The Washington Post

Pregnant Russians are streaming into Argentina, and officials are suspicious

- BY DAVID FELIBA, SAMANTHA SCHMIDT AND NATALIA ABBAKUMOVA Schmidt reported from Bogotá, Colombia. Abbakumova reported from Riga, Latvia. Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas and Diana Durán in Bogotá contribute­d to this report.

The young couple was determined to leave Russia.

Alex Slepenkov, 36, knew he could be forced to join the military and fight in a war he had tried to protest. He and his wife, Natasha Slepenkova, 30, feared that the country would turn into North Korea, closing its borders to the world.

After they learned in September that they were expecting their first child, they began looking up alternativ­es. The couple settled on a destinatio­n about as far from Moscow as they could get, with a culture and language vastly different from their own.

Argentina, unlike many countries, still allowed Russians to enter. And it’s a country that grants citizenshi­p to children born on its soil — allowing the baby’s parents to apply, too. For Russians, an Argentine passport is something of a golden ticket, granting visafree access to more than 170 countries.

“We wanted to give our baby the option to go wherever he wants, to do whatever he wants,” said Slepenkov, an engineer. “To grow like a free person.”

But within days of the couple’s arrival in Buenos Aires in January, the Argentine government began sounding alarms.

Immigratio­n authoritie­s in this South American country barred six pregnant Russian women from entering in February, alleging they had claimed falsely to be tourists. The headlines about the women followed reports that two suspected Russian spies recently detained in Slovenia were citizens of Argentina.

Authoritie­s here say Russian women are taking advantage of the country’s comparativ­ely open immigratio­n policy by arriving, giving birth, applying for passports and leaving. Such parents aren’t necessaril­y breaking rules. But authoritie­s are claiming, without providing evidence, that organized criminals might be luring them here by overstatin­g the ease of the process. And that it could be a way for spies to gain legitimate citizenshi­p.

More than 22,200 Russians have arrived in Argentina in the past 14 months. In January alone, 4,523 entered, more than four times the number in January 2022, before Russia invaded Ukraine. Authoritie­s say they don’t know how many were pregnant when they entered because they don’t ask.

“It’s grown exponentia­lly,” Argentina’s immigratio­n chief, Florencia Carignano, told reporters in February. “You can see it in the number of flights arriving, the number of pregnant women, and that on each flight there are more people of Russian nationalit­y.”

The new parents are part of a historic exodus of Russians. As many as 1 million are estimated to have fled Russia in the year since the start of the invasion, a migration similar to those during the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The largest numbers have gone to Russia’s neighbors, including Georgia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Serbia and Turkey. But Argentina has emerged as a much sought destinatio­n. The phenomenon has spawned an industry of agencies that charge thousands of dollars for help finding maternity hospitals and filling out paperwork.

Only 2,400 of the arrivals have begun applying for residency, leading immigratio­n authoritie­s to believe that most do not intend to stay in the long term. Expectant parents are welcome to come and establish their lives in Argentina, Carignano said, “but we also don’t want to turn the country into a maternity ward.”

She said “mafias” might be behind the phenomenon. “The problem is, they’re not coming here to live,” she said. “They take the passport, and then we find Russian spies in Slovenia with Argentine passports. That’s our fear.”

It’s not clear whether the newcomers will get passports. Authoritie­s say none have been granted to Russian arrivals since the start of 2022. They would not say how many had applied.

Still, growing concerns about the Russians’ motives have cast a shadow on families genuinely hoping to build a life in Argentina.

“We don’t want Argentines to think of us as parasites,” Alex Slepenkov said.

Judicial authoritie­s are investigat­ing whether a criminal organizati­on is behind the wave of arrivals. They’re focusing on a Russian citizen they allege helped immigrants speed the citizenshi­p process and secure fake residence certificat­es, according to a person in the judiciary familiar with the investigat­ion who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case.

Officials with Homeland Security Investigat­ions, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, have asked the court for informatio­n about the case, the judicial employee said.

Giving birth to a child in Argentina doesn’t guarantee citizenshi­p for the parents — that’s up to a judge. It’s possible for an applicant to start the process and then leave the country. But Paula Carello, president of the Migration and Asylum Law Institute at the Rosario Bar Associatio­n, says it’s “doubtful that a judge will award the citizenshi­p to someone who does not live or intend to live here.”

Yet many of the companies and travel agencies that help coordinate birth trips to Argentina promote their services with the promise of a passport — “the fastest in the world!” according to one firm.

Elena, a 26-year-old Russian woman, founded Argentina Family after giving birth to two children here. She spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld to avoid attracting the attention of Argentine authoritie­s.

She charges $3,000 for help planning a birth trip, finding an apartment, choosing a hospital and applying for residence. She said in an interview that she doesn’t help clients apply for citizenshi­p or a passport. Neverthele­ss, her website begins by telling potential clients: “Get the fastest second passport in the world.” It advertises childbirth in Argentina as “the best alternativ­e to giving birth in the USA.”

None of her approximat­ely 60 clients has been able to get an Argentine passport, Elena said. She applied for her own passport in April, she said, but has not received it.

Christian Rubilar, the lawyer for three of the six women held at the Buenos Aires airport in February, said the women did not hire an agency. He accused such companies of falsely convincing women that they can get passports remotely.

A judge ruled that the women did not follow proper procedure but should be allowed entrance because of the risk to their lives and those of their babies.

One of them, Maria Konovalova, 25, told The Washington Post she plans to stay here a few years at least. She joined a protest at the Russian Embassy in Buenos Aires last week wearing a sticker on her pregnant belly with the words “F--- Putin,” referring to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Georgy Polin, the head of consular services at the Russian Embassy, criticized companies that “promise things that are totally illusory.” He attributed the influx of Russians to Argentina reopening its borders after a long pandemic quarantine. He declined to say whether the war in Ukraine was a factor.

Polin said that the government’s numbers seemed larger than the reality but that he has noted a large increase in arriving Russians. “Translator­s have months-long waiting lists,” he said. “This is like a California gold rush.”

People in Buenos Aires have grown accustomed to hearing Russian spoken in the street. In Palermo, a trendy neighborho­od popular among foreign tourists, Russian mothers can often be seen pushing strollers or shopping for baby clothes. Maternity hospitals are putting up signs and posters in Russian. In two of the hospitals most popular with Russian parents, Russian babies represent almost a third of monthly births, according to the Argentine newspaper La Nación.

Some Russian families fear that the government’s comments could stoke a backlash — or exacerbate existing anti-russian sentiment here.

“When I was looking for an apartment, there were some real estate agencies that refused to talk with me when I told them I was Russian,” said Mary Yufit, a 35-year-old film producer. She arrived in Buenos Aires in June and gave birth to a son in August.

She hasn’t yet applied for citizenshi­p, but she’s planning on living here indefinite­ly. In interviews with about a dozen Russian families, none said they planned to leave any time soon.

That’s also true of Alex Slepenkov and Natasha Slepenkova.

They’re expecting a boy by the end of May.

The couple were on vacation in the Dominican Republic a year ago when Russia invaded Ukraine. Afraid to return home, they stayed in the Caribbean nation for months. She quit her job as a flight attendant. He returned to Russia briefly to sell his car, pack up his business and take his money out of his bank accounts. They arrived in Argentina on Jan. 31.

They felt comfortabl­e here immediatel­y, they said. Slepenkova says she feels at home in Buenos Aires, a large city that reminds her of Moscow. Slepenkov hopes to reestablis­h his marketing business here. He’s now consuming mate every day, brewing the South American herbal drink in a French press and drinking it all at once like a cup of coffee. (Traditiona­lly, it is sipped through a metal straw, or bombilla.)

Like many Russians here, the couple say they can’t predict whether they’ll eventually want to return to Russia. Or go somewhere else. For now, they say, they’re staying put.

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 ?? PHOTOS By ANITA POUCHARD SERRA for THE Washington POST ?? CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Engineer Alex Slepenkov and sociologis­t Natasha Slepenkova in their Buenos Aires neighborho­od. The Russian couple, seen in their home, moved to Argentina in January and are expecting a child in May. Slepenkov’s setup for making mate, a South American herbal drink.
PHOTOS By ANITA POUCHARD SERRA for THE Washington POST CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Engineer Alex Slepenkov and sociologis­t Natasha Slepenkova in their Buenos Aires neighborho­od. The Russian couple, seen in their home, moved to Argentina in January and are expecting a child in May. Slepenkov’s setup for making mate, a South American herbal drink.

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