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

Chechens Fight Deportation

Following the forced shutdown of one refugee camp in Ingushetia, displaced people in two others fear they will be the next to be sent back to Chechnya.
By Timur Aliev

Two hundred displaced Chechens - who fear they are about to be sent home to the war-torn republic against their will - held a spontaneous demonstration in the Bela refugee camp in Ingushetia on December 11.


The protest follows the forced closure of another tent camp in Ingushetia and the eviction of its residents on December 1 - despite statements of concern from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, UNHCR, and human rights groups.


The demonstrators at Bela, which is near the border with Chechnya, had been expecting the arrival of Russian liberal deputy Boris Nemtsov. But he did not come and instead they heard the assurances of Asu Durdurkayev, an official in the pro-Moscow Chechen administration in Grozny.


Durdurkayev assured the refugees that only those who had signed documents confirming that they wished to return would be sent back to Chechnya. He told them that 500 refugees in another camp had already applied to go home.


He was echoing the words of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who had told a meeting of Presidential Commission on Human Rights the previous day that he would review the situation in Ingushetia and suspend the closures.


But human rights activists and refugee leaders say nothing has changed on the ground and that more camp residents - most of whom have been in Ingushetia since the beginning of the second Chechen war in 1999 - are being pressured to return against their will.


Ruslan Badalov, who runs a Chechen human rights organisation in Ingushetia, told IWPR that several lorries are already been parked outside the Bela and Alina camps - ready to transport displaced people back to Chechnya.


"Russian policemen are going round the tents and demanding that the Chechen refugees 'get back home in a decent manner'," Badalov said.


Thirty policemen are employed at the Bela camp under the command of interior ministry official Pyotr Panasyuk. According to Badalov, Panasyuk has told refugees "I have an order to liquidate the camps by the end of the year. And I will carry it out!"


"First, refugees are forced or persuaded to write a statement asking to return and then those who have signed are threatened, to force them to leave for Chechnya as soon as possible," Badalov claimed.


Another human rights organisation, Moscow Helsinki Watch, said that all the heads of the camps in Ingushetia had received a warning from Magomed Latyrov, head of the republic's migration service, notifying them that it would be "impossible" for refugees to go on living in the camps from December 21 because all funding will end on that date.


According to Imran Ezhiev of Helsinki Watch this meant that the lease of the land for the camps would run out and their gas and electricity would be cut off. "In the first place people will be obliged to leave the territory of the camps, since by law they cannot live on other people's land," Ezhiev said. "Secondly, they will be left without heat and light in temperatures of minus 15 centigrade."


Russian officials have consistently said that they would not forcibly deport refugees back to Chechnya. Ingushetia's president Murat Zyazikov made the same assurance to IWPR in an interview in September (see CRS 149.)


Zyazikov repeated the message when he visited Bart camp on December 7, telling residents there they were only being invited to return voluntarily. "If conditions for normal life are created in Chechnya, then the refugees can begin to relocate," he said.


However, the Ingush president also suggested that the camps' days were numbered. He said that the refugees should begin to choose where they wanted to live - in private homes in Ingushetia or in "temporary settlement centres" in Chechnya.


Yet worries over the safety of the region remain. "As long as there are federal soldiers in Chechnya, we won't go back there," one woman told Zyazikov.


While the Ingush authorities estimate that there are around 68,000 displaced Chechens in their republic, the Danish Refugee Council puts the number at 110,000. Until recently, around 20,000 of them were living in tents, with the rest in private homes.


The Russian authorities have made it clear several times this year that they wanted to see the camps closed. This would reinforce the official message that Chechnya is returning to normality, and that fighting has ended there.


But their less than subtle attempts to evict the refugees have only succeeded in generating even worse publicity for the authorities.


In October, Ingush and Chechen officials set December 20 as the date for closure of the camps. Since then, refugees claim they have experienced intimidation and threats from soldiers and police asking them to leave - and promises of financial compensation if they agreed to go back to Chechnya.


The Iman camp, near the village of Aki-Yurt, was officially shut down on December 1 despite the protests of international organisations and western governments. According to the Danish Refugee Council it had been home to 1,760 people and was equipped with resources such as a sports hall, a medical centre, a psychological rehabilitation centre and a sewing workshop.


By December 4, all the tents had gone. The local authorities said many of the refugees had resettled in nearby housing. But human rights activists dispute this. "The bulk of them - those who had the least - were taken away on buses to their former places of residence in Chechnya," said Elisa Musayeva of the Memorial organisation in Ingushetia.


"What's more, the driver who took them said that he dropped the last family at a house without windows. And winter is now beginning."


The refugees committee of the pro-Moscow administration in Grozny reported that 10,000 refugees had volunteered to go home.


Yet Memorial visited the "temporary settlement centres" where most of the displaced people were supposed to live - and concluded they were not fit to receive them. Monitors claim that only six of the ten centres are habitable - and that those living there did not have their security guaranteed.


"The main thing for the bureaucrats is to make promises," said Musayeva. "They just need people to leave the camps."


At least one family from the camp has already returned from Chechnya to Ingushetia. "They told us here that some temporary accommodation was being made ready for us at home but there wasn't anything," said Ruslan Khatsigov.


Timur Aliev is a freelance journalist based in Nazran, Ingushetia