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

New Threat to Chechen Refugees

Tension is growing again amongst displaced Chechens in Ingushetia.
By Malika Suleimanova

In the latest threat to thousands of displaced Chechens living in the North Caucasian republic of Ingushetia, officials have warned that refugee camps there will be closed within the next two months.

Akhmed Zaurbekov, an official with Chechnya's refugee committee, said this week that the camps - which are still home to more than 13,000 displaced persons - will be closed by the beginning of October. He blamed the poor condition of the camps and the risk of disease there. "The tents are unfit for inhabitation, especially in Bella camp," said Zaurbekov.

Zaurbekov said that the internally displaced persons would be re-housed in "compact accommodation points" in Ingushetia and also in "temporary settlement points" in Chechnya.

But critics of the plans and refugees themselves see a political background to the decision. Presidential elections are due in Chechnya in October and there are suspicions that the authorities are making a renewed attempt to get rid of the public embarrassment of refugees living in tents on Russian soil almost four years after the beginning of the last Chechen conflict.

The acting leader of Chechnya, former mufti Akhmad Kadyrov, is the clear favourite to win those elections, which have been organised by Moscow. On July 4, at a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, Kadyrov promised that there "won't be a single tent" on the territory of Ingushetia by September.

According to Russia's federal migration service, Ingushetia is home to 62,700 internally displaced persons from Chechnya. Thirteen and a half thousand of them live in camps while 22,700 reside in special housing called "compact accommodation points", with 25,700 in private homes.

Many refugees now say that they are being pressured to return.

Asiyat Madagova has lived in a camp in Ingushetia for more than three years. Nine people live in a canvas army tent, which has room for just nine beds and a small kitchen table. In summer the heat here is unbearable, and yet she still prefers to stay there rather than risk the uncertainty of going back to Chechnya.

However, now she may have no choice. "I was away in Chechnya getting benefits for my children when they did the last checks in the camp," Asiyat said. "As a result I got struck off the lists for receiving humanitarian aid and my children and I have lost our last source of support in Ingushetia."

"Of course it's been hard living in a tent with the children, but here at least I was sure that their lives were not threatened," she said. "But the situation in Ingushetia today is beginning to be similar to the one in Chechnya."

Human rights activists noted an increased campaign of pressure and intimidation against the refugees. In the Sputnik camp, different official organisations have counted refugees four times in the past four weeks. And in the past two months, the activists say that more than 2,000 people have been struck off official aid lists.

"The policies of the Russian authorities towards the Chechen refugees have one single goal - to return them to Chechnya by any means possible," said Ruslan Badalov, head of human rights non-governmental organisation the Chechen Committee for National Salvation.

"When people are deprived of work and given one humanitarian ration - and then lose that as well as a result of endless checks and registrations - they simply have no other choice [but to leave]."

Refugees in the Sputnik camp say they have been threatened by officials that they may share the fate of the inhabitants of the Iman camp, 1,500 of whom were sent home to Chechnya last December. That process was halted after the protests of local and international organisations.

Recently, refugees living in so-called compact accommodation points say they have suffered raids in which armed masked men detained many people - an imitation of the "clean-up" operations that have plagued Chechnya over the last three years.

"Over the last two months so-called 'clean ups' have taken place in all compact accommodation points for refugees," said Akhmed Barakhoyev of the human rights organisation Memorial in Ingushetia. "If we just take one month then we had four clean-ups in four camps. And we still know nothing about many people who have been abducted."

Memorial says 20 internally displaced persons were snatched in June and July and most of them are still missing.

The authorities have declined to comment on these events. Ingush president Murat Zyazikov said it was "in the competence of the appropriate agencies", while Ingushetia's first deputy interior minister Rashid Nurgaliev announced that "15 terrorists" suspected of involvement in recent suicide bombings in Chechnya had been arrested.

Observers are sceptical about this. "Every time some significant changes occur in the life of the country, the leadership of Chechnya makes desperate attempts to take down the tent camps in Ingushetia," said political analyst Murad Nashkhoyev.

"This is the latest attempt to solve a complicated problem with a simple decision, a kind of Potemkin village."

In the meantime, a slow trickle of refugees has been going home. According to Chechnya's refugees committee, more than 10,000 applications to return to the republic have been received.

But there are concerns that war-torn Chechnya cannot support these would-be returnees, and for many, the fear of the ongoing violence at home is still very intense.

"They can take the most extreme measures, up to and including violence, and they have the experience to do that," said Vakha Magomadov, who lives in the Alina camp. "But I'm still afraid of my home."

Malika Suleimanova is a journalist working for the Caucasus Times newspaper in Ingushetia.