Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan: Chechen Fury Over UNHCR 'Inaction'

Protests by Chechen refugees, alleging discrimination, force temporary closure of UNHCR office in Azerbaijan.
By Mamed Bagirov

In an unprecedented move, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, shut its Azerbaijani office for four days on March 28, following a long-running row with Chechen refugees.


Although the office did not specifically mention the Chechens, who had been demonstrating outside its doors, it was clear that it was they who had forced the closure. UNHCR press secretary in Baku Vugar Abdusalimov said that he hoped the move would have a "sobering effect" on the Chechens.


A sign on the office's door in Russian, English and Arabic announced that " the office will be closed for a time due to the inappropriate behaviour of certain refugees".


The agency established a presence in Azerbaijan in December 1992 just as tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis were fleeing their homes in the war with Armenia. Over the years, it has given them humanitarian aid worth around 50 million dollars.


The organisation also began to look after "third country refugees" in Azerbaijan: Afghans, Iranians and - since 1994 - Chechens, fleeing the conflict with Russia. The Chechens quickly realised that they could not count on help from a government, which was coping with hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, IDPs, of its own.


Their only option was to turn UNHCR to try to get financial help and "refugee status" to enable them to leave for another country.


There are currently 4,350 Chechens in Azerbaijan who are almost unable to support themselves, according to Ali Asayev, the representative of rebel Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov in Chechnya. "We have nothing to feed them with and nowhere to settle them," he said. "The situation is very difficult."


Since the events of September 11, the plight of Chechen refugees has worsened, said Mairbek Taramov, editor of the newspaper Kavkazky Vestnik. "Humanitarian aid used to come via Arabic charitable organisations, but the Azerbaijan authorities have now closed down all their offices and the Chechens have been left without any aid," he said. "Basically, the authorities have thrown out the baby with the bath water."


This turned the UNHCR office in Baku into the place of last resort. But many Chechens, including Taramov, complained that the bureaucratic procedures of the agency's representatives were a torture for them.


"My wife and I first applied to the Baku office of UNHCR last July," said Taramov. "We have had three interviews there. First our case was handled by an Algerian named Fazil, then by an Englishwoman named Liza, then by Thomas, an American. I am a journalist, so I was able to show them my articles, video reports, a whole bundle of documents.


"They promised us help. But a month ago we were told that our case had been handed back to Fazil, the Algerian. I came back to him and he told me that my case was with Thomas. That's how they pass us around. It is pure torment."


The UNHCR office says that 450 Chechen refugee families have successfully gone through their checks and are currently receiving financial help of between 80 and 100 US dollars a month.


Chechens say these figures are far too low. In February this year, a group of them accused UNHCR of corruption and wrote a letter to its president, Ruud Lubbers, in Geneva. The Council of Chechen Refugees wrote that 9,000 of them had applied to the agency in Azerbaijan for help since November 2000, but had "run up against terrible indifference".


"Ignoring international laws on the awarding of refugee status, the UNHCR is trying to force Chechen refugees from Azerbaijan back to Chechnya," said the letter. "The meagre resources, given out by the donors, have become an open source of revenue for UNHCR workers in Azerbaijan. They give out the insignificant sum of 80 to 100 US dollars a month to 4-500 Chechen refugees, mainly those who give a bribe of between 20 and 25 per cent of the amount received."


Chechen frustration provoked the demonstrations outside the UNHCR office. While one such protest was being held on March 28, it chose to shut its doors.


Didier Laye, the head of the UNHCR Baku office, strongly rejected the allegations of corruption and described the letter sent to Geneva as insulting. "Certain Chechen refugees, unaware that we are unable to provide help for everyone, created an unstable situation in front of our office," he said.


According to Abdusalimov, the UNHCR press secretary, the Baku office has a budget of only three million dollars, most of which goes to Azerbaijani IDPs and which forces them to be selective over which Chechens they help. "So, because of extremely limited resources, we try to pick out the most vulnerable Chechen refugees - single women, orphans and others - and help them," he said.


The standoff between the refugees and UNHCR eased somewhat after a meeting between local Chechen representative Ali Asayev and Didier Laye. Asayev said that there had been "complete mutual understanding" and that he had seen no proof of corruption in the agency's office.


The office reopened its doors on April 1, with Abdusalimov saying that during their enforced break, he and his colleagues had discussed how to find "better ways of working with refugees from third countries".


Mamed Bagirov is a correspondent with Echo newspaper in Baku.