BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The passengers drifted away until only the pregnant women remained at passport control.
Among them was Maria Konovalova, who was pulled aside and asked about her pregnancy. She was 26 weeks pregnant, she said she told the immigration officials last month at Buenos Aires’ international airport.
She was sent to join several other pregnant Russians in a common area of the airport, where they dragged furniture together and cracked jokes to calm their nerves.
“It was rather strange to see, it was a camp of pregnant women,” recounted Mrs. Konovalova, who was held for 24 hours until a judge ordered the release of all six detained women.
Since the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, thousands of Russians have arrived in Argentina with a baby on the way, lured by the country’s relatively easy and speedy path to a passport that will give their children and them more freedom than their Russian passports.
Russians don’t need a visa to enter Argentina. And once they give birth, their children are automatically Argentine citizens, granting parents a right to permanent residency and opening a fast track to an Argentine passport.
Maria Konovalova arrives at the airport in Buenos Aires two weeks after she had been detained there to pick up her husband who was arriving from Russia. Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York TimesMrs. Konovalova with her husband Yuriy Konovalov at the airport. Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York Times
“When I found out I was going to have a boy, I said, ‘I have to move, I don’t want him to become meat in that country,’” said Mrs. Konovalova, 25, who is from St. Petersburg, Russia.
What began as a trickle has exploded in popularity, according to Argentine migration officials. About 4,500 Russians arrived in January, four times as many as last January, though it is not clear how many were pregnant women. Two major hospitals in Buenos Aires say that Russian women delivered 25 percent to 45 percent of the babies born in their maternity wards in December and January.
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Companies in Argentina are cashing in on the global turmoil spurred by the Russian invasion of Ukraine by aggressively marketing child births in the country as a pathway to citizenship.
“Childbirth in Argentina. The second passport for parents is the fastest in the world!” RU Argentina, an organization that assists Russians in Argentina, proclaims on its website. Its V.I.P. package, which includes translators, Spanish lessons and permanent residency for parents, costs $15,000.
Another agency, Eva Clinic, showcases private hospitals and tips for discovering Buenos Aires on its Instagram feed. One recent night at the international airport, it welcomed Ekaterina Bibisheva, a Russian sexologist and blogger with 4.8 million Instagram followers, with a banner and flowers as two men in Argentina soccer jerseys performed football tricks for her and her family.
“I heard childbirth in Argentina was like a fairy tale,” Ms. Bibisheva, 34, told Dr. Karina Fraga through a translator a few days later during an appointment in Buenos Aires. Sculptures of pregnant women adorned the obstetrician’s office, and a bowl full of candy with Russian wrappers sat on her desk.
Dr. Karina Fraga takes the blood pressure of Ekaterina Bibisheva, Russian sexologist and influencer, in Buenos Aires, in February.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York TimesMs. Bibisheva, left, with her husband after the appointment with Dr. Fraga.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York Times
Already a mother of two, she had long wanted to experience a birth in Argentina. The passport “is a bonus,” said Ms. Bibisheva, whose mission is to educate women on how to revel in their sexuality.
Some organizations have drawn the scrutiny of Argentine lawmakers who say their open door migration policy is being abused.
Florencia Carignano, Argentina’s director of migrations, believes that most Russians expecting babies don’t intend to live in Argentina, but are looking for a passport that allows them to enter more than 170 countries visa-free and to obtain a U.S. visa that is valid for up to 10 years. Currently, Russians can enter 87 countries without a visa.
Her department is taking a harder look at Russians, canceling the permanent residencies of people spending significant time outside Argentina and conducting address checks on recently arrived pregnant women to ensure they are actually living there.
“What is at stake is the security of our passport,” Ms. Carignano said in a television interview, citing a case involving two people accused of being Russian spies in Slovenia who were found in possession of an Argentine passport.
The police are also investigating the possibility that some organizations helping Russians could be laundering money and involved in organized crime. Last month, officers raided an organization that had been accused of using fraudulent documentation to help Russians obtain residency and citizenship papers.
Juan Fernandez public hospital in Buenos Aires. Some hospitals in the city say that births to Russians have increased.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York TimesChristian Rubilar, an immigration lawyer, who represented three of six pregnant Russian women who had been briefly detained after arriving at the airport in Buenos Aires.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York Times
Christian Rubilar, an immigration lawyer, who represented three of the six pregnant women who had been detained at the airport, called the reaction of Argentine officials discriminatory.
While it is true that an Argentine baby enables parents to avoid a two-year waiting period typically required before applying for citizenship, he said, other steps must still be met.
“The most important one is living here,” which means spending at least seven months of the year in Argentina, Mr. Rubilar said. It then takes one to three years to become a citizen, he said.
For Pavel Kostomarov, an acclaimed Russian film director, obtaining passports was about protecting his family.
He immigrated to Argentina last May with his wife Maria Rashka, a movie production designer. Fearing for their safety because of their support for an opposition politician, they fled Moscow, eventually arriving in Argentina. Their daughter, Alexandra, was born in August — their “little porteño,” a term that refers to someone born in the Argentine capital.
“Russian people are looking for where to escape,” Mr. Kostomarov, 47, said. “We don’t want to be part of aggression. It’s very shameful. We’re not fighters, we’re not revolutionaries.”
Pavel Kostomarov and his wife Maria Rashka celebrate their wedding with friends during a picnic in Buenos Aires.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York TimesPavel Kostomarov, holding his daughter Alexandra, kisses his wife Maria Rashka, during their wedding at a municipal building in Buenos Aires.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York Times
Their plan, he said, is to stay in Argentina “to save a young life.” They are trying to adapt a Netflix film that Mr. Kostomarov was slated to start filming in Russia before the war broke out.
In Buenos Aires, the new Russian presence is noticeable in Palermo, a trendy neighborhood, and Recoleta, an upscale district, where many have settled. Russian is often heard on the street and local hospitals have signs in Cyrillic script.
The New York Times spoke with 10 families with infants or a baby on the way. Most had come on their own, without the help of any organization. Many are taking intensive Spanish lessons. They are looking for work, or managing remote jobs in different time zones. Networks of support on Telegram, a messaging app, offer tips on how to settle in and navigate a new culture.
Irina Bugaeva, 31, and her husband Aisen Sergeev, 32, chose Argentina because of its welcoming reputation. They are Yakut, Indigenous people who live in northern Russia. When President Vladimir Putin announced the mobilization of soldiers in September, they feared that Mr. Sargeev would be enlisted.
“They were taking people from villages who don’t know about their rights,” said Ms. Bugaeva, who works in film production alongside her husband. Their son, Duolan, was born in November, and they have been living off savings and the money Mr. Sargeev brings in from freelance contracts. They also have a daughter, Leia, who is 5.
“I miss winter. I miss minus 50, even if it sounds crazy — but I do,” said Ms. Bugaeva, who is also a women’s rights and environmental activist. “I really want to come back home, but home is not home anymore.”
Irina Bugaeva reads a book, one of the few items she brought with her to Argentina from Russia.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York TimesAisen Sergeev plays with his 4-month-old son Duolan in their apartment in Buenos Aires.Credit…Sarah Pabst for The New York Times
At an antiwar demonstration outside the Russian Embassy in Buenos Aires on the one-year anniversary of the invasion last month, couples carrying their babies dotted the crowd.
Among them was Mrs. Konovalova, who works as an English tutor, with a protest sticker on her pregnant belly.
After her experience at the airport, she worried about being unwanted in her new home. But she focused on getting an apartment, finding a hospital and waiting for her husband, Yuriy, to arrive. She ran to him when he walked out of the airport gates two weeks after her own arrival, and buried her face in the crook of his neck.
Initially, their plan had been to come for the baby’s passport and move on. But now they intend to stay, and see what Argentina has in store for them.
“It’s about looking for life, with the big letter L,” Mrs. Konovalova said. “In Russia it’s not life, it’s about surviving.”