Politics

Chechen Stories at the Polish Borders

Laurent Vinatier · 12 March 2014
Whether or not the story is real, no one can really assure. But it has been heard for a while among the Chechen refugees’ contingents on their way far from their war-ravaged homeland in the early 2000s.

It is said that one evening, two Chechen refugee families, one with a baby, who were systematically refused at some European official border posts of an unnamed country – was it Austria, Slovakia or Poland? – decide to bypass the border guards and find further on the targeted territory a police station where they could directly surrender and apply for asylum. It was autumn. When the night has already fallen, the two couples walk deeper into the neighbouring forest. At the beginning, they climb a bit on a path but quickly flashlights prove useless against the overwhelming darkness. One hour goes. The two men keep confidence. Areas surrounding borders are usually not too thick: it cannot be far yet. Both of them hope soon reach a road. The trail goes slightly downward but turns brushy as well. Two hours. The baby gets hungry and still softly whines. Worries increase in the small group. Three hours. The father asks for a break, just to feed the child but the other man responds that it is better firstly to go out from here as rapidly as possible. Voices go up, hardly covering a transpiring anxiety. In silence, the two couples split. The mother is exhausted and cannot really continue. The cold gets harsher. The family walks alone one more hour, a last effort, but nothing appears around. In the middle of the night, panicking, the father leaves them to get some help. He finds them only two days after. The baby has died.

***

Most of the time, refugees – Chechens as well – insist to cross at official border posts. Administrative and police uncertainty is still preferable to natural and dangerous no man’s land. Aslan, 30 years old, is one of them, waiting for his turn in the queue outside Brest-Litovsk at the Belarusian-Polish border. He keeps checking if the 10 dollars banknote is still well positioned in his passport just next to the photograph. The method has shown its worth. For months now, the American door opener has greatly accelerated Chechens’ exit from Belarus. At the border post, Aslan indeed has not even seen the eyes and heard the voice of the Belarusian civil employee. The Poles appear to be more attentive. Quickly, the illegal newcomers are sent to the police station in Terespol. All the asylum seekers, mostly Chechens at that time, are packed in a room where they can wait for several hours, before a Polish immigration officer comes and selects sometimes 30 or 40, more rarely 50, refugees to start the asylum application with an interview. The choice criteria are totally sovereign. From a Chechen perspective however, luck has much to see in the process. The non-selected others are sent back to Belarus. Aslan fails in his first attempt. All will try again the next day anyway.

This time, Aslan wears a blue shirt. He shaved also to appear more credible, more professional and more reliable. He runs to the change office before taking his place in the queue. The Belarusian check poses no difficulty. He arrives early in Terespol. In the waiting room, there are still some chairs available but rapidly more people coalesce. Aslan offers his chair to a young woman and her husband carrying a baby. There are many men alone, several young couples also. One of them, very calm, look absent and remains terribly mute, as if they lost the use of speech. Facing today a large influx, the Poles open a second room. Aslan recognizes one of his neighbors in Grozny before the war. That guy spent two years in a camp in Ingushetia but as the Ingush authorities are about to close those temporary shelters to force the displaced back to Chechnya, he did not dare to return and preferred to flee. His family will join him later when he is settled somewhere in Europe. Aslan has only started to tell his own story when the Polish immigration officer entered the room. Fast with some names on a paper, he announces the nominees. Aslan is given a chance, thanks maybe to the blue shirt. His former neighbor however has to retry.

An interview is scheduled, the first of a long process entitling the refugee to do his best to convince Poland to grant him asylum. As a member of the Danish Council of Refugees (DCR), a non-governmental organization active in Chechnya, Aslan was arrested by Russian security services in October 2002, just after the Danish authorities refused to extradite to Russia the Chechen separatist leader, Akhmed Zakaev, held in Denmark at the Russian request, while he came to attend a Chechen political meeting. Aslan’s arrest was a clear retaliation which did not last very long but has prevented the whole DCR local team to continue working in Chechnya and even living there, as they could at any moment become a target of the Russian and pro-Russian Chechen security services. The Polish officer conscientiously writes everything down without even looking at his interlocutor, in a very administrative and cold but acceptable manner. Aslan is happy though, feeling more secured, almost saved. He is sent with others to the Debak dispatch centre in the outskirts of Warsaw, where he waits for a place, a shared room at best, in one of the 17 shelter centers that Poland all over its territory has reserved for Chechens.

***

Since 2004, when Poland became a European Union’s border, its responsibility regarding immigration has hugely increased. Warsaw has had to prove its commitments to the European law but also and essentially its new membership to the European family. Poland clearly could only but assume what its peers expected from it, even if it did not have the necessary means to do. Regarding the Chechen issue specifically, it led to the generalization of a temporary status called a “tolerance permit”, a half measure, mid-way between a positive and a negative decision, allocating every refugee with a minimal amount of money but not authorizing him to work or rent his own flat. Living conditions in the administrative shelter centers consequently quickly deteriorate as the number of Chechen grows up. Afterwards, in the end of 2000s, efforts have been made. Debak has been renovated with European funds, but still today Polish authorities do not easily grant asylum to Chechen refugees, forcing them to continue their journey further west in Europe. But when those individuals are arrested in Germany, France or Austria, they fall under the Dublin II Convention which stipulates that a refugee has to be sent back to the first country of the EU where he applied for asylum. Some of them are subsequently sent back to Poland, only escalating the Polish burden. Among them, there are reported cases of further extradition to Russia, where obviously for an already fleeing Chechen it is quite doubtful that his rights will be respected back “home”. Poland should not go that often to such extreme decisions as Chechens’ expulsion to Russia but could rather focus on reforming the Dublin II convention, or better refuse to take back those who are sent by other member states. Meaning systematically!