Pressure mounts on Chechen refugees to leave

Many Chechen war refugees are now under pressure to leave their tents in neighbouring Ingushetia and return to the war-ravaged republic.

    UNHCR goodwill ambassadors have highlighted Chechen crisis

    The camps, where people took shelter from Russian bombs more than four years ago at the start of the Russo-Chechen war, are an embarrassment to the Kremlin.

    They are the constant reminder that its declarations of Chechen "normalisation" ring hollow and many refugees refuse to come back to the ruined republic.

    About 477 people were kidnapped last year, 322 of whom were later found dead or still missing, according to the Memorial human rights organisation - which monitors less than a third of the republic's territory.
    But the 14 March presidential election has put pressure on the Russian president to sort out a problem his forces helped to create.

    Change in method

    In the past, "encouraging" refugees to return was unsubtle and aggressive.

    When gas was cut to settlements housing more than 2000 people in late February, according to the UN refugee agency – Chechens were forced to flee the bitter cold. 

    A similar approach saw the closure of the Aki Yurt camp in December 2002, when police forced refugees to leave their tents. 

    Russian President Vladimir Putin
    likely to be re-elected in March

    But now the method by which people are pressured to return is quite new.

    Promises of compensation for lost homes and assurances of temporary accommodation in Chechnya are being made.
    Large numbers

    Ingushetia currently houses more than 65,000 displaced people of which 5678 are in the three largest tent camps of Bart, Sputnik and Satsita.

    Russian authorities put these figures at 50,000 and 5000, respectively.
    The Bart camp is the smallest, housing 600 to 800 people at the beginning of February and the place where authorities have concentrated much of their efforts during the past month.
    Today the camp is nearly deserted, with a few dozen tents remaining.
    "They always try to get the number of people under a thousand in the camp," said an official with an international aid agency, who requested anonymity.

    "One thousand seems to be the magic number - as soon as the number goes below, authorities argue that it's not cost effective to keep the camp open."
    "Bart will be closed before the election and then they'll start on Sputnik," which currently has just over a thousand refugees, the official said. 
    Mother's dilemma

    Marika, a 41-year-old mother of three, is one of the people who recently left the camp and today is living in a temporary housing unit in Chechnya's capital Grozny.
    "They told us that we would get compensation for our home if we left," she said, nervously playing with her headscarf. "As soon as I get my money, I'm going to leave."
    "Of course it's better here than in the tents - there is a roof over your head. But I don't want to live here. Truthfully, I am sorry I came. It's not safe here.

    "I have a 20-year-old boy. They are the ones most likely to get taken away. I am afraid every time he goes outside."

    SOURCE: Reuters


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