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In Poland, Chechen Asylum Seekers Languish In Limbo

Imran Shaptukaev spent nine months in Germany with his ailing wife before authorities rejected their asylum request.
Imran Shaptukaev spent nine months in Germany with his ailing wife before authorities rejected their asylum request.
BIALYSTOK, Poland -- Outside a ramshackle asylum-seekers' residence, a lone man, expressionless, stares into the distance.

He fled Russia's violent North Caucasus region, but after 72 hours on the outskirts of Bialystok, 50 kilometers from the Polish border with Belarus, he has given up on life here, as well.

"Here there's nothing good," he says. "I already understand this after three days. I've already seen how people live."

As he walks away in disgust, the people whose lives he has witnessed begin to gather. They complain about skinhead threats, a lack of adequate social services, and the hopelessness of trying to integrate. Many have tried to move on to Germany, only to be deported and sent back here again.

Since January, some 20,000 asylum requests have been filed by Russian citizens -- almost all Chechen -- in Poland and Germany. Experts are mostly flummoxed by the influx, which already represents more than a twofold increase over all of 2012. Some point to a spreading rumor about German hospitality toward refugees as a potential cause.

Instead, geography and political reality have combined to create a growing class of people caught between states -- terrified of returning to Russia, unable to stay in Germany -- and with limited options in Poland.

'We're Doing Our Best'

Piotr Bystrianin, coordinator at the Ocalenie Foundation, a Warsaw-based nongovernmental organization, says the situation could reverberate for years.

"We are just losing time and money," he says, "and these people are losing their lives."

Under the European Union's so-called Dublin Regulation, the first EU country of entry is responsible for evaluating the claims of an asylum seeker. For Chechens, whose route typically takes them north to Moscow and then west through Belarus, this usually means Poland.

The country has had to comply with regulations stipulating protection and consideration for individuals seeking refugee status since it joined the EU in 2004.

Between 2008 and 2009, Poland accepted more than 3,000 Chechens for either asylum status or "subsidiary protection," a secondary level with similar benefits. But that number dropped drastically in 2010, and Poland has granted fewer than 600 Chechens protected status in the three years since.

Rejected applicants can stay in the country to appeal the decision.

Piotr Dzieciol, chief specialist in Poland's state-run social assistance agency, says his office has struggled to accommodate the increasing number of potential refugees.

"We're doing our best currently, you know," he says. "Because of this big inflow we're looking at the capacity of our centers and we're also trying to make this capacity bigger."

But Sharpudi Ilyasov, who has lived here for five years and is the representative for the Chechen diaspora in Poland, says social-welfare protections for asylum seekers on paper do not mesh with reality.

"It's only words, only words. In truth, this is chaos," he says. "Not a single organization will help you. It's all on your shoulders."

'Here, There Is Nothing'

Ilyasov met with RFE/RL in the capital, at Warsaw's central train station, but he says he cannot afford to live in the city with his allowance. He often hosts homeless Chechens in his apartment in the suburbs.

He says conditions in Poland tend to push Chechen asylum seekers to the West.

"There you're granted work. There you're granted training, education in a speciality," he says. "But here there is nothing of the sort."

The logic leads to Germany where social benefits -- which include a $470 monthly allowance, plus housing -- are more than twice those in Poland.


View The Road From Chechnya To A Shot At Asylum in a larger map

For the first time in Germany, asylum seekers from Russia outnumber those from any other country. Requests are more than double those from Syrians, the next-largest group.

But the Dublin Regulation is clear -- refugee-status litigation is the responsibility of the first EU state of entry.

With elections in September and a series of nationwide newspapers reporting, largely critically, on the influx from Russia, Germany is in no mood to bend the rules.

After the Boston Marathon bombings in April, allegedly perpetrated by two ethnic Chechens living in the United States, a rumor spread in the North Caucasus that a fearful Europe would soon shut its doors to Chechens.

Children play outside an asylum-seekers' center in Bialystok.
Children play outside an asylum-seekers' center in Bialystok.
While the rumor was unfounded and the borders have not closed, the attacks did focus unwanted attention on the Chechen community.

"Some of our politicians try to connect the question of Chechen refugees to terrorism," says Bernd Mesovic, deputy managing director of Pro Asyl, a Frankfurt-based NGO that advocates for migrants. "Some of them believe the information given by Russian officials, who are always connecting Chechens with terrorism."

'Treated Like Dirt'

The same is often true of the German media.

"Terrorists Seek Asylum In Germany" read an August 8 headline in the German daily "Die Welt," which connected the sudden increase with a call by leading Chechen militant Doku Umarov to plan attacks at next year's Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Of the applicants in Germany this year, 82 people have been granted refugee status and 702 have been scheduled for deportation.

Imran Shaptukaev, who spent nine months in Germany with his wife before authorities rejected their asylum request, was forced back to Poland in June.

Imram Shaptukaev shows his deportation notice from the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
Imram Shaptukaev shows his deportation notice from the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
Shaptukaev, who met RFE/RL at the camp in Bialystok, says the deportation took place despite medical circumstances that should have allowed them to stay longer in the country. He says his wife, who is diabetic and sought treatment in Bischofswerda, a town near Dresden, was recently in a coma for 12 hours.

"You can't just leave [Poland for Germany]. OK, you can get there, but then they'll just deport you back to Poland," he says.

Camp residents who spoke to RFE/RL say their situation is desperate.

"We're treated like Gypsies and dirt" by the authorities, says a man in a skullcap, using a derogatory term for Roma. Another man says he has been living in a one-bedroom apartment in the center with his wife and three kids for more than five years. And a teenager who recently graduated from high school in Bialystok says he was recently hospitalized after an attack by skinheads.

READ NEXT: Once A Melting Pot, Polish City Sees Uptick In Ethnic Violence

Despite the circumstances, they say the worst-case scenario would be deportation back to Russia.

After two separatist wars in the 1990s that killed thousands and radicalized many, Chechnya is now ruled by Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-approved head who human rights groups accuse of sanctioning the torture and murder of political opponents.

And around Russia's North Caucasus, Moscow has been accused of brutal repression of those thought to sympathize with separatist groups.

Shaptukaev, with scars running along his arm and a sunken face that belies his 37 years, says he spent 6 1/2 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of armed robbery.

"In Chechnya, that's how it's done," he says. "They come, find you at night, and take you away."
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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

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