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Women in Siberian coal town beg Trudeau to let them come to Canada as environmental refugees

Fed up residents of a polluted city in central Russia are making an emotional plea to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, begging to be admitted to Canada as environmental refugees.

Based on Canada's immigration rules, their chances aren't very good

In a video posted to YouTube, a group of women from Kiselyovsk explain what it's like to live so close to Russia's coal industry. They want to come to Canada as environmental refugees. (Kiselyovsk News via YouTube)

Fed up residents of a polluted city in central Russia are making an emotional plea to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, begging to be admitted to Canada as environmental refugees.

In a video posted on YouTube over the weekend, dozens of women in Kiselyovsk, a city of 90,000 in Siberia, take turns reading emotional statements, explaining how coal dust from nearby mines and factories has blanketed their homes and made their lives unbearable.

"We want to openly appeal to the honourable prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau," a young woman says in the video, reading from a statement.

"Unbearable conditions for life have developed in Russia, in particular in Kuzbass," she continues, referring to the region where they live.

The statement says people there want Trudeau's help because Canada's refugee system recognizes "discrimination on social grounds," which they say applies to them.

In fact, the residents are likely mistaken on that point. Canada's refugee rules are largely silent on questions of environmental impacts. In general, only people fleeing conflict or political persecution are admitted as refugees.

A loader attempts to cover a smouldering open pit mine with clay in this image captured by a freelancer in Kiselyovsk last week. (Natali Zubkova/Kiselyovsk News)

One of the organizers of the "move to Canada" appeal, Vitaly Sheshtakov, was quoted by the local newspaper as saying living conditions in Canada are similar to Siberia, only much cleaner.

"We chose Canada because the climate there is similar to our region. So that they [Russian authorities] wouldn't say that we just wanted to move to warm countries."

In their video, the residents, who identify themselves as mothers and grandmothers, say they are hardworking and can make a big contribution to Canada's economy, if given the chance.

"We can become useful to Canada, because in Russia we have simply been forgotten and we feel here as superfluous, useless people," one of the women says.

This screen shot from Russian TV back in February shows what happened after a resident of Kiselyovsk wiped soot off his car. (Russia 24 Television)

The economy of the Kuzbass region is dominated by coal mining and processing, producing approximately 60 per cent of the country's supply.

Many residents in the region have long complained that lax environmental standards and enforcement have made their lives miserable.

In February, residents posted footage on social media showing what local newspapers described as "black snow" falling from the sky.

A car in Siberia's Kemerovo region, north of Kiselyovsk, is seen covered in soot back in February. (Vladimir Mosoglu)

Cars, homes and livestock were coated with a thick layer of coal dust.

Plant managers and government officials claimed that screens and other cleaning devices in nearby factories and emission stacks had somehow unexpectedly failed all at once. They tried to assure the public it was a one-off event.

But residents said the pollution is constant and forces them to keep their children inside for days at a time.

"This is unbearable," Lyubov Nuriyeva, a mother of three, told Russian state TV at the time.

"You let them go play in the fresh air, in the snow, and then you see what the snow looks like and you wonder what will happen to their lungs if they breathe that in."

The owner of a woodworking business, Nadezhda Kravchenko, was also interviewed. She said it was virtually impossible to keep working with so much coal dust in the air.

"Our wood planks are all covered in black. This is all coming from the factory. It comes out of our nose and mouth, out of everywhere."

(CBC)

With the snow now gone from the ground, residents say they've been exposed to a new danger — the spontaneous combustion of discarded coal.

In a video shot by local freelance journalist Natali Zubkova, smoke is seen billowing from an open pit mine just a few metres from a house.

The homeowner tells Zubkova that the air gets choked with smoke and toxic fumes daily.

"When it's raining, the smoke is even thicker," said Anastasia Sokolova. "When it's hot, well once it sparked flames even."

When asked to explain the source of the smoke and why the coal kept catching on fire, the deputy mayor appeared stumped.

"Nobody knows what exactly is going on underground. Sometimes there's a sinkhole, sometimes a crack, sometimes there is smoke," said Vladimir Skirta.

'We are tired of waiting for changes'

The residents in the YouTube video say they have sent a formal letter to the Canadian Embassy in Moscow asking for help, but it's unclear if there has been an official response.

This screen shot from Russian TV back in February shows layers of coal dust between layers of snow. (Russia 24 Television)

The letter says the owners and operators of the coal mines, along with government regulators, are more interested in protecting each other than those who are suffering health issues.

"Representatives of coal enterprises justify their work with sanitary norms that were established many years ago, when coal was not mined in such quantities."

Much of the coal mining around Kiselyovsk is conducted on the surface. Mining operations used to be kept at a distance from people's homes, but residents say the industry has expanded to the point where excavators are working very close to where people live.

The women in the video also take a very personal stab at Vladimir Putin, suggesting the Russian president is ignoring the pollution problem, treating local communities "more like gas chambers" than settlements.

"We are tired of waiting for changes. And it is dangerous to wait further: the ecology in our city and region is getting worse every day," one of the women says.

But the chances of any of the residents ending up in Canada appear remote.

Immigration policy experts contacted by CBC News say there is nothing in Canadian law that allows admittance of refugees because of pollution, especially if there are other places would-be refugees can live in their home countries.  

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a National Reporter in Vancouver, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.