Forgotten refugees on the Eastern border of the EU
The migration crisis in Europe was at the center of media attention throughout 2015 – early 2016, but has gradually lost its prominence. While the Western media were quick to abandon the topic, switching their attention to more recent events, the problem was hardly solved or improved for thousands of Chechen refugees waiting for months on the Polish-Belarusian border for their asylum applications to be approved, totally abandoned and forgotten by the international community.
The North Caucasus republic of Chechnya gained independence from Russian Federation in 1996 but was still in the state of war (Second Chechen War) until 2007 when Kadyrov regime was installed. Though the country has gained certain autonomy, it is technically a “subject,” or administrative unit, of the Russian Federation, which presupposes that its authorities are bound to observe and uphold fundamental freedoms and rights enshrined in Russian Constitution. However, the newly-established Chechen leader has used his nearly decade-long tenure to eradicate all forms of criticism and political dissent and to impose a ‘tyranny’ within the region. Ever since Kadyrov came to power, the regime has been strongly criticised and even openly accused of severe human rights violations including kidnappings, torture and murder, which accordingly caused massive migration waves.
One of the possible routes that Chechen citizens take goes through the Belarusian-Polish border, which until 2010 seemed quite a legitimate opportunity for many Chechen citizens as they did not need a visa to come through Belarus. From Brest they could take a fifteen-minute train trip to Terespol (border city in Eastern Poland) where they could apply for asylum. However, the situation has dramatically changed since the populist party Law and Justice came to power in Poland in 2015 and started trying to limit the flow of asylum seekers from the Russian Federation, often denying people an opportunity to apply for international protection even if there were reliable foundations. In 2017 Poland received more than 5,000 applications for asylum, of which 2,164 were filed by Russian citizens, and 93.7% percent of those were rejected.
This situation leaves thousands of Chechen refugees stranded in Brest where they are bound to endure daily humiliations unless they succeed or give up their attempts, while both Polish and Belarusian authorities stay totally indifferent to their fates. Polish border officials deny people entrance to the EU on the ground that they do not have visas. The Polish side, in this case, represented by Mariusz Błaszczak, the Minister of Interior, is unwilling to acknowledge Chechens as political refugees claiming that “there is no war in Chechnya”. The authorities stay totally deaf to numerous pleas of Chechen refugees who claim that they are being persecuted and tortured back home.
Human Constanta, a Brest-based human rights group, claims that at least 60% of all asylum seekers now in Brest are eligible for refugee status. According to their data, Chechens choose to flee to the EU for various reasons. Many are fleeing from religious oppression as those who refuse to perform dhikr (a form of Suf) get labelled as Wahhabis and terrorists. Some are trying to escape the abuse of security forces and the atmosphere of lawlessness created by the Chechen authorities. And, of course, there are women who are victims of domestic violence, arranged marriages, and other “benefits” of patriarchal and dogmatic Chechen society. In addition, most Chechen refugees admit that they are afraid of reprisals in case they have to return home. In order to imagine what might await refugees back in Chechnya, one can recall the events of December 2014, when Human Rights Watch received reports of at least six homes being burned to the ground after public threats by Kadyrov’s government to collectively punish and expel the families of rebels from the country.
While Polish border authorities deny Chechens international protection, Belarusian side ignores the situation giving no official response. Despite Chechnya being a part of Russian Federation, Putin administration have done little apart from issuing rare words of concern to end human rights violation in the region. The failure of Russian government to acknowledge the problem puts Belarus in a difficult position. Being economically and politically dependent on Russia, Belarus cannot officially recognize Chechens’ refugee status or give them asylum, nor prevent their coming to Brest.
The experience of being denied entry to Poland is bound in a chain of humiliations and challenges many asylum seekers encounter during the process. Staying in Brest is a considerable financial burden. Many families take a train to Terespol daily spending 50 euros minimum on a round trip, not to mention that they have to pay for their accommodation and buy food. Having run out of money, many refugees have to spend nights at the local train station or makeshift camps close to the rails. The situation worsens during the winter when temperature falls below zero.
What is next? Though multiple human rights organizations and European law enforcement agencies have criticized Poland for its actions and urged it to reconsider its decisions on applications made by Chechen refugees, the situation has hardly improved since 2015. It is true, however, that the EU is trying to improve the situation with migration flows in the region.
But denial rate on applications is still high as the border authorities are often cautious when dealing with asylum seekers from Chechnya as they have to distinguish people fleeing from prosecution and those that under the guise of refugee status, act as ‘moral guardians’ among their compatriots. Obviously, it slows down the process and strengthens prejudices around the ethnic group, which leaves little hope for those stranded in Brest whose main enemy is time as they are simply running out of it.