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Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (UNHCR's World) - Russian Federation: A Vladivostok weekend

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1996

Moscow-based Protection Officer Isabelle Mihoubi describes a very long but rewarding weekend in Vladivostok, in Russia's Far East.

By Isabelle Mihoubi
UNHCR Protection Officer Moscow, Russian Federation

It was not going to be an ordinary weekend one of those charming little autumn weekends in Moscow, when the air is still warm and it's good to walk among the cafés.

The Foreign Ministry was requesting UNHCR's help in Vladivostok, where three North Koreans had asked for a sylum. One was in prison. He had attempted suicide by slitting his wrists. Another was in hospital with a broken leg he was wounded trying to flee the policemen who wanted to question him. The third was hiding in an apartment.

For years, North Korea had sent immigrant workers to the USSR, where they lived in closed camps. When Russia became more open, the North Korean workers could leave their camps. Many used the opportunity to try to leave for good.

Were these three asylum-seekers refugees? And if so, could they be resettled in a third country? The Foreign Ministry wanted our advice.

On Friday, I headed to Vladivostok, Long a military port, Vladivostok is strategically situated at the eastern extremity of Russia. There is a seven-hour time difference with Moscow. The trip took 15 hours by air in a poorly maintained plane that creaked and jumped all through the journey. The food was appalling. A normal flight.

My colleague and myself finally arrive at the end of the world. Vladivostok is an awful place, sad and poor, suffering from all the disadvantages of industrialization. The only note of colour in this gray place: the cars are all white (and all Japanese).

We head for the prison, a well-guarded building with 36 doors to go through but the security system is so archaic that it seems quite human. Still, the conditions are awful.

The director receives us, offers us a beer and asks me where I come from. When I say I'm French, he calls all his colleagues to tell them there's a French woman in his office. Until recent years, Vladivostok was one of the Soviet Union's closed cities. Even after it opened to foreigners, very few made the trip.

The director calls one of the asylum-seekers, whom he says is a 'criminal' because he has been judged an illegal resident. The man arrives in handcuffs, terrified and shaking like a leaf at the idea of being sent back to his home country. There's no time to establish trust, I must interview him now. It's obvious that he is a refugee, and South Korea is ready to receive him.

Eventually, we get all three North Koreans assembled at the South Korean mission. Everyone is nervous. They are taken to the airport. Till the last step on the plane's staircase, they couldn't believe it. But when they realized it was true, they were so moved, so completely overwhelmed, that they were speechless, incapable of even expressing their gratitude. They could only look at us with immense smiles.

We closed the case in 48 hours. We were exhausted, but delighted with our work. We celebrated with the Russians.

Time to go back to Moscow. The first leg, an eight-hour flight, brings us to Novossibirsk. We are told to wait in transit. The plane stops in the middle of the airstrip. We get out. It's winter! We can't even see the terminal. We are guided by the smell of grilled meat. The terminal has been invaded by a noisy, feverish crowd all desperate to get into our already full plane.

I finally snap. With my thin shoes and a thinner raincoat, I wasn't equipped for a snow storm. In Vladivostok the temperature had been a balmy 10 degrees Celsius. I was freezing now, and exhausted. I told myself I would never make it through this crowd back to the plane. My colleague caught my despairing glance and started yelling in French. The unexpected result: everyone around us fell back in surprise. My colleague pushed me back into the overcrowded, filthy, smelly plane that I now so desperately wanted.

We arrived back in Moscow on Sunday, zombies after two 15-hour flights in less than 72 hours, across several time zones. Next day I was in the office, completely wasted. Oddly, nobody seemed surprised.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)




UNHCR country pages

Displacement in Georgia

Tens of thousands of civilians are living in precarious conditions, having been driven from their homes by the crisis in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia.

On the morning of August 12, the first UNHCR-chartered plane carrying emergency aid arrived in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the first UN assistance to arrive in the country since fighting broke out the previous week. The airlift brought in 34 tonnes of tents, jerry cans, blankets and kitchen sets from UNHCR's central emergency stockpile in Dubai. Items were then loaded onto trucks at the Tbilisi airport for transport and distribution.

A second UNHCR flight landed in Tbilisi on August 14, with a third one expected to arrive the following day. In addition, two UNHCR aid flights are scheduled to leave for Vladikavkaz in the Russian Federation the following week with mattresses, water tanks and other supplies for displaced South Ossetians.

Working with local partners, UNHCR is now providing assistance to the most vulnerable and needy. These include many young children and family members separated from one another. The situation is evolving rapidly and the refugee agency is monitoring the needs of the newly displaced population, which numbered some 115,000 on August 14.

Posted on 15 August 2008

Displacement in Georgia

Ingushetia: Internally Displaced Chechens

When fighting broke out between government troops and rebel forces in Chechnya in 1999, over 200,000 people fled the republic, most of them to the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia. Today, tens of thousands of Chechens remain displaced in Ingushetia, unwilling to go home because of continuing security concerns.

As of early December 2003, some 62,000 displaced Chechens were living in temporary settlements or in private accommodation. Those living in settlements face constant threats of eviction, often by owners who wish to use their buildings again.

Another 7,900 displaced Chechens live in tents in three remaining camps – Satsita, Sputnik, and Bart.

The authorities have repeatedly called for the closure of tent camps and the return of the displaced people to Chechnya. Three camps have been closed in the past year – Iman camp at Aki Yurt, "Bella" or B camp, and "Alina" or A camp. Chechens from the latter two camps who did not wish to go home were allowed to move to Satsita camp or other existing temporary settlements in Ingushetia.

Ingushetia: Internally Displaced Chechens

Vincent Cochetel interviewPlay video

Vincent Cochetel interview

On the occasion of World Humanitarian Day 2010, a senior UNHCR staff member reflects on his experience being kidnapped near Chechnya in 1998.
UN High Commissioner Visits Georgia and RussiaPlay video

UN High Commissioner Visits Georgia and Russia

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres spent four days in Georgia and the Russian Federation to assess UNHCR's humanitarian operations and to speak with those affected by the recent fighting in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.