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Russia: Authorities Deny Forcing Chechen Refugees To Return Home

Russian officials deny reports that they have coerced thousands of refugees in the southern region of Ingushetia to return home to Chechnya. Human rights groups disagree, saying that as temperatures drop below freezing, humanitarian supplies of food, water, and heat are being cut off from refugee camps to force their occupants to return to the ruined and lawless breakaway republic.

Moscow, 4 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russia has denied allegations that it is forcing thousands of Chechen refugees to return to the lawless breakaway republic after authorities shut down a refugee camp in neighboring Ingushetia.

The Interior Ministry's head of immigration services, Aleksandr Rostovtsev, said more than 1,000 refugees had "voluntarily" returned to Chechnya, news agencies reported. He added that his office had provided the refugees with cars and money to find new lodgings.

Russia admitted to closing Monday the Iman refugee tent camp near the Ingush town of Aki Yurt, an outpost about 3 kilometers from the Chechen border that housed more than 2,700 refugees. Russian officials have announced plans to close five additional camps in Ingushetia by 20 December. They say they are no longer needed and that the situation in Chechnya is sufficiently stable for refugees to return home safely.

But human rights groups disagree. One organization, Memorial, says refugees from a number of camps are being loaded into trucks and forced to return to their homes in the lawless breakaway region.

Svetlana Gannushkina, a member of Memorial who also serves on the presidential Human Rights Committee, returned 29 November from Ingushetia, where she was able to visit Iman and other camps from which journalists and other human rights workers have been banned.

She said the refugees are given little choice whether to stay or go. "The force is on such a level and [the refugees] are so well accustomed to such force that they would rather do what is required of them -- even to die," Gannushkina said.

There are an estimated 20,000 Chechen refugees living in the Ingush camps slated for closure. Another 110,000 Chechens live in Ingushetia in cramped conditions with friends and relatives.

They represent part of the 350,000 people who fled Chechnya after Russia initiated its second war in the breakaway republic in 1999.

Moscow wants refugees to return to Chechnya in order to boost its claims that military operations in the war-destroyed region are drawing to a close. Refugee tent camps are a stark reminder that the conflict is dragging inexorably on.

Ruslan Badalov, chairman of the Chechen National Salvation Committee, said the fates of those forced to flee Aki Yurt are unclear. "I feel sorry for the people who will be thrown out in the winter, when, as the old Russian saying goes, a good man won't let his dog outside. And nobody cares what's going to happen to them or where they'll be sent. There is a political goal: to remove the tent camps from the eyes of human rights activists, of the international community, and journalists, and [the Russian authorities] are trying to achieve it at any cost," Badalov said.

Forcing refugees to return home against their will is a breach of United Nations and other international human rights regulations.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker yesterday said the U.S. government was "greatly concerned" by Monday's closure of the Aki Yurt camp, which he called "essentially a forced eviction." The United States says it is seeking an explanation from Moscow.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees last week asked Moscow to hold off shutting down the Aki Yurt camp until acceptable housing for its refugees was found. The agency said it had offered to set up replacement housing but had received no reply from Moscow.

Gannushkina said: "What's going on is not based on logic but lies. We have been witness to these lies for a long time. We were told for a long time and repeatedly that the camps wouldn't be destroyed and that people wouldn't be forcibly returned to Chechnya. That's not true, notwithstanding the fact that that untruth is being repeated even today."

Gannushkina said authorities have employed various means in coercing refugees to leave the camps, including denying humanitarian aid like food, water, and gas for heating and cooking at a time when temperatures are dropping to minus 10 degrees Celsius. Hundreds of strangers dressed in civilian clothes also circulate inside the camps threatening families with eviction.

Gannushkina said such methods created panic among refugees. "In Aki Yurt, people were literally driven to a condition of hysteria," she said.

Incentives are also used, including the promise of several months' humanitarian aid at once, free rides to Chechnya, and the issuing of housing-rental agreements in Chechnya with a promise of reimbursement from the government.

Gannushkina said the documents actually contain no written guarantees of payment.

Authorities, meanwhile, say refugees can remain in Ingushetia if they want, but only if they crowd together in nonresidential buildings such as factory and farm warehouses.

The government has also set up temporary camps inside Chechnya to house refugees. Gannushkina said these accommodations have long been "overfilled."

The UNHCR and human rights groups say most housing in Chechnya is ruined by shelling and lacks basic necessities, including water, heat, and even toilets.

But the chief reason refugees have not returned to Chechnya, Gannushkina said, is that government guarantees of security have gone unfulfilled and human rights violations by Russian forces in the region continue unchecked.