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Letter to UNHCR on Refugee Crisis in Chechnya

In a letter to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata, who is scheduled to meet with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Friday, Human Rights Watch has asked her to urge the Russian government to protect fleeing civilians.

Human Rights Watch currently has a rotating group of researchers in the region who are responsible for interviewing internally displaced persons, primarily in Ingushetia, in order to document the human rights abuses they have experienced or witnessed in Chechnya. In the course of our monitoring, we are paying particular attention to the plight of displaced persons, including treatment by the Russian authorities, restrictions on freedom of movement, and access to humanitarian assistance.

We are aware of the precarious security conditions in the region and the serious limitations these place on UNHCR's ability to operate. Through our monitoring and research we have identified some serious problems facing internally displaced persons in the region and would like to request you to raise these with the Russian authorities in the course of your discussions over the coming days.

Freedom of Movement and Access to Areas of Safety
We welcomed your press statement on October 25, in which you raised grave concern over the fate of the tens of thousands of civilians who were trapped within Chechnya and unable to cross over into Ingushetia in order to escape the fighting and seek safety. We are aware that the Chechen-Ingush border has now officially opened and that on average several thousand people per day pass through. We remain deeply concerned at the continuing cumbersome bureaucratic border procedures which have caused long delays for some seeking to flee Chechnya and cross into Ingushetia, particularly those traveling in automobiles, given the onset of harsh weather. We are very concerned that international humanitarian agencies, such as UNHCR, will not have proper access to those waiting in line on the Chechen side, and that there is little, if any, humanitarian assistance reaching the displaced. This concern was heightened last week, when Russian authorities denied entry through the border to a visiting OSCE mission.

Many internally displaced persons in Ingushetia have reported to Human Rights Watch that Russian border police at certain checkpoints—for instance the second

Assinovsakaya checkpoint— extort them for bribes, threatening to send those who do not pay to the back of the line. Internally displaced persons seeking entry to other parts of the Russian Federation are also subjected to extortion and bribes by the border guards and border authorities. This only adds to the hardships suffered by those fleeing the conflict.

Moreover, we are concerned at continuing obstructions for those wishing to leave either Ingushetia or Chechnya and seek refuge in other cities in the Russian Federation, where many of them have relatives who can assist. While restrictions preventing the movement of displaced Chechens to other parts of Russia have now apparently been lifted, travel remains difficult and many displaced persons are forced to pay large bribes in order to move on public transportation. Disturbing reports continue of ethnically motivated harassment by Moscow police of ethnic Chechens and people of other Caucasus nationalities, making Moscow a highly inhospitable environment for internally displaced persons.

We urge you to impress on the Russian authorities the importance of keeping the border with Ingushetia open, and allowing free, safe, and unimpeded access for all displaced persons to move into Ingushetia. In particular, efforts should be taken to speed up and simplify border control procedures, and action should be taken to prevent and punish corruption and extortion at the border crossings. We also request that you stress the need for the Russian authorities to uphold the rights of internally displaced persons to freedom of movement and freedom to choose place of residence within the Russian Federation.

In this regard we ask you to draw the attention of the Russian authorities to Principle 14 and 15 of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which guarantee freedom of movement and freedom to choose place of residence for all internally displaced persons. Principle 15 (a) stipulates that states must guarantee the right of all internally displaced persons to "seek safety in another part of the country." The current actions of the Russian authorities violate these Principles.

Finally, we hope that you will urge Prime Minister Putin to prevail upon the Moscow city government to cease the harassment of ethnic minorities, including internally displace persons, in the capital.

Relocations to Chechnya
In a letter to Prime Minister Putin on October 5, Human Rights Watch raised serious concerns regarding the announced plans to relocate displaced persons to districts of Chechnya under the control of Russian federal troops. We stressed that such areas were potential places of military engagement, and that the security and protection of displaced persons could not be guaranteed. Moreover, international humanitarian agencies did not have access to these areas in order to assess conditions or provide assistance. At that time, we urged the Russian government to immediately cease all plans to relocate displaced persons to areas under its military control. We have since learned that at least 159 people have been resettled in northern Chechnya in Russian military controlled areas.

We urge you to seek assurances from Prime Minister Putin that internally displaced persons will not be resettled in parts of Chechnya where their security and safety can not be guaranteed, and where there is no access for humanitarian agencies. In this regard, we refer to Principle 15 (d) of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which states that all internally displaced persons have "the right to be protected against forcible return to or resettlement in any place where their life, safety, liberty and/ or health would be at risk."

Attacks on Internally Displaced Persons
We were deeply shocked to learn about the aerial attack on a Red Cross convoy of displaced persons in Chechnya, after an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Ingush-Chechen border on October 31. The vehicles in the convoy were clearly marked with the Red Cross emblem. Such an attack is a clear violation of the Russian government's obligations under international humanitarian law to distinguish between civilians and combatants and to refrain from attacks on civilians. Principle 10 of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement also expressly prohibits direct or indiscriminate attacks or other acts of violence against internally displaced persons.

The lack of a clearly identified corridor from towns and villages under Russian fire has caused civilian casualties, particularly for those fleeing westalong the Baku-Rostov highway. We have received multiple reports of shell and artillery fire on civilians fleeing these areas in unmarked vehicles.

We urge you to raise these serious incidents with Prime Minister Putin during your discussions and to seek assurances that internally displaced persons will be protected from direct or indiscriminate attacks, both while they are in camps or settlements, and when they are fleeing for safety.

Access to Humanitarian Assistance
As you know, conditions for the internally displaced are extremely harsh, and as winter approaches will only deteriorate further. We remain seriously concerned that, primarily due to the volatile security conditions, international humanitarian agencies do not have full, safe, and unimpeded access to all internally displaced persons. In particular, conditions for those displaced persons on the Chechen side of the Ingush-Chechen border have episodically been reported to be dire. We fear that should escalated attacks drive thousands more to flee to Ingushetia, the back-log could again cause long delays in crossing and could leave thousands of people stranded with no shelter and very limited access to humanitarian assistance and medical care. This underscores the need for unfettered and secure access to those who wait at the border.

Conditions inside Ingushetia are not much better. Like you, we are extremely concerned about the plight of displaced persons living in freezing railway carriages and makeshift camps with very scant assistance and very limited access to medical care. The tens of thousands of people staying with host families are marginally better off, but there are serious concerns that the host families themselves may be unable to make it through the winter without additional assistance.

Human Rights Watch welcomes UNHCR's efforts to bring relief convoys into Ingushetia. The needs of the people are however enormous and much more must be done to assist them. We urge you in your discussions with the Russian authorities to impress upon them the importance of accepting all offers of international assistance. The Russian authorities also have an obligation to ensure full, safe, and unimpeded access for all humanitarian organizations to the displaced, and to safeguard the security of humanitarian personnel. In this regard, we draw your attention to Principles 18 to 19, and 24 to 26 of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which clearly stipulate the obligations of governments to provide adequate assistance to internally displaced persons, and to ensure full and safe access for international humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance as necessary.

We are pleased to hear that you will be able to visit the Ingush-chechen border while you are in the Russian Federation and hope that you will get the opportunity to visit displaced persons on both sides of the border. We would also like to draw your attention to the desperate state of the Sunzha District hospital in Ordzhonokidzovskaya, near the border. Human Rights Watch has learned through frequent visits that this hospital is experiencing severe deficits of medicines and equipment. It is bearing the brunt of the influx of wounded civilians from Chechnya, as it is situated near the border and is close to camps for the displaced. Any assistance that UNHCR is able to provide to this hospital is desperately needed.

Prioritizing Protection
Finally, while the humanitarian needs of displaced persons are indisputable, their protection from physical attacks, intimidation, and harassment is equally vital. Recognizing the operational constraints facing international agencies, such as UNHCR, we nevertheless urge you to make protection for the internally displaced a top priority, not only in your discussions with the Russian authorities, but also in your operations on the ground. In particular, sufficient numbers of protection officers should be deployed to the region. As resident humanitarian coordinator in Moscow, UNHCR should actively assert its protection, as well as its humanitarian, mandate. In this regard, we draw your attention to Principle 27 (1) of the Guiding Principles, which states that "International humanitarian organizations and other appropriate actors when providing assistance should give due regard to the protection needs and human rights of internally displaced persons and take appropriate measures in this regard."

Once again, we would like to reiterate our appreciation and support for your visit to Russia, at the request of the Secretary General of the U.N. We hope that you will have the opportunity to raise our concerns with the Russian authorities during your discussions, and we look forward to working together to improve the conditions for those civilians worst affected by the conflict in Chechnya.


Holly Cartner
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch

Rachael Reilly
Refugee Policy Director
Human Rights Watch

cc: Mr. Chris Carpenter, Representative, UNHCR Branch Office, Moscow
Mr. Filippo Grandi, Senior Executive Assistant to the High Commissioner, C/O UNHCR Branch Office, Moscow
Mr. Anne-Willem Bijleveld, Director, Bureau for Europe, UNHCR, Geneva
Mr. Amin Awad, Senior Desk Officer, Russian Federation, Bureau for Europe, UNHCR, Geneva
Ms. Erika Feller, Director, Department of International Protection, UNHCR, Geneva
Ms. Robyn Groves, Senior Liaison Officer, UNHCR Liaison Office, New York

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