It Pays To Leave Russia

Crimeans may very well wish to be a part of the Russian Federation, but plenty of Russian citizens want out of it.

The number of asylum seekers hailing from Russia quadrupled during 2013, reaching a record 39,800 individuals, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). More people from Russia sought international protection last year than those from Afghanistan (38,700) and Iraq (38,200). Only Syria -- a country wracked by a brutal, years-old civil war -- produced more asylum seekers than Russia in 2013.

The UNHCR report doesn't dig into the reasons behind this dramatic spike in asylum seekers from Russia, but news reports over the last year point to a few possible factors, including rising anti-gay sentiment. Last year, Moscow enacted new laws banning "homosexual propaganda" and adoptions by same-sex couples, fueling a small but visible surge in Russian asylum seekers, according to the Wall Street Journal. Many sought protection in the U.S. and Canada, on the grounds that they were being persecuted for their sexual orientation.

But Germany, according to the UNHCR report, received the vast majority of asylum applications from people fleeing Russia -- and, of those, many came from ethnic Chechens. Though the relationship between Chechnya -- a subdivision of the Russian Federation -- and Russia is historically fraught, the recent rise in Chechen applicants is a bit mysterious. German officials seem to believe it has something to do with a year-old German court ruling that grants asylum seekers the same social service benefits as Germans. In other words, it pays to leave Russia.

The report goes on to note that a total of 612,700 refugees sought asylum in 2013 -- the highest figure since 2001. It marks a dramatic spike in the number of people fleeing conflict and persecution across the globe in the past few years.

The Syrian civil war has, of course, fueled a sharp rise in the overall number of asylum seekers. In 2013, some 56,400 Syrians applied for asylum in dozens of countries. That's twice as many as in 2013 (25,200), and six times as many as in 2011 (8,500). "That Syrians sought international protection in all of the 44 industrialized countries speaks of the tragic situation in the Syrian Arab Republic," the report said.  

As a result, Syria displaced Afghanistan as the world's top source of asylum seekers. Russia ranked second -- but don't tell Crimea.

Read the full report here.



In Myanmar, Press Freedom is a Double-Edged Sword

It's one step forward, two steps back for Myanmar's beleaguered journalists.

President Thein Sein ostensibly closed the book on five decades of media repression this week by enacting two new measures designed to replace the country's longstanding and draconian media law. The problem? The news laws are awfully contradictory. While the Press Law protects the rights and editorial freedom of journalists, the Printers and Publishers Registration Law seems to undercut those protections by giving the government the power to revoke or withhold publishing licenses at any time and for any reason.

Requiring media organizations to obtain publishing licenses at all is highly problematic, of course. In the first place, such requirements can be easily abused by government agencies or officials -- and in Myanmar, which is already notorious for restricting press freedoms, the risks of this happening seem fairly high. The new law is also eerily, and disturbingly, reminiscent of the infamous 1962 media regulation of the same name. The old law gave the government complete discretion over what could be published and, under it, journalists could be -- and were -- jailed for up to seven years for publishing material "disrespecting the State." While much less severe than its precursor, the Printers and Publishers Registration Law includes a very vague ban on reporting that could "incite unrest," "insult religion" and "violate the Constitution," and imposes penalties of up to $500 for doing any of the above.

In a letter to Thein Sein on Monday, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists argued that the law "point[s] to a mounting clampdown on press freedom similar to the repression journalists faced under the military junta" that ruled the country until 2011.

Over the past two years, Thein Sein's transitional government has eased longstanding censorship rules and released imprisoned journalists, setting off a mild media renaissance marked by the birth of dozens of new publications. But there are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical of the regime's nods at reform. A case in point: The president signed the new laws as four Burmese journalists for the newspaper Unity Journal were going to trial for reporting the existence of an alleged chemical weapons factory in central Myanmar. The Irrawaddy, a national paper, reports that they're being charged with leaking state secrets and and face up to 14 years in prison. Their conviction would seemingly fly in the face of the new press freedom law, which the state-run newspaper, New Light of Myanmar, described as proof positive that "investigative journalism and critical reporting [is now] backed by [the] government."

"The detention and trial of the Unity journalists is the clearest indication yet that military authorities are chafing under the more open reporting environment," Shawn Crispin, the southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told the South China Morning Post Tuesday. "The conviction and sentencing to prison of the reporters would be the nail in the coffin of Myanmar's supposed media reform drive."

Burmese journalists, in other words, can breathe small a sigh of relief that the Press Law makes their lives a little bit easier, and a little bit safer. But they better not get too comfortable with their newfound freedoms, lest they discover that they -- like the four Unity Journal reporters now sitting in prison -- weren't so free in the first place.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images