Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 46

Russian authorities flew 125 Chechen refugees on December 6 from Tbilisi, Georgia, to Makhachkala, Dagestan, where they were to be taken by bus to Chechnya, the Associated Press reported. The refugees, who were among thousands of Chechens who fled to Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge, were being repatriated as “part of Kremlin efforts to show that the war-shattered region was stabilizing,” the news agency reported. On December 7, Kommersant quoted one returning refugee, Beslan Gaurgoshvili, as saying that conditions in the Pankisi village of Duisi, where he had lived since 1999, were even worse than in Chechnya and that the Chechen authorities had promised to pay compensation upon his return home. The newspaper quoted another returnee as saying that he hoped to receive money and new documents in Chechnya and to then emigrate to Western Europe. Kommersant also quoted the head of the Chechen National Salvation Committee human rights group, Ruslan Badalov, who predicted that the 125 Pankisi returnees would not get what had been promised to them. “They will find themselves among the deceived refugees, just like those who returned from Ingushetia,” Badalov told the newspaper, adding that only a small portion of the Chechen refugees who returned from Ingushetia received compensation—even though they had been promised that they would be among the first receiving compensation payments. “The returnees will be forgotten by the second day after their return to Grozny,” he said. “This action is just another propaganda stunt.” Badalov said that the situation in Chechnya remains unstable and that people continue to flee the republic: recently, he noted, a group of Chechens who had returned home from Ingushetia went back to Ingushetia.

Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov told journalists in Moscow on December 6 that there are currently 65,000 refugees from Chechnya and North Ossetia living in Ingushetia. According to Interfax, Zyazikov said that 50,000 of the refugees are “forced migrants” from Chechnya and 15,000 are Ingush who have fled “the zone of Ossetian-Ingush conflict”—meaning the disputed Prigorodny district. “Everything possible is being done to help them; for us they are all Russian citizens,” Zyazikov said. “The greater part of the forced migrants from Chechnya has already returned home completely voluntarily.”

Kavkazky Uzel reported on December 7 that Chechen refugee camps in Ingushetia are to be closed in January 2006 because the public health and hygiene services have decided that living conditions in the camps do not meet public health and hygiene standards. Chechen non-governmental organizations, however, say that the public health service’s claims are groundless and that the decision is another attempt to force Chechen refugees to return home. “The authorities should have tackled all these issues in the first place and provided their citizens with proper living conditions,” said Aslambek Apaev, head of the Committee for Protecting the Rights of Displaced Persons. “What is taking place now is nothing but another attempt to find an easy solution to a complex problem.” According to Kavkazky Uzel, there are 67 refugee camps in Ingushetia, in which 10,000-13,000 internally displaced persons from Chechnya live.

According to the 2006 work plan for the North Caucasus introduced on December 7 by nine United Nations agencies and 13 non-governmental organizations in Moscow, at least 150,000 people in Chechnya still live as refugees. “The bulk of the Chechen population live in unsatisfactory conditions, and more than 150,000 live as internally displaced persons,” Interfax quoted the document as saying. “The temporary settlements created by the (Chechen) government turned out to be not as temporary as intended, and many of them are in need of repairs. People who lost their apartments cannot claim compensation; that is why many wretched families cannot return to normal life.”

The plight of Chechen refugees also remains an issue further west. According to a report from Warsaw by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published by Reuters’ AlertNet on December 5, while the number of asylum seekers coming to Poland seems to be dropping—5,900 as of November 25 of this year, which is down from 6,900 in 2003 and 8,100 in 2004—”the percentage of Russians (the great majority of whom are Chechens) has increased from 81 percent of the total in 2003 to an anticipated 95 percent this year.” The UNHCR report noted that 16 reception centers in Poland host nearly 3,500 asylum seekers, mainly Chechens, who are provided with “accommodation, basic health care, canteen food and some pocket money.” Very few of these asylum seekers are granted refugee status, and while 1,631 people, mainly Chechens, have been granted “tolerated stay” in Poland, which provides for a work permit, most are unable to find jobs, given Poland’s high unemployment rate. It is no surprise, then, that many Chechens view Poland as a transit point for other destinations westward. “So, in search of the fabled West, many Chechens continue to play out an expensive and traumatic circular drama,” the UNHCR report stated. “They arrive in Poland and seek asylum. Then they pay for illegal transit westwards, are picked up and deported back to Poland. They return to the same centers from where they once fled, escape again, get caught, [and] are deported once more.”

Meanwhile, Austria’s Die Presse reported December 3 that in his meeting with President Putin in Moscow, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel pointed out that there are more than 15,000 Chechen refugees in Austria and that Austria is interested in their safe return home. According to the newspaper, Putin told Schuessel that he hopes for an improvement of the situation in Chechnya.