With little more than a murmur of token protest from the Western world, the Russian and Ingush authorities on June 7 closed Ingushetia’s Satsita tent camp, the last one housing Chechen refugees. A formal ceremony marking the camp’s closing, to be followed by its total dismantlement, is scheduled for June 10. The authorities will now cite the disappearance of the camps as “proof” that peace and the rule of law are returning to Chechnya.
Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch reiterated that organization’s denial of the authorities’ claims that refugees are completely free to choose whether to return to Chechnya, and that the camps are no longer needed because life is returning to normal in the strife-torn republic. “The closing of the camps has nothing whatever to do with any normalization in Chechnya,” she said.
The authorities have thus finally achieved an objective which they declared in the spring of 2002, when the pro-Moscow administrations of both Chechnya and Ingushetia signed an agreement to close all the camps. Originally that goal was to be reached in the summer of that year, but it soon became clear that is was impossible to persuade all the refugees to return voluntarily to Chechnya. That is still true today.
Interfax reported on June 7 that some of the defunct camp’s residents are now moving not to Chechnya but to other makeshift residences in Ingushetia such as garages and cattle sheds. It was claimed that conditions in the latter were actually better than in the tent camps. This, if true, is a further indictment of the Russian authorities for their failure to provide decent living conditions for the tens of thousands of Chechen refugees who have spent much of the last decade in Ingushetia.
Even more strikingly, significant numbers of displaced Chechens are trying to leave the Russian Federation altogether. In a June 8 article by Vladlen Maksimov and Aleksandr Kolesnichenko, Novye Izvestia reported that so far this year Russia continues to lead all the nations in the world in the number of its citizens who are seeking political asylum in other countries. The majority of these fleeing Russian citizens are Chechens.
The Novye Izvestia reporters cited recent findings of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, according to which the total number of applicants from Russia for asylum status came to 7,508 for the first quarter of 2004. In second place behind Russia was the rump Yugoslav state of Serbia-Montenegro, followed by Turkey, China and Nigeria. The would-be asylees’ favorite destination was Austria, after which came Poland, the Czech Republic, France, Germany and Slovakia.
The Chechen human-rights activist Aslanbek Abdurzakov told Novye Izvestia that most Chechen refugees now living in Georgia would at this point also prefer moving to third countries rather than returning to their homeland. Abdurzakov said that Chechens in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge are ready to negotiate with Russian authorities who are seeking their return from the newly cooperative government in Tbilisi (see Chechnya Weekly, June 2).
According to a June 4 report from Prague Watchdog, some of the last refugees at the Satsita camp told a visiting delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) that they were being forced to go home to Chechnya. “But since they bribed us with money,” said one refugee, “we’ve agreed to go back.”