When in April 2014 Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS) raided a sweatshop in a town K, three Syrian men were arrested. They were found working without work permits and on expired tourist visas. The FMS promptly took them to the district court where they were charged with administrative offences against Russian immigration law and sentenced to expulsion (deportation). The men applied for asylum in Russia, but the domestic courts did not give much weight to this development and supported their deportation stressing that the men arrived in Russia as ‘migrant workers’ and not ‘refugees’.

Why were the Syrian men’s claims to international protection rejected in Russia on account of their previous undocumented work? This article argues that the answer to this question lies in the complex interplay of the historical factors pertaining to the separation of the categories of ‘work’ with that of ‘asylum’, as well as judicial interpretation of these categories in the context of Russian legal culture.

This discussion also has important international legal consequences in the context of the current ‘refugee crisis’, as this case reached the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The judgment of LM and Others v Russia (App nos 40081/14, 40088/14 and 40127/14, ECtHR, 14 March 2016) sets the standards of protection of Syrian refugees in all European countries: suspending and making illegal any returns to Syria as deportation breaches Articles 2 and/or 3 of the European Convention. This paper traces the developments of this case before the Russian domestic courts.