June 26th 2008 · Prague Watchdog
RAMZAN AMPUKAYEV is a former leader of the Independent Trade Unions of the Chechen Republic. Shortly after Dzhokhar Dudayev came to power in 1992 (*) he migrated to Poland. He is also a leader of the Chechen diaspora abroad, and is an assistant to the MEP Bart Staes (headquarters in Brussels, Belgium), on whose behalf he recently made a study of the situation of Chechen refugees in the countries of Eastern and Western Europe.
Prague Watchdog: You’ve worked for a long time with Chechen immigrants, most of whom fled Chechnya because of the fighting. Are there any reliable statistics on the number of Chechens in this category now living abroad?
Ramzan Ampukayev: According to the rough data there are more than
100,000 Chechens living in the countries of Europe, not including the
CIS. These people have already had children here. And new refugees
arrive from Chechnya on a daily basis. The exodus of Chechens from their historic homeland is continuing. 40-50 people cross the
Polish-Belarusian border almost every day. So the presence of a very
significant number of my countrymen in Europe is already a fact of
PW: Can you give some idea of the distribution of Chechens in the
R. A.: Most of the Chechen refugees live in Austria. According to
official data there were over 16,000 there last year. I think that this
figure has increased even further, and has certainly not gone down.
Germany and Belgium have 10,000 each. It’s the same in France. The
figure is just as high in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. In short, there
are Chechen refugees living in almost all every country of Europe. The
lowest number is to be found on Mallorca. There are 12 Chechens there, if the children are included.
PW: How have these people made the adjustment to living in a new place? You’ve seen how they live. How are they managing?
RA: People manage in different ways. In some countries, such as, say,
Belgium, France, Norway and other countries of Western Europe, the
living conditions of Chechen refugees are virtually identical. They can
be described as acceptable, or even good. This applies to social
protection, health care, education and so on. But our people in Poland,
Slovakia and the Czech Republic are living in conditions much worse than those they could have at home in Chechnya. The situation in Spain is similar, because there are no available programs of social assistance available to immigrants there. In Spain, if you don’t find a job you’re forced to stay in a small room provided by the authorities, and live in such conditions for years.
PW: When refugees (not only those from Chechnya) are discussed, a
picture is usually painted of people living for years in dreadful
conditions without hope of anything better. Are there any Chechen
refugees who have managed to overcome in a dignified manner the
difficulties that this change in the circumstances presents – to adapt,
work and learn?
R.A.: Yes, of course there are. And there are many such people. I would
even say that nearly one in three Chechen refugees have found their feet in their new surroundings. They work, learn, live full lives. These
people have laid the foundations of a future here for themselves and
their family members. But the majority of Chechen refugees live in a
state of anxious expectation. Issues of refugee status go unresolved for years, and people are unable to obtain the documents that will allow them to at least get their living space organized, and the years go by. This happens mainly in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Spain, and the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania). Chechens in those countries have little chance of obtaining refugee status, let alone citizenship.
PW: The human rights situation in Chechnya itself leaves much to be
desired. What percentage of Chechens would you say plans to return home soon, given that most refugees claim that sooner or later they will do so?
R. A.: I don’t know the answer to that question. Many factors are
involved. On the one hand, there are people who have lived outside
Chechnya for ten years, have made a new life for themselves, formed new contacts, made new friends – such people are unlikely to want to give up all that and go to a place where there frankly isn’t very much waiting for them. This is even more true of young people, especially children of school age, who can’t even imagine another life for themselves. They don’t know Russian well enough, or even at all. Many of them are unfamiliar with the subjects that are studied in Russian schools. And of course, they already know that under no circumstances will they exchange their new life for the old one. They don’t want to do that, because they’ve grown up in the new society.
What’s more, they resist, they can’t help but resist. Even the children
who by some means or other have been brought back to Chechnya find themselves unable to endure even a few days in their motherland, and beg to go “home”. Some of them cry, and fall prey to severe depression. On the other hand, there’s a long and ancient precedent of Chechens fleeing their homeland and looking for a better life in other countries. While it’s true that in Soviet times it happened within the Soviet Union, our people have traditionally changed their place of residence – some with a desire to obtain education, some in order to earn money, some with the aim of finding better quality medical care. So the way I see it, there’s no need to be apprehensive about the fact that Chechens are living outside their historic homeland. If there are no jobs in Chechnya, if there’s no housing, or other essentials of life, why shouldn’t people try to find all that beyond the borders of the republic, and even of Russia?
But if the present government, or certain forces in society, are
concerned about people leaving, then they need to find some concrete
ways to regulate this process. Many of the Chechens who are now living in Europe have managed to become Europeans, to fully undergo a most arduous process of socialization, have spent much energy and money on it. And as far as I know, most of them don’t plan to return to Chechnya, at least in the near future. But there are people for whom there is no other way but to return to Chechnya. I am talking about those of our compatriots who are in Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. There are not so many the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but in Poland there are from 11,000 to 12,000 Chechen refugees.
PW: You recently visited refugee camps in Poland, the Czech Republic and other countries, you met with Chechens who are there. What did you see?
R. A.: Chechen refugees in Poland have a dreadful time. I visited their
temporary accommodation centres. The accommodation in them is
overcrowded. People don’t even have anywhere to sit down – they spend part of the day sitting on windowsills. In these camps even the
corridors are jammed with people: they live in the kitchens, in the
gyms, in the television rooms. The refugees are forced to literally walk
on each other’s heads, stepping over those who are trying to rest as
they lie in the corridor. It has to be seen to be believed. People who
live for years in such conditions start to cross all the borders of what
is permissible and impermissible in human relations. They shout abuse at one another because of trifles – something the Vainakhs never did even in the most difficult of times. It may be remembered that it was in the refugee camps of Ingushetia that the moral foundations of Nakh society were destroyed. Here, in Poland, there are even more terrible things. The people who come from Chechnya immediately fall into that trap. It really is a trap. There are people who take refugees out of Chechnya by deception. There are the so-called “tourist firms”. They “capture” Chechens with promises to deliver them directly to a “happy life”. They take a lot of money for the trip, and then they dump the refugees at the city of Brest, on the border with Poland, and disappear. And then the real wanderings begin for these unfortunate people, wanderings that are full of disasters and disappointments.
PW: Ramzan Kadyrov and the Chechen government have repeatedly stated that they want the refugees to return to Chechnya. How far is that possible, and how serious are these proposals?
R. A.: You can judge for yourself. All these human trafficking firms are
operating in Chechnya. People leave the republic with the tacit consent
of the authorities. If this isn’t just a PR campaign, if the Chechen
government really aims to helping the refugees come home, they should seriously look into this matter. Perhaps their intentions are good ones. Perhaps. But so far I haven’t seen any way of approaching the matter that is either competent or professional. The problem is much more serious than it’s presented in Grozny. I mean, people are still enroute. Some of them are on trains, in prisons, in camps for people facing deportation. Today about 20 per cent of the Chechens who fled their homeland in search of a more secure existence are in prison cells.
Everyone has forgotten them: both here in the West and in Chechnya, to say nothing of Russia as a whole. No one there has ever taken any
interest in them.
(Translation by DM)