By Azer Azizbekov, special to Prague Watchdog
"It took over a day to reach Azerbaijan. My uncle's neighbour took me to Daghestan where some locals showed me how to cross the border; once there I took a taxi to Baku - and here I am." Magomed is looking at me and smiling. He's big and healthy-looking and reminds me of a bookish friend I once had who was killed by Kadyrov's men in Grozny a few years ago.
He continued his explanation, saying that he had to cross the border this way because he couldn't afford the $800 price tag for a passport. Magomed felt it was only a matter of time before he'd be arrested again, beaten and tortured. So his father decided that since he was the only son left alive, he must leave Chechnya and go to Azerbaijan, a land that's been a place of refuge for thousands of Chechens.
According to UNHCR, the main refugee organization in Azerbaijan, the number of Chechen refugees has greatly decreased during the past year, which is mostly due to not enough assistance being offered to them. Azerbaijan is a country with over half a million displaced - some from the Karabakh conflict and others from Armenia. The presence of Chechens, however, is nowhere formally noted.
The Chechens find themselves in a sort of legal limbo; the authorities treat them as they would any other foreigner, yet they are unable to get proper documentation that would allow them to find jobs. UNHCR has taken the responsibility of helping to register these people but admits in their official documents that the "resources [...] are also very strained and the asylum seeker population is becoming increasingly destitute and despondent".
Official UNHCR statistics confirm this despondency; according to their figures, the number of Chechens registered in Azerbaijan has decreased almost three times in 2005, dropping below 3,000 individuals. The refugees are unable to grow their own food, which is traditional with Chechens, nor can they rely on support from a network of extended families. Thus, many had no choice but to return to Chechnya. The more fortunate eventually managed to move to Europe, some benefitting from UNHCR's program of resettlement of refugees to third countries.
"I came here in order to get to Europe; people said that UN can send you there," states Magomed. He's now busy rehearsing how best to present his claim for asylum to the UNHCR officers, wondering whether it would help to elaborate a little about his arrest and torture. "The more horrible a picture you paint, the greater your chances. It certainly worked for my cousin," he says with an apologetic grin.
A group of older and more experienced refugees are willing to help him prepare his story, but warn him not to have any high hopes of success. "I've been here five years, applied for international status six times and never received an answer let alone being invited for an additional interview," complains Issa. "I'm going to the USA," adds Aslan "but have no idea when that will be because almost a year has passed since my interview at the Embassy."
Magomed doesn't seem to mind all that much. Unlike the others, he does not cling to UNHCR's resettlement program as the only option. "If I can't manage here, my father will sell the family house in Gudermes so I can leave and go elsewhere. But they first need to get me a passport in Grozny and that takes time. The passport officials are very greedy and constantly keep asking for higher bribes."
Otherwise, the individual refugee recognition, or "international status", as it is widely referred to by the refugee community, is generally perceived as the ultimate protection from extradition to Russia as well as a free ticket to Europe or North America. The fact is, however, that western countries have been slowly closing their doors to Chechen refugees. Moreover, all the men voice skepticism about getting fair treatment from an UN agency since free passage in the past was often granted to refugees whose life stories were not particularly creditable, but they were told in loud and forceful voices.
In the absence of legal recognition from the local government, the Chechens, who represent about 80% of all refugees in Azerbaijan, are entirely dependent on help from their relatives abroad plus a handful of programs carried out by various humanitarian agencies. The most important of these is the distribution of cash to some families. According to UNHCR, about 300 families each receive $100 in monthly assistance, while an additional 250 will be similarly assisted as long as the funds hold out. Both UNHCR officials and the refugees themselves admit that the current assistance levels are barely sufficient to cover their rent let alone buy any food. They have even more to say about the current practices in that too many families receive no monetary help whereas those who are lucky to get it, mostly large families, don't get nearly enough to survive on.
The Chechen community in Azerbaijan is growing more impoverished and unhappy as time goes on. The humanitarian agencies are only able to stop a few families from further deterioration but have no real solutions to the overall problem. In the eyes of the Azerbaijani government, Chechen refugees do not exist because, as one joke has it, they do not contain oil. More serious observers would list geo-political concerns as the reasons why Azerbaijanis refuse to recognize Chechens on their land. This is an old song that not many refugees want to hear any longer, yet the government and most international organizations continue singing it.
Some Chechens have been able to find occasional income in small businesses or on one of the many construction sites, all of which are illegal and not without discrimination or fraud by the employer. "They promise you thirty dollars and then pay you only half, if you're even lucky to see any money at all," says Issa and other refugees are loudly confirming it.
Most people, however, grow silent when asked what they live on in the absence of aid and income opportunities. But aid workers have long suspected that these conditions make them more vulnerable to dealing with suspicious "organizations" whose resources probably come from groups linked to religious extremism.
And it is generally feared that if their misery is not resolved, the Chechens will eventually succumb to being embraced by their brethren from Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
In fact, this fear is shared by a number of refugees, although most of them remain rather pragmatic. Magomed has been in Azerbaijan for ten days and already has started to grow a beard. "You cannot grow a beard in Chechnya as they immediately suspect you of helping the guerrillas. But I'm a Muslim and this is part of my tradition. If it helps to get more assistance, what's wrong with it?"
Azer Azizbekov is a pseudonym of a local journalist.
Published by Prague Watchdog on June 4, 2006