Suddenly they were here and nothing could be done about it. A group of Chechen refugees knocked on our door, walked in and sat down in our waiting room. Their sudden arrival from Poland last spring made the front pages and prime time television newscasts. They disarranged migration statistics and unnerved the Czech Interior Ministry's employees. They crammed into refugee centers and waited for a miracle to take place. When it didn't happen, they left to knock on another country's door.
The Czech authorities and NGOs are in dispute over Chechen refugees. While the Interior Ministry claims that Chechen refugees consider the Czech Republic only a stopover before heading on to Western countries, NGOs accuse the Ministry officials that instead of granting the Chechens asylum here, they are telling them to go back to Chechnya, where the war has been going on for the fifth year.
The dispute erupted last year when large groups of Chechen refugees started flowing into the Czech Republic from Poland. Up until last autumn, Chechens were able to travel to Poland without a visa. When they realized that their chances at being granted asylum there were minimal, and that the non-visa agreement between Russia and Poland was soon to expire, they tried going to the Czech Republic. In April 2003 large groups of Chechens, including whole families, crossed the Polish-Czech border and requested asylum here, officially claiming that they were dissatisfied with conditions in the Polish refugee camps.
What to Do With Them?
It was necessary to find a solution to handle the unexpected arrival of these refugees. When war again broke out in Chechnya in 1999, the Czech government in 2001 offered "temporary protection" to 250 of them (those who had arrived in the first wave) that would give them, at least for the time being, similar support that asylum seekers receive. But the people who came from Poland last year either weren't offered this support because they allegedly weren't interested in it. The temporary protection offer had one catch - once Czech officials declare that Chechnya is safe, the refugees would have to leave the Czech Republic.
Therefore, the Ministry of Interior this time offered to give them money for their return trip home. The plan was torpedoed by the Czech media and ignored by the Chechens. Returning to Mother Russia did not thrill them so they decided to go knocking on other doors. Some went to Austria; others to Germany; and the rest caught when crossing the border and ordered to leave the country. And because those asylum applicants who decided to cross the border without waiting for the outcome of their asylum request, broke the rule of asylum, the Czech authorities blocked their asylum request and considered expelling them from the country. Naturally many Czech NGOs loudly protested as their views about Chechen refugees were in total variance with Ministry officials.
According to the Ministry, Chechens are economic refugees and the Czech Republic acts solely as a place of transit. "They don't want asylum here, nor are they interested in getting it, even temporarily. The NGO reports are misleading," stated Tomas Haisman, director of the Ministry's Asylum and Migration Policy Division, which decides who will or will not receive this status.
Applications Turned Down
During the past few months, this Division has been promptly denying asylum requests of the refugees. "Everyone in those camps that I know of received negative response forms on which was written that they could return to Chechnya now, since there is no war there and no obstacles exist to prevent their going abroad. But the other refugees are well aware that they, too, will receive negative responses," said social worker Vera Roubalova of the Refugees Counselling Centre, who regularly visits the camps.
The Interior Ministry, in dealing with the Chechens requests, acts in accordance with the asylum law. For example, when an applicant states only economic reasons, or comes from a land that the Czech Republic considers a third world safe country, or he could find equivalent protection in another part of the Russian Federation, his request is summarily denied.
According to Roubalova, the speed with which Chechens receive negative responses is vastly disproportionate to the rapidity of other nationalities, where it takes a year or even more. "Therefore, Chechens feel like they are some sort of an unclean, sullied group. In the camps with them are also people from the former USSR who wait and wait; whereas Chechens' requests are processed immediately. That's so degrading for them," said Roubalova.
Thus many Chechens don't even bother waiting for the Minister's decision. According to Jindrich Urban, Director of Foreigners Police and Border Patrol, last year the police caught especially people from the Russian Federation, most of whom were Chechens, trying to cross the border.
It must also be noted, however, that migration across our borders is reinforced by the experience of those who left our country and received asylum in Austria and Germany; compared with the Czech Republic, they got it within a short period of time.
Waiting for Godot
Accelerating the flow of Chechen refugees from our country complicates even the work of the Czech NGOs, which often appeal against the Ministry's decisions at courts. However, for the Ministry's officials to try and prove to an impartial court that they made the right decisions regarding Chechens, is just a theoretical possibility since Czech courts are still over-burdened. According to reliable information, no court case involving the recent wave of Chechen refugees has as yet been concluded.
It is now the beginning of 2004 and the Russian authorities are expelling the last remnant of Chechen refugees from three tent camps in Ingushetia to avoid any blot on the prestige of Vladimir Putin, the winner of the upcoming Russian presidential election. However, the people who set out from the Caucasus for Europe and emerged in the Czech Republic now have different worries; their lives are no longer affected by fearsome night assaults where men were dragged out of their homes to unknown places, and by all the other horrors attributed to present day Chechnya. They are just looking for a place where they can live normally. But for the time being, they must seek it away from their homeland. And wait.