On 6 September 2016, a branch of Human Constanta, a Belarus-based human rights group, was opened in Brest to help refugees, mostly from Chechnya, waiting to be allowed entry into Poland. According to Vyacheslav Panasyuk of Human Constanta, since last summer, Poland has allowed about four families a day to cross the border, recently bringing this number down to one or two families a day. “About 300 people, approximately 40 families, are currently in Brest. Some of them have stayed here for 8 to 9 months and applied for refugee status 20 to 50 times, but failed,” says Panasyuk.
Human rights activists help Chechens draw up application papers and urge Polish authorities to let these people in. How do Polish authorities refuse entry to refugees? According to Panasyuk, they write in rejection letters that the Chechens who attempt to cross the border have never really sought refugee status. “Usually, the applicant would say, ‘I was tortured, illegally arrested, beaten, subjected to physical violence, and I am going to Poland to seek refugee status’. Their rejection letters, however, say instead that the person ‘wished to become a programmer and to work in Poland, was going to visit a friend in Poznan’, which is total nonsense never really said by the applicants,” says Panasyuk in his interview to Legal Dialogue.
According to Human Constanta, at least 60% of all asylum seekers now in Brest are eligible for refugee status. Panasyuk sums up the reasons why Chechens choose to flee to the West. “First, some may face a blood feud declared to the family. Second, there are women who are vulnerable and victims of domestic violence. And finally, there are victims of abuse by security forces. In Chechnya, one could face charges of complicity in terrorism just because they or a close relative took part in the first or second Chechen wars. Some people are victimised by the atmosphere of lawlessness created by the Chechen authorities, where a law enforcement officer can charge an innocent person with an unsolved crime just to get a promotion. And finally, there is religious oppression. Those who refuse to perform dhikr [a form of Suf] get labelled as Wahhabis and terrorists.
How do human rights defenders verify asylum seekers’ stories? According to Panasyuk, “Sometimes, there is clear evidence that an asylum seeker lacks effective domestic remedies in Russia, as their appeals to a local prosecutor’s office and the Prosecutor General’s Office, even with assistance from Memorial and other organisations, have been to no avail. Specific reasons may vary from case to case. It all depends on what is going on in Chechnya at that very moment. Some of the people who are now here in Brest were illegally arrested in the wake of the 17 December attack on police in Grozny, when a massive number of people were detained and tortured. Those who managed to escape have come here. When there is some kind of clash in Chechnya and people get arrested, we expect newcomers here in Brest in two to three weeks. For example, 20 people came from Urus-Martan, five different families. It means there was a ‘mop-up operation’ in Urus-Martan on certain dates prior to their arrival.”
Why are Chechens trying to enter through Poland and not some other country? One can sometimes hear unofficial advice from Polish public figures as to where else Chechens can go to stay away from Kadyrov – e.g. to Siberia (where jobs may be available in the oil sector). Panasyuk explains: “No place in the Russian Federation can be safe for them by definition – there have been examples of people being found out while hiding somewhere in Russia. Neither in a remote village, nor anywhere else can they hide, as Kadyrov’s agents are very effective in detecting their whereabouts. They cannot go to Arab countries, particularly those with dictatorial regimes, because they can be sent back to Russia. It is no longer possible for them to hide in Turkey, because Kadyrov’s agents operate there too, and according to many reports, some people have been sent back from Turkey. They cannot hide in Georgia denying them refugee status ‘for national security reasons’. It is like saying, ‘yes, you are protected by the international convention, but for national security reasons we deny you asylum’. The KGB of Belarus collaborates closely with the Russian FSB, and we know of incidents where the KGB cooperated with Kadyrov’s security forces in trying to find out information on certain people or whether someone has crossed the border.”
According to Panasyuk, the Polish security services have also cooperated with the FSB. He says that in a few cases of asylum seekers deported from Poland, the content of their interviews, which were part of their asylum-seeking process, was communicated to FSB officers right there, at the Moscow airport.
“In total, some 8,000-10,000 Chechen refugees have settled in Poland,” says Joanna Fomina, journalist and graduate student of the Polish Academy of Sciences Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, specialising in the study of migration from Russia to Europe. Polish human rights defender Jan Walz adds: “At present, those who apply for asylum in Poland are sent to special ghetto-like centres for foreigners. In particular, there are many such facilities in Dembak1 and near Bialystok. While the asylum application is pending, the applicant cannot get a job. Often they are not even trying to learn the language or integrate in the local community. There must be an unofficial instruction for border guards not to accept new refugees, and the guards comply. Here’s a typical story: a Chechen family sells a house in Chechnya for some $2,000. They use this money to live for several months in Belarus near the border trying to cross into Poland, sometimes making dozens of attempts, all in vain. Then they run out of money. Some families were literally living at the train station when journalists found them there. These people tell similar stories of a brother (they use this word for any relative) who has been illegally arrested, and they had to leave for fear of reprisal. Some say they have been tortured. How come that Kadyrov’s men let them go? It is clear to anyone familiar with the situation in Chechnya that they must have paid a ransom or they would not have been released. But they do not mention it. Of course, one would like to help them, but all these stories are extremely difficult to verify. Besides, most of them are not planning to stay and integrate in Poland, but would like to go further to Germany; therefore, the distrust is on both sides.”
Vyacheslav Panasyuk disagrees: “People suffering from post traumatic syndrome need psychological assistance. Their ability to learn or work is zero at first. And yet, a substantial part of them attend Polish language courses and try to socialise. Families whom we assist with adaptation and find psychologists and psychiatrists to help them feel much safer and are not interested in moving on to other countries. It is not enough to accept refugees; you need to work with them. Torture survivors are so traumatised that they are like children – you need to work with them and help them; in my opinion, it is about time Poland realised this.”
Chechens travel to Poland by train without European visas. “Residents of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan are massively denied Schengen visas, and they have no other choice,” says Panasyuk. Yet sometimes Chechens are issued European visas at the request of human rights activists and then travel to other European countries. Another option is to book a connecting flight to a visa-free country, such as Morocco, via a European country, get off at the connection (e.g. Paris) and ask for asylum. This is what one Chechen family did a few years ago. On the flight from Moscow to Paris, the Chechens got acquainted with Alexander B., a Russian-speaking Frenchman, and asked for his help with translation at the border.
According to Chechen human rights activist Akhmed Gisayev granted asylum in Norway a few years ago, there are at least 8,000 and a maximum of 12,000 Chechen refugees in Norway (while no exact statistics have been published, the Norwegian Ministry of Internal Affairs shared these estimates with Gisayev). Norwegian psychologist Zoia Granes has been working with the Chechen diaspora since the first major inflow of refugees in the early 2000s. According to her, “recently, young women have been coming from Chechnya to marry refugees”, but there are no mass arrivals of Chechens. Those already in Norway tend to stay there. There have been a few deportations, which aroused public outrage. Protests were held in Oslo in January 2011 after 67 Chechens were deported2. As a result, this practice was discontinued.
Recently, Granes has been asked to make a report for the police about the Chechen diaspora. According to Granes: “Norway’s police have had problems with the Chechen youth who tend to get into fights among themselves or with Norwegian teenagers, and there have been incidents of drug use.” Zoe Granes has explained to police officers that Chechen teenagers often lack a positive role model: Ramzan Kadyrov cannot serve as one, and many young men grow up without their fathers. In addition to this, the war and human rights violations in Chechnya made them distrustful of police and the state. And finally, many Chechens are ambitious, they want to achieve something in life, they buy expensive cars and do other things to show off. “I explained this in a full-fledged report. I told the policemen that they needed to understand all this and be prepared to work with them in a positive way. Yet Chechens are not the most problematic category of refugees in Norway. Somalis are considered more problematic – some have been charged with murder.”
In 2011, there were three Chechen refugees among the youth in the summer camp on the Norwegian island of Utoeya. Two of them did not come out of the tent when called by terrorist Anders Breivik who posed as a “policeman”; they witnessed the shooting of other children and then tried to save the girls and even hurled rocks at the terrorist3. Later the teenagers explained that their experience in Chechnya had helped them survive, as their parents had taught them never to trust the police. In contrast, the Norwegian children who had a totally different life experience became easy targets for the “policeman”.
Granes notes that the Norwegian press is no longer interested in what is going on in Chechnya. “As a result, local authorities see no reason to grant refugee status to new applicants,” agrees Chechen human rights activist Ahmed Gisayev, granted asylum in Oslo several years ago.
Gisayev strongly disagrees with the assumption that the majority of refugees emigrate for economic reasons. “In Chechnya, one cannot start a business without making donations to some obscure funds affiliated with authorities, and you are then required to make deductions from wages to these funds. Sometimes they claim these contributions after a while. Recently, an official came to me asking for advice – he had been kidnapped and beaten for failure to get his subordinates to pay the required contributions. He documented the evidence of torture and will probably emigrate – he has no other choice, as he cannot find the money they want from him. Whether it is for economic reasons that he will emigrate – for you to judge.”
An anonymous column published in October 2016 in The Guardian offers an accurate description of the situation4. The column refers to the fact that foreign journalists in Chechnya need to rely on local assistants who, in turn, risk their lives helping them. News editors are increasingly unwilling to take on this risk.
The widely discussed 2015 film by Manon Loizeau (ARTE) Chechnya: a War without Trace about the continuing practice of torture and abductions in Chechnya5 has been virtually the only recent report available on the issue.
Konstanze Jüngling, researcher at the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt, Germany6, writes in her 2013 report “Courage to criticise: for a consistent German policy in respect of human rights in Chechnya before and after Sochi”7, „Grozny is the happiest city in Russia“ – such is the title of an article in KRA magazine(Konstruktivno, Ratsionalno. Aktualno, Grozny, 2012, published by the Head of Chechnya Administration), quoting a survey conducted by the News Effector agency in 20128: residents of Grozny were found to be happier than people in other Russian cities. However, once in Chechnya, you can often hear phrases like, “I’ve heard about a new corridor (quotas) for Chechen refugees opened in Germany.” Why would people want to leave ‘the happiest city in Russia’? The number one reason is the human rights abuse committed with impunity by Russian and Chechen security forces during the second Chechen war. The second reason is the ongoing reality of these crimes.”
Ekkehard Maass, Head of the German-Caucasian Society9 quotes the following statistics in his conversation with Legal Dialogue: “In 2013, 13,600 Chechens applied for political asylum in Germany. In 2014, there were 4,000 applicants, followed by 4,472 in 2015 and 9,800 in 2016. But only 5% of the requests have been granted. The reasons why they flee are obvious to me: torture, murders, abductions and illegal prisons. In Chechnya, there is systemic terror and the practice of burning the houses of rebels’ families. There are also adats and blood feud. A number of teips have declared blood feud against Kadyrov as revenge for torture and abductions. The result is preventive detention of those who might threaten him. And the longer he is in power, the more numerous will be his opponents, and the number of refugees will also continue to grow.”
Die Welt reports an increase in the number of asylum requests from Chechnya, reaching 800 every month in 201610. For comparison, there were in total 1,689 applications during the whole of 2011.
Austria has of the largest Chechen diasporas. It was in Vienna in 2009 that the Chechen refugee Umar Israilov was killed. On 1 June 2011, a court found Otto Kaltenbrunner (nee Ramzan Edilov) guilty of the murder and sentenced him to life11. Since then, Chechen names in crime reports have particularly attracted the interest of the local media12.
In his application to the European Court of Human Rights, Umar Israilov had accused Ramzan Kadyrov personally of torturing him. However, this story only served to set up public opinion in Austria against the Chechens. Another problem appears to be the Europeans’ cooperation, in their fight against the Islamic State, with the Russian security services that consider many Chechen refugees “implicated in terrorism”, i.e. rebels’ relatives. Human rights activist Akhmed Gisayev believes that Norway and other European countries started to listen to the FSB in 2013, when they “integrated their databases on terrorists as part of their fight against the Islamic State”.
On 22 February 2017 in Vienna, following a tip-off from local residents, more than 20 Chechens were arrested. At first they were suspected of involvement in terrorism and then of being part of criminal gangs, but eventually all of them were released because of insufficient evidence. The far-right Austrian Freedom Party attempted to exploit the scandal for political ends. “Criminals can walk free in this country,” tweeted Austrian Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache13. Interestingly, Johann Gudenus, head of the AFP Vienna branch, had previously met and photographed Ramzan Kadyrov in Grozny, unafraid of potential risks to his reputation14. According to Novaya Gazeta in Petersburg, during their meeting in 2014, they discussed plans of returning Chechen refugees from Austria to their homeland.
Problems have recently been reported in France – a country hosting at least 10,000 refugees from Chechnya. On 12 April, a Chechen refugee named Vakha D. (surname known to the editorial staff) was arrested in Limeil-Brévannes, a suburb southeast of Paris. He was detained at 6am, and his family members are unaware of either the reasons for his arrest or his current status as a detainee. Members of the Chechen diaspora protested against his arrest in the Republic Square in Paris three times, including on 22 April 201715. Apparently, the man risks having his refugee status withdrawn, followed by his expulsion. Earlier, the Office for Refugees (OFPRA) withdrew the refugee status of another Chechen. Having investigated the case, La Cimade, a French volunteer-based non-profit that helps migrants and refugees16 found that the French authorities acted on information received from the FSB that the refugee had travelled to Turkey in 2013, presumably indicating his contacts with the Islamic State. The Chechen appealed the withdrawal of his refugee status in the National Court of Asylum (Cour Nationale du droit d’Asile) and provided evidence that he had not visited Turkey and never joined the Islamic State. At the moment, he is waiting for his appeal decision.
Based on the OFRPA data, 13,881 Russian citizens had been granted asylum in France by 2015. “At least 10,000 of them are Chechens. Double this number to account for minor children living with their parents,” an OPFRA officer said anonymously to a Caucasian Knot correspondent17.
In 2015, French security agents arrested Hazman Umarova, a female Chechen journalist who had lived in France for many years, and detained her for two days following an anti-terrorism tip-off. This happened soon after the Charlie Hébdo attack, and some French mass media learned that the authorities were checking into possible links between the terrorists and Chechens. The search and questioning did not reveal any such links, and the journalist was released18.
By various estimates, some 150,000 people from Chechnya currently live in Europe – the number quoted by Smartnews, among others. In 2010, a programm was announced to help refugees return to their homeland. According to Smartnews, some 400 Chechens had used this opportunity by 201319. In addition, bus tours from Grozny to Paris and Belgium and back are advertised, and some European Chechens legally visit their homeland while keeping their residence in Europe.
However, the flow of refugees to Europe continues. Following reports of clashes with the Russian National Guard in the Naursky District of Chechnya on 24 March20, one can expect more round-ups and searches for rebels’ relatives. Massive attacks against homosexuals are yet another reason why people flee from Chechnya21. It is logical to assume, therefore, that the number of Chechens seeking asylum in Europe is not going to decline in the near future.
[ + ]
|1.||Office for Foreigners, Centre in Dembak: Open Day https://udsc.gov.pl/ru/zapraszamy-na-dzien-otwarty/|
|2.||Anastasiya Kirilenko, “Norway Prepares Chechens for Seeing Their Homeland Again”, Radio Liberty, 04.03.2011 http://www.svoboda.org/a/2328071.html|
|3.||Anastasia Kirilenko, “Chechen Teen Recounts Attempts to Disarm Utoeya Gunman”, Radio Liberty, 17.08.2011, http://www.rferl.org/a/chechen_teen_recounts_attempts_to_disarm_utoeya_gunman/24299801.html|
|4.||“Chechen journalists, international journalists – Ramzan Kadyrov has silenced us all”, 10.10.2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/10/chechnya-no-longer-help-foreign-journalists-ramzan-kadyrov|
|5.||Oliver Milot “Regardez Tchétchénie, une guerre sans traces, de Manon Loizeau”, Telerama.fr, 28.02.2015, http://television.telerama.fr/television/le-nouveau-documentaire-de-manon-loizeau-en-avant-premiere-sur-telerama-fr,123247.php; “Tchétchénie, une guerre sans traces”, ARTE, 3.03.2015 http://pro.arte.tv/archives/20329|
|6.||Hessische Stiftung Friedens- und Konf iktforschung, https://www.hsfk.de/|
|7.||Konstanze Jüngling,” Mut zur Kritik! Für eine konsistente deutsche Menschenrechtspolitik in Tschetschenien vor und nach Sotschi, https://www.academia.edu/5614712/Mut_zur_Kritik_F%C3%BCr_eine_konsistente_deutsche_Menschenrechtspolitik_in_Tschetschenien_vor_und_nach_Sotschi|
|9.||Deutsch-Kaukasische Gesellschaft, http://www.dkg.de/maass.html|
|10.||Manuel Bewarder, Florian Flade, Julia Smirnova, “Immer mehr Tschetschenen kommen – steckt Putin dahinter?” Die Welt, 29.05.2016 https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article155788218/Immer-mehr-Tschetschenen-kommen-steckt-Putin-dahinter.html|
|11.||The person accused of murder of Umar Israilov sentenced to life imprisonment 02.06.2011 http://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/ 186500/|
|12.||Two Chechens detained in Austria face deportation, Caucasian Knot, 08.02.2017, http://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/297346/|
|14.||Diana Kachalova, Traveling Circus, Novaya Gazeta in St. Petersburg, 14 September 2014, http:// novayagazeta.spb.ru/articles /9097/|
|17.||Brother of a “Primorye Guerrilla” and Former Serviceman in Chechnya Appeals Denial of Political Asylum in France, Caucasian Knot, 10.03.2017 http://www.kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/298981/|
|18.||Anastasiya Kililenko, Responsible for Everything, Radio Liberty, 08.03.15, http://www.svoboda.org/a/26887997.html|
|21.||Natalia Smolentceva, “Igor Kochetkov: “We Must Rescue All Those We Can Rescue and Help Them Leave Russia””, Legal Dialogue Nr.3, April 2017, http://legal-dialogue.org/igor-kochetkov-must-rescue-can-rescue-help-leave-russia|