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

Ingushetia Collapsing Under Refugee Burden

Attempts to encourage Chechen refugees in Ingushetia to return home come to naught.
By Alexander Dzadziev

Almost none of the refugees who fled Chechnya to neighbouring Ingushetia are willing to go home, despite frequent claims by both Russian and Chechen authorities that federal troops now have the war-torn republic under control.


In Ingushetia, there are now 149,000 refugees who fled the second Chechen war three years ago, according to Russian statistics. Another 20,000, displaced during the Chechen war in 1994-96, are also sheltering there. Many of them live in makeshift accommodation.


Deputy Security Council Secretary Valentin Sobolev told RFE/RL on August 28 that Moscow is increasingly concerned about the refugees' conditions because "winter is approaching and these people must not live a third year in tents".


Some 32,000 Chechens live cramped in tents or railway carriages in refugee camps. They often go hungry, as they live on meagre rations. The distribution of hot food stopped in April. For those accommodated privately, the problem is worse.


International humanitarian relief ensures the refugees survive, but the aid agencies are also attempting to make a return to Chechnya seem more attractive. The 30 NGOs working in Ingushetia promise food and building materials to those going home, and are prepared to guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid packages once they are there. Anyone who returns receives free transportation and a two-week food allowance, they say.


Meanwhile, the UN and Saudi Arabian Society of Red Crescent have allocated money for the construction of three more tented camps for refugees now living in squalid railway carriages and other remote areas without facilities.


Understandably, Ingushetia is eager for the refugees to go back to Chechnya. With its weak social and economic infrastructure, the republic has suffered numerous problems after three years spent hosting a homeless population of nearly 150,000.


The prices of houses and apartments have risen steeply; there are shortages of jobs, school places and hospital beds. Along with a rise in the unemployment rate, there has been a surge in crime. The flow of traffic has also doubled and accidents are common. The local population has begun to complain, and some observers warn of growing ethnic intolerance.


Faced with these problems, the Ingushetian authorities are trying to assist Moscow and Chechen administration with the return of refugees. They meet regularly with Chechen counterparts and recently started to compile a database of refugees, devoting an enormous amount of time and human resources on individual registration.


However, Ingushetia is powerless to do more. Dependant upon the Russian federal budget, the authorities complain at the lack of functioning administrative structures to coordinate help for displaced Chechens. Russia delays the payment of transfers to cover Ingushetia's costs in caring for such a large population, which lacks food and medicines as a result.


Almost 30,000 people have already applied for permission to stay for another year in the republic. Almost no one wants to go back to Chechnya.


At a Security Council conference in Moscow on 28 August, Russia's minister for Chechen affairs Vladimir Yelagin said the authorities want to provide protection to those who return, as well as opportunities to work or receive unemployment benefits.


But Chechens have no confidence in the administration of Akhmad Kadyrov, whom they regard as a Russian puppet. A correspondent for Novosti news agency quoted Kadyrov as telling a press conference on August 30 that the best way to encourage refugees to return is to allocate sufficient funds for compensation payments and the reconstruction of destroyed homes.


Many Chechens greet such statements sceptically. "He dares to call back refugees to act as living human shields for the occupiers against the attacks of the resistance," was one reaction to Kadyrov's appeal.


Most Chechens understand that there is no firm guarantee of their safety, either from federal troops or Chechen fighters. And their fears of the so-called "cleansing operations", conducted by Russian troops, have not been calmed by the Chechen prosecutor's office claims that they are merely isolated incidents.


The situation is largely unchanged since last year. Despite numerous appeals from the authorities to return, most refugees prefer to stay in Ingushetia in spite of the sweeteners on offer. Some commentators argue that the new tensions in Chechnya could trigger another exodus of Chechens before the winter sets in.


The mass "deportation" of Chechens, as the Russian newspaper Novije Izvestija terms it, is likely to continue, leaving Ingushetia with having even more people to accommodate.


Alexander Dzadziev is regular IWPR contributor in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia.