Escaping the war: Chechen refugees on way to Western Europe
The recent death of three Chechen girls in the Bieszczady Mountains of Poland is a reminder that thousands of Chechens continue to flee the war in their homeland.
When the girls’ mother got lost in the mountains, she told them to stay put while she and her toddler son went for help. When she returned, the girls were dead of exposure.
As the closest country in the EU to Russia, Poland has become a magnet for Chechen refugees. In fact, more than 90 percent of refugees in Poland are Chechen.
Poland is not where many of them want to end up, however. It’s better than their homeland because it’s not embroiled in a war.
But Chechen refugees say Polish officials are unsympathetic to their plight, are reluctant to grant them political asylum and do not offer much resettlement help.
In fact, Poland rejects the political-asylum applications of most Chechens coming here.
The reason is not a bias against Chechen refugees, but a simple lack of resources to help them, government officials say.
Thus, many Chechens try to cross Poland without immigration authorities catching them so they can settle in an EU country that is more welcoming. In Austria, for example, more than 90 percent of refugees seeking political asylum are granted it.
If refugees are caught in Poland, they are stuck with it as their new homeland, however. That’s because the EU has a rule that the country where a refugee first arrives is the one where he must apply for residence.
The conflict between Russia and Chechnya goes back 300 years, when in the 18th Century tsarist Russia conquered the area to strengthen its position in the North Caucasus and gain control of natural resources
Ever since, the Chechens have viewed Russian rule as occupation and have mounted intermittent waves of resistance to it.
World War II was one of the worst periods. Josef Stalin, who distrusted the Chechens, sent hundreds of thousands of them to Kazakhstan on board cattles wagons in 1944. Half of the entire population died from starvation and cold.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the Chechens saw a chance to regain their freedom.
Chechen leaders declared independence. Russia reacted by sending military forces to the area to try to stamp out the independence movement.
With Russian troops dying by the hundreds, the first Chechen war quickly became unpopular in Russia. It ended with an uneasy truce in 1996.
The second Chechen War began in 1999 after Vladimir Putin became president. He accused Chechens of unexplained apartment-complex bombings in Moscow and Wolgodonsk. Although the Russians never proved a Chechen connection, it gave Putin a reason to invade Chechnya again with the support of the Russian people.
The second war, which still rages, has been fiercer and more cruel than the first, with independent observers claiming atrocities on both sides. Human rights groups have accused Russian troops of mass executions, torture, rape, hostage taking for ransom and the setting up of concentration camps.
The brutality of the second Chechen war has led to a torrent of refugees. Most simply hit Poland before continuing to head west, but some try to settle here.
Polish immigration authorities have been unsympathetic or even hostile to the refugees’ plight, many Chechens say.
“After arriving in Poland and applying for refugee status, I was located in one of 18 overcrowded Polish refugee center,” said Magomed, a refugee in Grozny. He waited in the camp for a year, he said, before the government agreed to give him political asylum.
During the waiting period he was not allowed to work. Even if he had been allowed to work, he would have been unable to handle a job because he doesn’t speak Polish ? and the government has not made language teachers available to refugees.
In 2006 the Polish government received 3,772 applications for refugee status from Chechens and others in Russia. It rejected most of the requests.
In fact, the EU’s refugee organization says only 5 percent of Chechens who apply for refugee status in Poland actually get it. The figure is 23 percent in Germany, 42 percent in France and 90 percent in Austria.
Jan Wegrzyn, the director of Poland’s immigration service, says Poland’s low acceptance rate is a matter of money.
Poland is simply “not wealthy enough to award more refugee statuses,” he said. “We simply cannot afford paying welfare for so many refugees.”
It is doing “all that is in its power” to do, given its resources, however, Wegrzyn said.
Human rights organizations criticize Poland for granting refugee status to so few Chechens. Amnesty International calls it a “violation of the Geneva Convention” on dealing with victims of war.
Poland gives most of the Chechens who do not receive refugee status a “tolerated-stay” status. It doesn’t give them much.
They do not get permanent residency. They must leave the refugee camps where they first settled without any government financial support. And the EU will not allow Poland to let them go on to another EU country.
Kamil Rusin of the Committee to Free the Caucasus says by refusing to allow Chechens to go on to another EU country, Poland is playing the role of buffer for other EU countries. Without that buffer, Chechens would be pouring in to other EU countries.
A 45-year-old engineer and carpenter named Aslambek is one of the Chechens who is in Poland under tolerated-stay status.
“I arrived in Poland in 2005 with my wife and three children,” he said. “In my family village in Chechnya I repaired guerrillas’ damaged cars.”
Russian soldiers caught him one night. They took him to a prison. “During interrogations lasting several days, I was bitten, connected to electric wires and had my teeth filed,” he said.
Polish immigration officials gave him tolerated-stay rather than refugee status because he was unable to supply enough evidence that he was a victim of political oppression.
After he received tolerated-stay status, his family moved “to a small cellar which we rented thanks to money that our relatives sent from abroad.”
When one of his daughters developed a serious viral infection, volunteers helped him arrange medical care.
Aslambek said that before he met the volunteers, he was under the impression that his family would be unable to get medical care without paying a hefty fee. He was lucky that the volunteer helped him cut through the lack of information and the language barrier.
A more serious problem for those under tolerated-stay status is lack of resources to meet basic needs, including housing. That has prompted some Chechens to make a risky return to Russia, where at least they can get help from relatives.
Chechens who appeal the government’s rejection of their request for refugee status must wait months for a decision. In the meantime, they lose their right to stay in a refugee camp.
Non-governmental organizations have stepped in to help Chechens whose situations have become desperate because of lack of resources. But those organizations can help only a small fraction of those who need it. Human rights organizations decry not only the lack of help that Poland gives Chechens but also the government’s stance that it must have documentary evidence of political oppression in Chechnya before awarding refugee status to a Chechen.
That hard-nose stance assumes that the asylum seeker is lying, the critics say. Even in a criminal court proceeding, they point out, there is a presumption that the accused is innocent until proven guilty.
Some Chechens have provided the government with documentation of oppression ? and the government has rejected their request for political asylum anyway.
Twenty-five-year Shamil gave Polish immigration officials a summons that police who wanted to question him about guerrilla ties issued to him in Chechnya. Shamil also gave Polish officials a copy of a hospital forensic examination proving that he had been tortured.
“These documents were rejected,” he said. Polish officials justified the rejection on grounds that “the documents were issued in Chechnya, where it is possible to buy any counterfeit document.”
Polish officials’ rejection of the political-asylum application of a woman named Malika has caused outrage in Poland and abroad.
One of Malika’s children died in her arms after suffering shrapnel wounds from a bomb. Polish officials rejected her application for political asylum, however, on grounds that “the death of her child was a side effect of military actions but not a result of direct persecution” against her.
Polish officials also refuse to recognize Russian troops’ rape of Chechen women as political oppression. Most Chechen women don’t want to relive the ordeal by telling Polish immigration officials about it. Those who muster the courage to do so find that bringing it up does not help them gain refugee status.
Another case that has brought outrage is that of Issa, a Chechen who went to Belgium after the Polish government rejected his application for refugee status several times. The Belgians found him and deported him back to Poland. Before he left Belgium, he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis and jaundice.
He wrote in his diary that “after arriving in Poland, I was placed in a guarded refugee center in Lesznowola, where my medicines were taken away and I was denied a medical examination and treatment.” Not until he lost consciousness was he transported to a hospital, where he died in surgery.
He described in his diary the refugee center guards’ humiliating treatment of him and his dashed hopes for a better life.
Chechens’ reaction to the way they have been treated in Poland has ranged from resigned acceptance to activism and protest.
In August 2004, a group of Chechens staged a hunger strike at the refugee center in Lublin. They were protesting the government’s lack of help to refugees and the EU’s Dublin Regulation, which says that an immigrant can apply for refugee status only in the EU country where he first arrived.
It is really unjust to prevent Chechens from going on to countries who have the resources to care for and integrate asylum seekers, a Chechen named Rusin said.
In July 2005 another group of Chechens staged a hunger strike in the refugee camp in Bielany, near Warsaw.
This time the authorities’ reaction was swift and ? some human rights activists would say ? oppressive.
They transferred the protest leaders to other refugee centers. They included members of a family whose father had to stay behind in a hospital. And members of another family whose children were attending Warsaw schools.
Those episodes of activism led to authorities looking for terrorist plots, as opposed to simple protest movements. A S.W.A.T team raided the refugee center in Lublin on Dec. 10, 2005, searching for Chechens rumoured to be planning an assassination. Police refused to reveal details.
“Three Chechens were arrested. After interrogation they were released without any accusation,” said a volunteer at the center who did not want to reveal her name because she wants to continue helping the refugees there.
She said the sudden appearance of the uniformed, masked and arms-carrying men traumatized many of the refugees. Within a week, some Chechen families had left, thinking it was better to be on their own than in an environment that was frightening.
The trauma led to a pregnant woman having to be taken to a hospital to save her fetus, the volunteer said.
Chechens continued to protest the government’s treatment despite the traumas.
Just last month, police stopped a busload of Chechens going to Warsaw to demonstrate in front of the national immigration building.
They kept the Chechens under guard for 12 hours, making it impossible for them to hold the protest, said Jakub Hylyk, who was on the bus.
Police said they stopped the bus to search for illegal immigrants and to ensure the safety of those who were legal immigrants.
Chechens and volunteers who help them say the stories of Aslambek, Shamil and Issa are far too common in Poland, rooted in what they maintain is an uncaring and unhelpful government immigration policy.
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