- theguardian.com, Thursday 2 October 2014 22.08 BST
Russian authorities have cancelled a long-running foreign exchange program with the United States, alleging that a gay couple persuaded a young man to stay with them and apply for asylum after he was meant to return home.
In announcing the end of Russia’s participation in the US government-run Future Leaders Exchange (Flex) program, children’s rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov claimed that two gay men became the legal guardians of a Russian student, after the student left his original host family and stayed in America when the school year ended in May.
“One of the reasons [for the decision] was the gross violation by the host country, the United States, of the obligation to unconditionally return students from Russia who travel there to study,” Astakhov wrote on his Twitter account on Wednesday.
US ambassador to Russia John Tefft said in a statement the Russian government had canceled its participation in Flex, the largest educational exchange program between the two countries, for 2015-16. Since it was founded in 1992, the state department-financed program has brought 23,000 students aged 15 to 17 from former Soviet countries to study in American schools and live with local families for one academic year, including about 8,000 students from Russia.
Astakhov said in an interview with the official government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta that the student, who was born in 1997, moved in with two men in Michigan, “and they gradually developed – how can I say this carefully – close friendly relations.”
“The men wanted to register their guardianship over him and have him live with them, and he agreed,” he said.
Russian state news agency Itar-Tass reported that the student met the gay couple, elderly veterans who had previously adopted two American boys, in church, quoting legal representatives of the Russian embassy in the United States. The couple offered to become his immigration sponsors and pay for him to study at Harvard University, it reported.
“Under their influence and with the permission of his American host family, the young Russian turned himself in to US immigration authorities and asked for asylum, saying that he was gay,” Itar-Tass reported.
Human rights organisations have accused the Russian government of promoting discrimination following a 2013 law against gay propaganda, and this year the country passed legislation banning the adoption of Russian children by same-sex couples or single people in countries where same-sex marriage is legal. Previously, Russia also banned all adoptions by US citizens.
Foreign ministry human rights commissioner Konstantin Dolgov said in a statement on Wednesday that the Flex program had “created conditions for getting around Russian law, such as the ban on adoptions by American citizens, including those of non-traditional orientation … Such an incident unfortunately took place.”
Itar-Tass reported that the student met with his Russian mother in the presence of local lawyers to tell her he was seeking asylum. “As far as the embassy knows, these lawyers themselves observe a non-traditional sexual orientation,” the agency wrote. During the meeting, his mother “at times cried and took medicine, at other times was happy for some reason”, it quoted embassy representatives as saying.
David Patton, executive vice-president of American Councils for International Education, which administers the Flex program, said the Michigan student had been placed in a “traditional home stay”. If students refuse to leave after the program, it becomes an “immigration-naturalisation issue”, he said.
“Over years of the Flex program and 8,000 participants, the non-returnee rate is less than 1%, but human beings are human beings and can’t always be controlled, and there are occasions when people decide to stay,” Patton said. “At that point we are unable, we have no authority to put them on a plane.”
According to Astakhov, at least 15 Russians have stayed in the United States over the years after traveling there on various exchange programs.
Anton Meshkov, a 2012-2013 Flex participant, said the fact that 15 young people stayed was not a “serious reason to take away the chance to travel from hundreds of kids”.
“It’s absurd to suppose that the program could facilitate the seduction of young Russians,” Meshkov said. “As a participant in this program myself, I know what a serious selection process host families go through.”