Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 36

Russian and Ingush authorities have reached a compromise with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, enabling the former to close one of Ingushetia’s five camps for Chechen refugees. According to a September 30 press release from the UN agency, at least some of the former residents of the Bella camp will now be allowed to live in the nearby Satsita camp. Nevertheless, it remains unclear what if any guarantees these refugees will have against further efforts to force them back into Chechnya.

In an October 1 article for Prague Watchdog, Timur Aliev reported that the Bella camp’s last two tents had been removed on that day. Most of its remaining inhabitants had been “moved out during the past two weeks,” he wrote. “Some were sheltered in the nearby camp Satsita, and others returned to Grozny.”

The UN agency called the development “a positive step towards better cooperation between UNHCR and the local and federal authorities.” It announced that it had provided 166 tents for the Satsita camp to house refugees transferred from the Bella camp, from which the authorities had cut off water, gas and electricity (see Chechnya Weekly, September 26). A spokesman for the agency said in Geneva that “UNHCR hopes that this more constructive approach, which took into account the rights and interests of all parties, will be replicated in the future, replacing heavy-handed tactics such as cutting off utilities.”

A September 30 article by Malika Suleymenova for the Caucasus Times gave a less hopeful picture, reporting charges by some families that the Ingush authorities were failing to provide gas or electricity to the Satsita camp’s new residents.

An October 6 article in Nezavisimaya gazeta reported that, according to Magomed Machulev of the Committee for the Affairs of Forced Migrants of Chechnya, only 12,000 refugees have returned to Chechnya since the beginning of 2003. By his estimate at least 56,000 remain in Ingushetia. Officials of the local branch of the Federal Migration Service gave a total estimate of 62,700 still in that province–almost 50,000 of whom were said to be living in places other than designated refugee camps. These calculations dwarf those provided by the Kadyrov administration, which claims that only 8,000 refugees are left in Ingushetia.

Thousands of additional Chechen refugees are living in other south Russian provinces, or in nearby Azerbaijan and Georgia. The Nezavisimaya gazeta article, echoing reports in other media, noted that “in Kabardino-Balkaria anti-Chechen feelings have intensified during the last month….leading to large scale beatings of refugee students and persecution by the local police.”

Last week an aircraft of Russia’s Ministry for Emergency Situations brought tons of humanitarian supplies to Chechen refugees in Georgia. When the ministry also offered to fly the Chechens home, they declined.

Though Akhmad Kadyrov has failed in his efforts to force all the refugees to return to Chechnya before the October 5 election, both he and Russian President Vladimir Putin continue to have an interest in reviving compulsory repatriation. As long as tens of thousands of Chechen refugees visibly prefer to live miserable lives as exiles, it is impossible to pretend that life in their homeland has truly returned to “normal.”