Almaty Shuns Chechen Refugees

Despite traditionally pro-Chechen sympathies, Kazakhstan has succumbed to unrelenting Russian propaganda, giving Chechen refugees an icy reception.

Almaty Shuns Chechen Refugees

Despite traditionally pro-Chechen sympathies, Kazakhstan has succumbed to unrelenting Russian propaganda, giving Chechen refugees an icy reception.

Kazakhstan is a natural magnet for refugees fleeing from the Chechen battlefields. The former Soviet republic is home to around 100,000 ethnic Chechens forcibly implanted into the local population by Stalin's deportations of 1944. Relations with the Chechen community in Kazakhstan have traditionally been harmonious.

But now the Russian propaganda machine has swung into overdrive. Local media regales its audiences with stereotype images of Chechen bandits and horror stories of rebel incursions on the western frontier. Meanwhile, Moscow threatens to impose harsh political, diplomatic and economic sanctions on any former Soviet republic unwilling to share its views on the Chechen conflict. Understandably, sympathies for the Chechen refugees are wearing thin.

During the first military campaign in Chechnya, more than 25,000 refugees flooded into Kazakhstan, returning home after the Russian withdrawal in 1996. Recent months have seen a renewed emigration, with thousands, mainly women and children, arriving in Almaty in November and December.

However, complaints have been rife of appalling conditions at border checkpoints and in refugee camps. Many claim they have been left without shelter, food or medical aid while anarchy reigned in the government-run compounds. Young people have been regularly detained and sent to the notorious filtration camps, where Russian police attempt to sift rebel fighters from civilians. Many have yet to return to their families.

Most of the refugees who arrive in Kazakhstan are in poor physical condition - sick, exhausted and dispossessed. They are wary of the law and the media; the children are traumatised by the sight of planes, military vehicles and even tractors.

Although Kazakhstan signed the Geneva Convention in 1951 and the Protocol in 1967, there are no regulations governing the status of refugees. Following a recent government ruling, refugees have the right to register for 45 days, after which they become illegal aliens, liable to arrest and detention.

To make matters worse, the Russian authorities refuse to grant the Chechens refugee status, branding them "internally displaced people" instead. The lack of passports or residency permits forces them to move from one republic to another - but anti-Chechen propaganda ensures them an icy reception wherever they go.

In late 1999, Kazakh officials discussed plans to reinforce army units stationed on its western borders. They argued that the move was a necessary counter-measure to prevent Chechen rebels from retreating into Kazakhstan via Azerbaijan and Mangistask, on the eastern coast of the Caspian. The news was greeted by a public outcry after claims that the government was in fact attempting to bar Chechen refugees from the Central Asian republic.

In some regions of Kazakhstan, including North Kazakhstan and Mangistask, refugees are actually being sent back to Russia. In others, however, such as Karagandsk and Atirausk, in the heart of the republic, local authorities have adopted a more sympathetic attitude, providing both material and moral support.

Most refugees are forced to look to relatives, friends and local sympathisers for help. An aid programme is also being operated by the UN High Commission for Refugees via the International Organisation of the Red Crescent and the Red Cross.

Meanwhile, in a bid to improve conditions for the refugees, leaders of the Chechen community in Kazakhstan maintain a regular dialogue with local and central authorities as well as the media. At the Sixth Congress of Kazakh Nations, the Association for the Cultural Development of the Chechen and Ingush Peoples launched an official appeal to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and received a positive response. In another recent development, an International Fund for Humanitarian Aid has been established in Kazakhstan to raise funds for Chechen refugees.

Amanchi Gunashev is representative of the Chechen Republic in Kazakhstan.

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