around the world, including in some cases those linked to Kadyrov. People at risk of such kidnappings have few options, especially as their experiences in Russia lead many to distrust local authorities. Even human rights groups tied to Russian-origin Muslims sometimes prove unfriendly to LGBTQ+ people. The Russian LGBTQ+ rights activists, however, recounted the tales of three cases in which, working with the relevant foreign embassies, they were able to help victims return to their destination countries.
Not surprisingly, LGBTQ+-identified individuals in Europe with roots in Russian-origin Muslim communities generally either hide their LGBTQ+ affiliation from their compatriots, avoid the latter or both. Despite the tolerance of broader European society, individuals who fled oppression and danger tied to their sexual orientation fear that compatriots will recognise them, on the bus or on the street, and subject them to physical or verbal abuse. As one man living in the Netherlands said, while he felt that Dutch authorities harbour anti-gay feelings, the real peril is from other Muslims from his homeland: “There’s no physical danger, not from the Dutch or other nationalities, but if your Chechens find out that you’re a Chechen, then there will be physical danger”. This man also noted that although he is religious, he avoids formal group prayer: “No, I don’t go to the mosque here, because in the mosque there are many Chechens” and, he added ironically, “many Muslims”.
A Russian human rights activist said this man’s behaviour was common:
They [LGBTQ+ Russian-origin Muslim migrants] theoretically understand that they can go to the police in this [a host] country, but this does not mean that they can walk the streets without fear that someone will recognise them. They do not speak the Chechen language; they avoid any common photographs at events – they live a semi-underground life. If they meet someone, for example, in a language class, they never speak Chechen so as not to betray themselves. They dye their hair, dress in the most European way, so that it would not be evident at all that they are tied to the North Caucasus.
Relatedly, the “morality policing” by some ethnic Chechens has led others to cut ties with their community. As one said, after an incident of online harassment: “I’ve lost all desire to connect to anyone or have any kind of contact with Chechens here”.
Some women pretend in public not to be Chechen, but rather from elsewhere in the North Caucasus, to avoid reproach, and one man said he had claimed to be Russian when a stranger he was confident was Chechen asked about his ethnicity in a public place.
Recognising these dangers, some European countries provide special protection for migrants who identify as LGBTQ+. According to a Russian activist, among European countries, the Netherlands has the largest number of LGBTQ+ migrants from Russian-origin Muslim communities. It offers specialised housing and support for LGBTQ+ individuals in general and, for example, for transgender people, in particular, with an eye to ensuring their security.
In Berlin, too, LGBTQ+ migrants have access to dedicated shelters, established to protect them from ostracism and violence, although there have been cases in which individuals have claimed to be LGBTQ+ even though they are not to obtain access.
The closeness of the Russian-origin Muslim community and the language gaps that keep newcomers from access to host nation services have fostered the creation of social organisations. These provide social services, advocate for community members and engage in charity. The Chechen nationalists who have been in EU countries the longest remain active, but the newer organisations, like Bart Marsho and the Assembly of Chechens of Europe, discussed above, are increasingly in the lead. In the same vein is Vayfond, a human rights group that promotes asylum access and tries to prevent deportation of migrants to Russia.
The Assembly, for its part, recently undertook a campaign accusing Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi of incitement to hatred. Estrosi had linked violence in Nice and Dijon to what he termed Chechen community efforts to maintain a monopoly on the drug trade. Estrosi later met with and apologised to community leaders.
Cultural centres, clubs and other such societies across Europe also provide various benefits, protect migrant rights and promote ethnic traditions. In Germany, several cultural centres offer activities, language lessons (Chechen, Russian, Arabic, German), and other programs to meet the needs and wants of different diaspora communities. Some are oriented around specific religious ideologies, drawing adherents to Sufiism to one centre, for example, and those sympathetic to Salafi teachings to another. A migrant who ran a German-Chechen cultural centre from 2008 to 2011 told Crisis Group:
There are many German-Chechen cultural centres here. For example, one Sufi and one following Einheitsislam where all the Sufi traditions are rejected. In both cultural centres, the Chechen language is taught so that children remain connected. They also teach Russian and Arabic. Dance is also offered as a course since it is one of the constitutive elements of Chechen culture. They also play an important role in finding a [life] partner.
Community-based structures provide for other needs as well. Chechen councils of elders offer an alternative to government and law enforcement institutions in resolving disputes within families or between community members.
These councils are dominated by secular nationalists, mainly because of their comparative age. But they also rely on Islam in some cases: “Religion is usually used by the elders’ council to convey certain messages that can help ameliorate social tensions [that is, to advance community conflict resolution]”, an expert told Crisis Group. Nonetheless, more religious migrants are more likely to turn to Islamic courts affiliated with the community.
These institutions make it possible to retain a variety of cultural practices, “a transfer of practice from the village setting in their hometowns”, as one scholar said.
They also make it possible to more directly maintain links to those villages. For instance, fundraising organised through both Chechen and multicultural Turkish-run mosques enables families to send remains of those who have died in Europe to the North Caucasus for traditional burial, something many prefer. To defray the cost, which may run up to €5,000, some purchase a sort of insurance through their mosques, which then raise the necessary money:
Every year your family pays €60, an enrollment fee. Then if a family member dies, the [mosque-affiliated] organisation covers the costs and assists with the logistics. Another organisation works differently: if a person dies, then everyone enrolled in it makes a mandatory contribution. They collect about €30 from each. ... But if a person is not enrolled anywhere ... an announcement is made on social networks. They say: “A person died. You need to send him home. Who can help?” And they immediately collect the money and send it.
Community-based solutions can be more accessible than government services and are crucial for meeting migrant-specific needs. But they can also lead to the denial of rights and safety, particularly for women and/or people who do not adhere to traditional gender roles. A specialist on this topic in Germany told Crisis Group:
When women are in trouble due to domestic violence … it is of course less likely that they will be protected. The view of the elders’ council and the community in general is that women need to concede (nachgeben) when they have conflicts with their husbands. So, the mediation role is very questionable. Others go to a trusted imam. Some who are more emancipated may apply to the government’s youth ministry (Jugendamt).
But in general, the Chechen community does not recognise these state institutions as legitimate. Sometimes, men threaten their wives who divorced them. I have heard of cases of men abducting children to pressure women not to divorce them, as well as in order to reinstate family honour after divorce. Here the German state needs to intervene; otherwise, women will be forced to remain in violent family situations.
In addition to supporting one another, Muslim migrants from Russia raise funds for and donate to charities that support co-religionists around the world. These draw on a broad ideological base. Salsabil, an international humanitarian association headquartered in Strasbourg, was founded in 2013 by Muslims from Russia. Their activities are predominantly connected to Islamic charity, and their organisers and donors are mostly Salafis.
The fundamentalist Abu Umar Sasitlinskii network, based in Turkey, is also active in EU countries. Its charitable fundraising there has helped it build thousands of wells and distribute humanitarian aid in Niger and Bangladesh.
V. Youth, Education and Integration
Mandatory education policies throughout Europe mean that the vast majority of school-age children of migrants attend secular schools. There, most are well integrated and have few problems.
At the same time, like many migrant groups, Russian-origin Muslims are often nervous about European host country educational and child welfare institutions. While many are concerned that such institutions seek to impose foreign values and norms, when they would prefer to raise their children in line with their own traditions, others have encountered real risks. Community members report cases in which the Norwegian child welfare system Barnevernet took Chechen children from their homes and placed them with foster families or in institutions.
In order to preserve traditions, religion and language, Chechens in particular have been able to leverage their substantial numbers to organise pre-school programs. In Austria, some of these kindergartens meet the criteria for state support, which they receive. One network in Vienna operates nine creches serving 160 children. In addition to caring for very small children, these programs offer courses to older students in mathematics and the Chechen language.
It is not always easy, however, to provide training in ancestral languages. According to a migrant now based in Nice:
Here it is a little difficult to open a purely Chechen kindergarten or school. Here they try, of course. There are organisations that are doing this – in Strasbourg, for example, and in other cities. Here there are also such lonely teachers of the Chechen language. Children are registered with them, but still, this is very little. There is no such mass here. It is difficult to open a separate school here.
Older children in Germany can take advantage of the German-Chechen cultural centres discussed above. There, programming targeted at youth includes classes in Russian, Chechen and Arabic language, and in folklore, culture and religion, including the Quran.
VI. Work and Economics
Not surprisingly, kinship and ethnic ties play important economic roles for Russian-origin migrants. As with many communities, members of this diaspora do business with one another, hire one another and start firms together. Over the years, the communal ties have built a substantial economic network across Europe. It includes some large firms, such as Beslan Abdmuslimov’s halal meat production and distribution plant in Daugavpils, Latvia. North Caucasian-origin meat processors in Austria buy from him and distribute halal meat products across Europe.
It also includes small businesses such as bakeries, cafés, sport centres and construction companies.
Though gender roles remain traditional in most communities, and many women are primarily homemakers, it is not rare for women to work outside the home. As with religiosity, age is a factor. One scholar writes that Chechen women in Austria in their late forties and older often became breadwinners and community leaders, perhaps because they had to be when they first arrived. Younger women, however, are now more likely to drop out of school and marry young.
Although some migrants struggle to find employment, many confirm that options exist. Says one:
You can work here. … There is a lot of work. If a person … is not lazy, if he wants to get a job or be trained, there are opportunities. … You can find a job by profession. There are many Chechens here who have opened construction firms. They work very well. In Nice, most of the Chechens are engaged in security and business. The guys work as security guards in different areas: supermarkets, even clubs. … Here Chechens are also engaged in transportation, in the tourism business, as taxi or Uber drivers. … Women mainly work in the hotels. … If you’re not a lazy person, you can get by without any problem.
Despite these successes, accusations of criminal ties seem to plague Russian-origin Muslim businesspeople. Indeed, some were embroiled in crime in Russia and have continued to be after they left.
A relatively small number of community members areengaged in criminal activity, such as protection rackets. “Chechens are involved in criminal activities particularly around markets. Some markets are controlled by Chechens, almost like parallel societies. They extort money, establish protection rackets (krisha). They are influential and violent. Other criminal organisations use them for dirty work”, explained an Austrian citizen who works closely with Chechens.
Most migrants, however, are not involved in such activities. In fact, according to community members, even those among them who committed crimes in Russia generally eschew it in the EU.
According to a specialist on Chechens in Germany, both media and authorities exaggerate the role and influence of criminal groups. Community members, for their part, are likely to speak about petty crime committed by youth, driven more by peer pressure and the desire for social cohesion than other motivations. Meanwhile, Russian-origin Muslims’ distrust of authorities and efforts to settle problems within the community can feed these perceptions. One man told Crisis Group that he landed in prison because another migrant “set me up, but I couldn’t tell the police about it” because community loyalty would not permit him to.
Moreover, even if they are not engaged in criminal acts, many recent migrants work illegally because they are ineligible for legal employment, for example, because they are awaiting a decision in asylum cases or appeal procedures. Most refugees in Germany, for instance, are given a temporary stay permit (a so-called Duldung) without a work visa. Many asylum seekers in Germany are not entitled to either work or social assistance, as full welfare support and benefits follow adjudication of legal status, which can take years. The support they receive in the meantime is reportedly meagre.
A German civil society representative working with Muslims from Russia explained:
They are very capable of integration [as people]: they are ready to work and can go through a lot despite hard living conditions. They lived in the mountains where you have to work really hard to survive. … The biggest problem is that many Chechens do not receive a Duldung [temporary stay permit] before their asylum applications are finalised (which can take years). Some people live in Germany for over a decade waiting for their applications to be processed without the possibility to work. This is absurd. This is the main problem; authorities are very rigid. [The migrants] are very hard-working people with a good mentality – they learn German very quickly.
In France, financial and social assistance is available from refugee reception centres, such as the Centres d’Accueil de Demandeurs d’Asile. The French government funds the centres to support refugees while it is assessing their applications for asylum. This aid can help families, for example, pay for an apartment. But those who receive such social assistance generally find it insufficient. One woman living in Le Mans told Crisis Group: “I have two children – there are three of us – we receive €872 a month. From this I have to pay for an apartment, for electricity, gas, water, then pay insurance for an apartment, for a telephone, for the internet – it all goes away”.
In addition to those expenses, many migrants send money home to family in Russia. A Chechen migrant from France said: “A very large share of the Chechen economy [in Russia] is formed precisely by the refugees who work in the EU here. They send everything home”. Since not all are poor, he continued: “In Chechnya, they are building such expensive houses, investing hundreds of thousands of euros! ... Mostly people build houses in their ancestral villages [rather than Grozny]. … This is not counting the money that is sent to help relatives”.
Asylum seekers in Austria receive a small stipend, accommodations and other benefits as they await a decision. This support package is smaller than those that citizens on welfare receive.
Moreover, if the migrants find work and their salary exceeds certain limits, they lose the state benefits. Some therefore work illegally on construction sites or in other less regulated jobs.
VII. Legal Status and Changing Official Attitudes
Muslim migrants from Russia have long viewed Western Europe as a safe haven. From the time of the Chechen wars, Schengen zone countries tended to offer, albeit to varying degrees, social support, legal aid, protection and asylum. Until about 2008, most Muslim migrants from Russia who arrived in Western European countries could obtain a legal right to remain there. Many did so as formally designated refugees or political asylees under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Geneva Conventions, which also gave them access to social benefits. The success of those who came early in the century spurred others, particularly Chechens, to follow. According to migrants to whom Crisis Group spoke, prior to 2008, almost everybody coming from Chechnya (or claiming to) received residency and often refugee status.
Statistics support this assessment: during the years of the second Chechen war (1999-2009), France granted asylum to more than 40 or 50 per cent of Muslims of Russian citizenship (mostly Chechens) who applied. In Austria, over 90 per cent got asylum. Rates were lower farther east: under 10 per cent in Poland and Slovakia.
But as time went on, attitudes shifted, and both the media and some officials began to portray Russian-origin Muslims not as a repressed group seeking shelter, but as a population prone to posing security risks, notably of terrorism or crime. As the second Chechen war turned into a broader insurgency in the North Caucasus, the asylum success rate in Europe has plummeted. An expert working intensively on communities in Germany estimated that new arrivals now have at best a 10 per cent success rate with political asylum claims.
Migrants had similar complaints elsewhere, saying it had become nearly impossible to obtain asylum in France and Austria, including in cases where applicants could prove they had suffered atrocities committed by Chechen forces or other local authorities. The new attitudes have also exacerbated the effects of longstanding practices, such as the fact that family members may be considered individually. With higher rejection rates, migrants face an increased risk that one family member may obtain asylum in Western Europe while their spouse and children are rejected or continue to wait for a response
Perhaps as a result, applications have also dropped off in some countries. Between 2011 and 2016, France witnessed an almost 50 per cent decrease in asylum requests from the North Caucasus. In Germany, by contrast, some 20,000-30,000 people arrived starting in 2012, drawn by social media rumours that migrants from the North Caucasus could obtain residency permits and social benefits, as well as enjoy a simplified procedure to purchase land. On arrival, however, they faced a 95 per cent rate of asylum refusal. (Unknown numbers of migrants nonetheless remained in Germany illegally. ) One reason for the lower approval rates was authorities’ increased scepticism of asylum claims. Although human rights violations remain common in the North Caucasus, missing and incomplete information, doubts about the veracity of one or another aspect and similar factors now scuttle refugee and asylum applications, whereas authorities were more lenient in the past.
The war in Syria and the rise of ISIS also affected EU attitudes. The tightening of Austria’s asylum policies, for example, has less to do with Russian-origin Muslims and more with the rising public anti-refugee sentiment that followed a large influx of Syrians and other immigrants in 2015 and 2016. Since 2016, Austria has had one of Europe’s toughest asylum frameworks, allowing even local authorities to reject asylum seekers at the border.
It also lets the government declare an extendable six-month state of emergency, permitting the deportation of unsuccessful asylum claimants, even in contravention of Austria’s non-refoulement obligations, if authorities assess that refugee numbers threaten public order or would overwhelm public institutions.
Host countries have become increasingly worried about infiltration of jihadists hidden among migrants, and here they have focused at least in part on those of Russian, and particularly North Caucasian, origin. Since around 2012, German authorities have expressed concern about possible “jihadist activities” of Chechens in their country and sought to identify connections to Syria.
Politicians and law enforcement agencies in Germany, France and Austria have also called for, and in some cases instituted, a closer watch of both Salafis of all ethnicities and Muslim migrants from Russia regardless of ideological viewpoint. Their fears come from the reality that some Russian-speaking Muslims have travelled to and from Syria; thus, to authorities, it stands to reason that Russian-speaking ISIS members could be posing as peaceful migrants from Russia in order to reach Europe. In 2016, Belarusian authorities arrested at least two Russian citizens, one allegedly involved in ISIS and the other allegedly recruiting for an unnamed violent group, who were trying to cross into Poland.
More and more Muslim migrants and asylum seekers from Russia have faced deportation due to suspected involvement in Islamist militant activities. France, for instance, deported seventeen Chechens to Russia in 2016.
Deportations to Russia often raise refoulement concerns. The online news service Kavkazskii Uzel has documented cases of Chechens unable to obtain political asylum in France and at risk of deportation despite having established that they were tortured or mistreated in Russia and risk the same if they return.
Furthermore, they have identified at least four cases of murder and kidnapping following the deportation of Chechens to Russia. More recently, human rights activists have raised concerns about Magomed Gadayev, a former Chechen separatist active in Bart Marsho and the Assembly of Chechens in Europe, who was arrested by French authorities in late 2020 and deported to Russia in April 2021. Once there, he was transferred into the custody of Chechen security forces.
Gadayev’s arrest came in the wake of the 2020 murder of schoolteacher Samuel Paty by a Russian-origin eighteen-year-old of Chechen ancestry, raised in France. Paty had shown his students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad as part of a discussion of free speech. After the killing, the French government launched a series of investigations focused on the Chechen diaspora. But while Turkey-based Abdulla Kostekskii, as noted above, described the murder as justified, community leaders feared that it, and statements like Kostekskii’s, would be a prelude to persecution of Russian-origin Muslims in France.
They thus took pains to point out that while the caricatures were in their view “provocations” and not “freedom of speech”, as one migrant from Chechnya told Crisis Group, no Muslim had the right to do what Paty’s killer did.
This migrant added:
Well, I do not think that these statements [about Paty’s murder] by Abdulla Kostekskii [are valid]. Our youth, who are young people or people who are somewhat radicalised about this issue and other issues, they just take his words and that’s it. For them, it’s a concrete argument and that's it. … I think he should have approached this issue more carefully, and not approved it, you know. … But apart from Kostekskii, many preachers (not in Europe, in Turkey and other places) from among the Chechens, they also spoke out, supporting this act, this, one might say, lynching. This is an act of lynching, which is absolutely unacceptable in Sharia.
Community members worry in part because of past accusations, later proven false. The most notable case was in late 2002, when French authorities unravelled a plot to carry out several attacks, including on the Eiffel Tower, ostensibly in retaliation for the raid that killed both hostage takers and hostages in Russia’s Nord-Ost theater in October of that year. Both authorities and journalists described the plot as linked to Chechnya and the North Caucasus. The actual participants, however, were of North African, not Caucasian, origin (their only tie to the Caucasus, north or south, being that some reportedly trained with the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge).
Accusations or assumptions of criminal behaviour by Russian-origin Muslim migrants are another fear for community members. An example is the coverage of events in Nice and Dijon, discussed above, but similar incidents have occurred in Germany (Hamburg, Bielefeld, North Rhine-Westphalia) and Austria.
In July 2020, dozens of Chechens were involved in fights with Germans and Poles in Rheinsberg, Germany. The city’s mayor and the state interior minister declared that the reason for the brawl was failure to integrate the Chechens, whom the media and some officials then leapt to suggest were a clannish community prone to vigilante violence.
Many Russian-origin migrants believe that increased suspicion and higher deportation rates also reflect Russian political influence upon countries like Germany and France. They often believe that host countries are sacrificing their rights for the sake of geopolitical or economic goals.
Indeed, European governments do work with Russia in many matters, and this cooperation may put some Russian-origin migrants at risk. Russia, like other states, uses Interpol to pursue suspected violent criminals, including those it says are linked to Islamist groups. But human rights activists accuse Russia of also using this system to pursue opposition activists and others who are guilty of nothing. A Russian reporter quotes a lawyer representing Chechen refugees in Europe who alleges that Moscow often presents “unreliable evidence to Interpol and national courts when submitting criminal case files that review extradition requests”.
To make matters worse, as people try to fortify their asylum cases in this more suspicious environment, it appears that they have become more, rather than less, prone to falsify information or add new elements during their appeals. Some respondents said they personally knew at least one individual who had falsified claims of torture or political repression in Chechnya to obtain asylum.
One man indicated that Chechen local authorities often provide falsified police reports or other documentation to support such claims. They supply these materials for pay, because they have friendship, familial or other ties to the people asking, or both. Migrants additionally report that Kadyrov loyalists abuse the system to obtain residency for themselves or their informants. As one person said, people tied to Kadyrov “obviously do not deserve refugee status, but German authorities do not take sufficient measures against these individuals”.
Meanwhile, although EU countries have grown more suspicious of migrants from Russia and the North Caucasus as a whole, they have become more welcoming of LGBTQ+ persons facing persecution, particularly those from Chechnya. While LGBTQ+ migrants from the North Caucasus have been coming to EU countries for years, the campaign of repression in Chechnya in 2017, and the resulting press coverage in Russia and globally, noted above, drew attention to the issue. As a result, LGBTQ+ networks in Russia were able to relocate several dozen people to various European countries.
While some countries, such as the Netherlands, had already had welcoming policies, and remained a preferred safe haven, German, Lithuanian and French authorities also granted a number of humanitarian visas to Chechen men who had fled their homeland at this time.
With regard to asylum requests, the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons – in its 2017 report – underlined a rise of cases filed by Chechens mentioning discrimination or persecution linked to sexual orientation as their reason to seek refuge. This rise coincides with the mass persecution in Chechnya. Numbers appear to have stabilised more recently.
VIII. Conclusion and Recommendations
Russian-origin Muslim communities in Schengen zone countries are longstanding, and, in most cases, well interwoven with the social fabric of host nations. Although ideological and social strains exist, none of them is unique to immigrants from Russia or even particularly unusual. Both established community leaders and host country authorities are generally well equipped to respond to new challenges, particularly if they work together. But the problems facing these communities and to some extent those emanating from them are exacerbated by tightening restrictions on immigration and community perceptions that authorities and host country societies as a whole view Muslims from Russia, and particularly the North Caucasus, as prone to criminality, religious violence or both.
While many Schengen zone countries are at the forefront of developing smart policies to prevent and mitigate potential dangers, they can further improve their practices by ensuring that they are adequately applied to Russian-origin Muslims and informed by understanding of the cultures and schisms among them.
In fighting crime, for example, local officials should continue to emphasise community policing and multi-agency integration approaches that have found success in Europe, Canada and the U.S. already. These practices are meant to make sure that measures to ensure public safety do not result in collective distrust of migrant groups, which can easily become counterproductive.
Practices of note include engagement with community leaders and members to improve law enforcement approaches, for instance through liaisons and community recruiting. Again, many of these efforts are already under way, but consciously applying them to Russian-origin Muslims can help ensure their effectiveness, given the risk that suspicion and stereotypes on the authorities’ part can reinforce tendencies toward isolation, particularly on the part of those they most want to reach.
Host countries can also proactively work with media outlets and engage in public education to debunk myths that stigmatise Russian-origin Muslims, for instance by promoting messages from high-profile officials that challenge stereotypes. A regular program of such education will likely be more effective than, for example, similar projects undertaken only responsively, after notorious events or counterproductive comments, such as those by the mayor of Nice, discussed above.
The EU and its member states, as well as other Schengen zone countries and the UK, should cooperate with transit countries and relevant international organisations, such as the International Organization for Migration and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, to disseminate information to migrants from Russia about their human and asylum rights in EU and neighbouring countries. Better awareness of these rights could shrink bureaucratic burdens on both migrants and host countries.
These campaigns should provide information in local languages and Russian that is relevant to migrants as they cross borders and look to establish livelihoods. Topics include the Dublin regulation and its provisions for family reunification, LGBTQ+ rights, domestic violence laws, asylum, refugee status, related procedures for obtaining long-term residence, non-refoulement obligations and so forth. While some countries carry out such campaigns, a more consolidated effort focused on Russian-origin Muslims could alleviate substantial hardships.
In addition, countries that are entry points for Russian-origin migrants, such as Poland and Slovakia, should consider incorporating training on migrant rights and relevant regulations for their border personnel. They, and other EU states that do not offer such training, could also consider ombudsman-type institutes to address complaints by migrants and asylum seekers, in order to provide an alternative to the courts for those who feel their claims were unfairly denied.
Schengen zone countries will need to continue to cooperate with the Russian Federation in law enforcement, including in investigations and prosecutions. But when these cases concern Russian citizens and others from Russia, including those of Muslim ancestry, host nations should be attentive to the increased risks many of these individuals may face if they return to Russia, for instance in response to an extradition request. While Russia is a safe country of origin for most Russian citizens, as the EU assesses, it is not safe for all Russian citizens. People who left explicitly because of pressure due to their religious beliefs, political activities or sexual orientation often face substantial dangers if they return. For this reason, host countries weighing extradition or deportation to Russia may want to carry out additional investigations and take extra care. In cases where migrants committed crimes that fall under the host country’s jurisdiction, they should consider trying, and if the accused is found guilty, imprisoning these people in their own facilities.
Relatedly, host countries may want to improve their due diligence procedures to prevent abuses of the Interpol red (arrest) notice system by countries (including Russia) that target political activists and others living or travelling abroad. One way to curb abuses is to submit information provided by requesting countries accused of such misdeeds to host country intelligence agencies, whether the case in question concerns extradition, asylum, refugee status or something else. The agencies will want to confirm accusations of wrongdoing and assess the validity of provided documents, as both types of fraud have been known to occur. Donors looking to support civil society and watchdog organisations can help provide informed oversight as well.
While many Schengen zone countries are models of policy approaches to LGBTQ+ migrants and others at risk, some continue to lack the capacity and knowledge to provide adequate support. Here, too, cooperation can be crucial to ensure that help reaches vulnerable people who need it, whether these are women and girls who have experienced or risk coerced marriage, or LGBTQ+ persons who may be unsafe with their families and ethnic and national origin communities. Countries can work with neighbours and others to share good practices, including teaching staff providing job and language training to migrants to be sensitive to these concerns in general, and among Russian-origin migrants in particular.
There are few places in the world where Russian-origin Muslims present as much rich diversity and are as established a part of societies as in Schengen zone countries. While challenges will remain, host countries can build on their history of welcome to continue this successful story of migration and resettlement.
Paris/Berlin/Vienna/Brussels, 30 July 2021
For footnotes, visit: https://www.crisisgroup.org/russian-origin-muslims-western-europe