The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Canada recently granted refugee status to a Russian man seeking to avoid conscription into Vladimir Putin's brutal war against Ukraine:
Trofim Modlyi is breathing a sigh of relief.
The 19-year-old, who is from Khabarovsk in eastern Russia, near the border with China, received notice at the end of 2022 that his claim for refugee status in Canada had been accepted.
I no longer need to worry about going back to Russia. Obviously I felt, like, fully safe that I don't need to go to Ukraine and take part in this war,Modlyi said.
Modlyi was visiting his sister, Valeriia Granillo, in Grande Prairie, Alta., when Russia invaded Ukraine last February. Granillo, who moved to Canada in 2012 in search of better opportunities, now works in cancer care and is a Canadian citizen.
While he was in Canada, his parents received a conscription notice for him. That is when Modlyi said he decided to apply to become a refugee.
There is no possibility for me to [go] home because I would be drafted [into] the war, and I don't want to take part in it. I don't want to kill innocent people in Ukraine,he said….
Modlyi was determined by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) to be a Convention refugee — a status that is granted to someone who is outside their home country and is not able to return because of awell-founded fear of persecution.
He and his sister and his parents back home strongly believed that if he goes back there, there would be a strong opportunity that he will be sent to the conflict area — he would be fighting in Ukraine,the lawyer said…
Yu said the family provided newspaper articles that conscripts were being sent to the front lines and that the atrocities committed in Bucha, Ukraine, against civilians (new window) in the early days of the war involved soldiers from Modlyi's region, all of which supported his refugee claim.
The Canadian decision is just a ruling by an administrative agency in this individual case. It does not, by itself, entail a general policy of granting refugee status to Russians fleeing conscription. But, hopefully, Canadian officials will indeed generalize the policy, and other Western nations will follow suit.
Since the start of Vladimir Putin's large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, hundreds of thousands Russians have fled his increasingly repressive regime. The pace has picked up in the wake of the government's "partial mobilization" order conscripting men to fight in the war.
Sadly, however, Western nations have largely refused to grant refuge to Russians fleeing Putin, even as many adopt more generous policies towards Ukrainian refugees. Even Russians with an extensive record of opposing Putin have sometimes been subjected to unjust immigration detention at the hands of US border authorities. Since the start of the conflict, I have been making the case that this rejection of most Russian migrants is a mistake, on both moral and strategic grounds. For some of my writings on this topic, see here, here, here, and here.
Putin's conscription policy strengthens both the moral and pragmatic arguments for opening Western doors to Russian refugees. Conscription to fight a wrongful war is a grave injustice—even if (unlike me) you reject claims that conscription is generally unjust, because it is a form of forced labor. And granting refuge to potential conscripts deprives Putin of valuable manpower.
In previous writings, I criticized the argument that we should bar Russians because they are responsible for the war in Ukraine, countered claims that letting in dissenters will somehow strengthen Putin, and also critiqued the more general claim that citizens of unjust regimes have a duty to stay home and "fix their own countries."
Because I am a Russian Jewish immigrant myself, some readers may suspect that I have become an advocate for Russians fleeing Putin out of ethnic or racial sympathy or bias. Not so. I have also long advocated for openness to Ukrainian refugees, as well, and am a sponsor in the Uniting for Ukraine program facilitating entry of Ukrainians fleeing the war. In a previous post, I listed some of my extensive writings advocating for opening Western doors to predominantly non-white groups of migrants and refugees.
In this context, is also worth noting that the Russian government's conscription drive has disproportionately targeted ethnic minority groups, such as the native peoples of Siberia and the Caucasus. Such ethnic discrimination further strengthens the case for granting refugee status to Russian citizens fleeing conscription, at least those who belong to the discriminated-against groups.
The 1951 Refugee Convention (as later amended) bars governments from deporting refugees, defined as people whose "life or freedom would be threatened on account of [their] race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." US law has a very similar definition. People targeted for conscription based on their race or ethnicity are pretty obviously facing threats to their "life or freedom" because of their "race" or "nationality" or "membership of a particular social group."