Despite mounting pressures from both provincial and federal officials, more than 98 percent of Chechen refugee families now living in tent camps in Ingushetia do not want to return to Chechnya. That is the finding of a survey released on May 6 by Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), the independent, international medical-relief organization. The main reason offered by the more than 3,000 families questioned is that they fear for their lives.
So great is the refugees’ fear that it outweighs even what MSF called “totally unacceptable” living conditions in the tent camps. The MSF survey, conducted in February and March, found that 52 percent of the refugee families are living in tents that either leak, lack insulation or lack floors. About 90 percent do not know of any alternative shelter within Ingushetia should the tent camps close–but they would still prefer the uncertainties of Ingushetia to the dangers of returning to Chechnya.
Nevertheless, the MSF found that officials have pressured these families “in a subtle yet extremely efficient way” to return to their violent homeland. “As more families leave, pressure grows on the ones who have decided to stay, as they feel the process is ineluctable. Families are not presented with the option to stay in Ingushetia.” MSF has tried to build improved refugee shelters within Ingushetia, but in late January the Ingush authorities abruptly declared these shelters to be illegal. The declaration contradicted previous assurances given by Ingushetia’s president, Murat Zyazikov.
MSF stated that “a month after our last meeting with the president, shelter construction is still completely blocked by the authorities. The most vulnerable families, identified through this survey, have not been allowed to move in to the 180 shelters that are already completed. The additional 1,200 shelters planned for construction have been stalled.”
Of those refugee families indicating to the MSF researchers that they did not want to go back to Chechnya, 93 percent gave fears for their safety as one of their reasons. The second most frequent reason, expressed by 74 percent, was lack of available housing in Chechnya. (The MSF questionnaire allowed the respondents to give more than one reason.) “Humanitarian aid was not a decisive element in people’s choice to go back to Chechnya or to stay in Ingushetia,” MSF concluded. “88 percent of families did not talk about aid at all as a reason for them not to go back to Chechnya.”
Several respondents offered vivid descriptions of horrors that they had actually experienced in Chechnya. “My husband went through a filtration camp, his shoulder was broken,” said one woman. “He still has many scars from his detention. Our son, born in 1984, disappeared after being arrested at a check point.”
But it is not only federal or pro-federal gunmen whose attacks the refugees fear. One said that: “Daytime I am afraid of the Russian soldiers, at night I am afraid of the Boeviki (the rebel guerrillas).”
Nevertheless, it appears that the government of Ingushetia is so determined to push the refugees back into Chechnya that it has actually gone out of its way to order the destruction of shelters provided by others. In late January the Ingush government issued a new decree tightening the construction regulations on such shelters and retroactively ruled those already built to be illegal.
According to the MSF report, “Other provision of aid is also being stalled by bureaucratic procedures. For instance, in order to install one latrine for displaced persons in Ingushetia, MSF has had to write a special request to the Prime Minister of Ingushetia.” The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stated in February that it had been asked by Russia’s Federal Migration Service to stop replacing torn tents.
These and other tactics, concluded the MSF report, combine to create mounting pressures on refugees to “give up” and return to Chechnya regardless of their manifest preferences and fears. The report listed four specific methods used to pressure refugees:
“1. The people are still being told that the camps will be closed. Different dates are given (the latest one being by spring 2003). The displaced are aware that the closure of the camps is not just a verbal threat, but a real possibility as they have already seen the closure of Znamenskoe camps in Chechnya and Aki Yurt camp in Ingushetia.
“2. The Chechen administration announced that between US$2,000 and US$15,000 compensation will be given to families for property damaged by the war. However, so far the displaced have been informed that it will be only given to those families living in Chechnya…
“3. The displaced have deliberately been enduring a strategy of non-assistance by the government and by the aid community which has accepted the blockages and limitations imposed by the authorities on the delivering of humanitarian assistance to the displaced. People are exhausted by their unacceptable living conditions, particularly after having spent a fourth winter in the same state.
“4. Alternative shelter is not offered when the closure of the camps is announced.”
Last month, Ingushetia’s President Zyazikov and MSF had yet another meeting to discuss such issues. According to the MSF report, the latter then announced “the creation of a commission to help solve the problem of alternative shelter for displaced.” But since then, stated MSF, there has been “no progress with the commission created by the president.”
In its May 6 press release, MSF urged the authorities “to respect people’s basic right not to be forced back to Chechnya” and to “stop administrative harassment against humanitarian organizations trying to provide assistance to refugees.” The humanitarian group also called on the United Nations “to give real protection to the displaced families from Chechnya and to take a clear position on the current policy of forced return.” The MSF release pointed out that UN agencies “are mandated to guarantee that the choice of people who want to stay is being respected,” and implied that they are not currently honoring that mandate.