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Chechnya: Refugees Pin Hopes On Czech Republic

Since the middle of last month, hundreds of Chechen refugees have left Poland for the Czech Republic in the hope their asylum claims will have a better chance there. It's causing a bit of a headache for authorities in both countries, RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 1 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Havazhi, a Chechen refugee, wasn't happy with the facilities at his Polish camp. So late last month, he packed up and headed south for the Czech border.

"The Polish people were nice, they were OK with us. The only thing that made me come here is that in Poland there was no medical treatment available. And there were no opportunities for study, " Havazhi said.

Havazhi is one of an estimated 600 Chechen refugees who have arrived at the Czech-Polish border in recent weeks. They've either withdrawn their asylum applications in Poland, or had them refused. So they're heading to the Czech Republic in the hope their claims will have a better chance there.

Most have been taken to a reception center nearby. But camp officials say it's now bursting at the seams.

The influx prompted Czech and Polish officials to meet last week. It yielded little except a decision to "keep each other informed." The Czech Interior Ministry have said the Polish police will let them know if a large group of refugees is heading to the border, to allow the Czechs to prepare.

The Polish authorities deny conditions are bad in their refugee camps. They say the Chechen refugees have been moving on because they're introducing a new, subsidiary category of protection status soon that will give fewer benefits.

That's also common in European Union countries. Plenty of asylum seekers can't meet the criteria of the Geneva Refugee Convention, which says a refugee is someone who has a "well-founded fear of persecution" based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Many EU countries allow people who don't meet those criteria to stay on humanitarian grounds.

For the moment, at least, the Chechens won't be sent back to Poland or Russia.

Czech asylum laws allow this kind of movement and any foreigner who applies for asylum has to have their application heard. The Polish foreign police chief has said that will change after both countries join the EU next year. European Union rules mean refugees can't seek asylum in one member country and then go next door. If they do, they're quickly sent back.

Ulrike Brandl, an asylum expert at the University of Salzburg, said: "Normally it's not possible to apply in another country after the withdrawal of an asylum application in one country. For example, if an asylum seeker comes to Germany and then goes on to France and applies in France after withdrawal of the application in Germany, then the person would be returned to Germany."

Theoretically the Czechs could do that too. The Czech asylum law already has a "third safe country" rule -- applications can be turned down if the person claiming asylum has already applied in another safe country. But all applications must first be heard and the process can drag on before a decision is made.

For the moment, Havazhi is pinning his hopes on the Czech Republic: "We're also grateful to the Czechs for accepting us. No one was rejected. They immediately gave us rooms here. In relation to this [refugee] status there's more chance to get refugee status here. I think that and some others think that too."

Aslan Doukaev of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.