Asylum laws leave Chechens stranded in Poland

In the corner of the dimly lit entrance hall of a Soviet housing block in the Warsaw suburb of Wolomin, housing Chechen refugees, a middle-aged man toys aimlessly with a large switchblade.

Children’s voices ring down from the upper storeys of the building, home to between 200 and 300 Chechens who have fled the war in their north Caucasus homeland to end up at one of 17 refugee centres in Poland.

A pall of cigarette smoke hangs over the hallway, where a dozen Chechen men mill around, nothing better to do with their day.

Mikail (39) has been at this centre for one year and two months. He left behind him an idyllic life in Chechnya, where he headed a cultural centre and his family reared horses until their stables were destroyed in the war.

“I’m not a murderer. I left Chechnya because my mother pleaded with me to go before I disappeared without a trace,” he says.

Upstairs, Liza (28) shares a musty room of 12 square metres with her husband and three children, aged two, four and 10.

“One day my husband was arrested and beaten.
We paid a ransom, bought him back, and the next day we decided to leave,” she says.

Hava (34) lost her brother and husband in Chechnya.

“The Russians came and took my brother, so my husband went to get him back. I never saw either of them again,” she said.

After she filed a formal complaint about the disappearances, masked men came to the house. They beat Hava’s 13-year-old daughter so severely that she now has vision problems, and Hava’s son, now four, was so terrified that he still doesn’t speak.

“We need help. We need medical care. Poland can’t give it to us. We want to be able to live a normal life. I’ve had an interview with officials about obtaining refugee status. That was in October and I still haven’t had an answer. I don’t know what to expect.”

Asylum law

European Union officials met at the weekend to try to harmonise asylum law—not to make it easier for genuine refugees to make sense of EU rules or to help countries like Poland, which bears the brunt of the influx of refugees from the east, but to stem the number of asylum seekers trying to enter the bloc.

In 2004, the year Poland joined the EU, 7 183 people from the Russian Federation, 90% of them Chechens, sought asylum in Poland—more than double the number of two years earlier, according to the Polish Office of Repatriation and Aliens.

“Poland receives the same aid as everyone else from the EU to deal with refugee issues,” says Jan Wegrzyn, head of the Repatriation and Aliens agency, which deals with refugee issues.

“We don’t see the possibility of getting more,” he says. There is no system in the EU that will allow the refugee burden to be more fairly shared out among member states, he adds.

Only about 8% of Chechens are granted refugee status in Poland, Wegrzyn adds.

Most are given “tolerated stay” status, which gives holders the right to work but little else. Many simply disappear, heading west to what Chechens see as EU Eldorados.

Sneaking out

Hava, Liza and Mikail have tried their luck sneaking into Germany or France, but all were caught and sent back to Poland, their first port of call in the EU and, under the 2003 Dublin regulations, the country in which they must seek asylum.

“Most Chechens come to Poland because it is the closest place they can reach,” says Attar Ornan, a psychologist who works at refugee centres in Poland for global medical charity Médecins sans Frontières.

“Not being allowed to go elsewhere in the EU is very difficult for them,” she says. “They feel no one is interested in what is going on in Chechnya or here. No one wants to listen. They feel abandoned, there and here.”

Mikail has been granted tolerated-stay status in Poland, meaning he has been given a work permit but will not get the 1 000 zlotys (â,¬250) a month paid to refugees.

“The Polish state gave me 1 200 zlotys [â,¬300] for two months. I have to find an apartment and work, but it’s very hard,” says Mikail, who has learned Polish and trained to work as a security guard.

Poland has the highest unemployment rate in the EU, at about 18% of the workforce.

“The authorities here won’t let me leave, but I can’t live here. I can’t work. We want to be able to live normal lives, not as sub-standard citizens. If there were no war in Chechnya, I’d go back in an instant. But that’s out of the question now,” he says.—AFP

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