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UNHCR urges Poland, Lithuania not to turn away Chechens

News Stories, 14 November 2002

© © UNHCR/L.van der Stockt
A woman and child in war-ravaged Grozny.

VILNIUS/WARSAW, November 14 (UNHCR) UNHCR officials have urged Lithuania and Poland not to close their doors to asylum seekers from war-torn Chechnya. The UN refugee agency officials said they were concerned about reports of Chechen asylum seekers being barred from entering the two countries following the recent Chechen terrorist attack in Moscow.

Last week, Lithuanian border guards refused entry to 26 Chechens and returned them to Belarus. At least 17 of them were detained by Belarus authorities and subsequently put on a train bound for Moscow. Their current whereabouts are unknown.

In neighbouring Poland, charity groups have reported dozens of cases of Chechens being turned away from the country's eastern border since the October 23 terrorist attack on a Moscow theatre by Chechen separatists.

The UNHCR bureau in Warsaw and the agency's office in Sweden's capital, Stockholm, which handles Scandinavia and the Baltic States, are seeking clarification from Polish and Lithuanian authorities.

In interviews with local media Polish and Lithuanian officials linked the new policy to last month's attack in Moscow. UNHCR officials said increased caution was understandable but warned against measures that could put legitimate asylum seekers at risk.

"We share Poland's and Lithuania's concerns about terrorism for which there is no excuse. But that concern does not justify a blanket refusal to consider asylum claims from Chechens who could face persecution," said Raymond Hall, the Director of UNHCR's Europe Bureau, at the agency's headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

Last week, the Warsaw daily "Trybuna" quoted Poland's interior minister as saying his country was no longer allowing in Chechens until now one of the largest groups of asylum seekers there. The minister cited "national security" as the reason for the policy shift. This year alone 1,638 Russian Federation nationals virtually all of them Chechens had asked for asylum in Poland.

UNHCR officials described the new policy on Chechen asylum seekers as a "step backwards." They said denying Chechens the opportunity to apply for asylum was incompatible with the two countries' national laws and international commitments.

Poland and Lithuania are both signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention and candidates for membership in the European Union.

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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.

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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.

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