The Russian government must stop pressuring internally displaced persons in Ingushetia to return to Chechnya, Human Rights Watch said today. Russian authorities have announced that the Aki-Yurt tent camp in northern Ingushetia will be closed by December 1, 2002, and are now hastening the return of its 1,700 inhabitants.
"Closing tent camps and pressuring people to go back to Chechnya without offering any reasonable alternative amounts to forcible return,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “This is a clear violation of Russia’s obligations under international law.”
Earlier this fall the Federal Migration Service along with local migration authorities started pressuring internally displaced persons living in the Aki-Yurt camp to leave, threatening them with imminent deadlines for the camp’s closure and making promises of alternative shelter. But the proposed shelters—including an abandoned bottling factory and a dairy farm in disuse—were uninhabitable. Since September, about nineteen families left the camp either for Chechnya or for the alternative shelters. Most inhabitants, however, refused to leave.
Now migration service officials have announced that by December 1, they would cut off gas, electricity, and water supplies in the camp and remove all tents. A Federal Migration Service representative in Moscow told Human Rights Watch that the decision to close the camp was based on warnings published by the Ingush fire department and sanitary inspection.
Residents of Aki-Yurt are now being offered no specific alternative accommodation in Ingushetia. The Federal Migration Service claims that no forced return is under way and that people simply do not want to remain in the camp. Reportedly, at least thirty families have left the camp for Chechnya over the past three days. It is unclear where residents will live once migration officials close the camp on Sunday. Since the temporary accommodation centers in Chechnya are already overcrowded, migration authorities expect the returnees to rent private space in Chechnya and promised to pay every returnee about 20 rubles (less than U.S. $1.00 ) per day to cover rent, food, and all other costs of living.
About 25,000 displaced persons from Chechnya remain in tent camps in Ingushetia. Human Rights Watch research in Ingushetia this summer indicated that most prefer to tolerate the deprivations of tent camps rather than return to Chechnya, where the armed conflict and human rights violations continue, particularly arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, torture, and extrajuducial executions.
In May 2002, federal authorities published a plan to close all tent camps in Ingushetia and to return the displaced persons living in them to Chechnya; now migration authorities announced a plan to close all camps by December 31. While officially stating that returns would take place on a strictly voluntarily basis, throughout the summer and early fall migration authorities actively used a combination of threats and incentives to pressure displaced persons to return to Chechnya. In order to hasten returns, migration officials have consistently dismissed the real threats of human rights abuses that persist in Chechnya.
“Russian authorities are trying to get rid of the tent camps at any cost, since they are the most visible indication that the situation in Chechnya is far from normal,” said Andersen. “They make it hard indeed to convince Russians and the international community that the conflict is winding down. But the conflict is dragging on and serious human rights violations continue there unabated. Forcing people to return to them is unconscionable.”
Human Rights Watch calls on the Russian government to stop coercing internally displaced persons into returning to Chechnya and to ensure that they continue to enjoy protection and humanitarian assistance in accordance with international law. It also urges the relevant international agencies involved in the region to protest any measures that may endanger the lives and well-being of thousands of internally displaced people residing in Ingushetia.