Keep options open for displaced Chechens, urges UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador

News Stories, 25 August 2003

© UNHCR/T.Makeeva
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie with displaced Chechens in Bella camp, Ingushetia.

MOSCOW, August 25 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency's Goodwill Ambassador, Angelina Jolie, has concluded her four-day mission to the Russian Federation by calling for all options to be kept open for displaced Chechens who do not wish to return to Chechnya at this stage.

"I frankly cannot see how the situation in Chechnya has changed to the extent that it now is safe for all IDPs to return," said Jolie at a press conference in Moscow Sunday. "I am grateful for the hospitality that the Republic of Ingushetia has extended to internally displaced persons, and I warmly welcome the assurances by President [Murat] Zyazikov that no displaced persons will be returned to Chechnya against their will."

The Goodwill Ambassador travelled to North Caucasus from last Thursday to Sunday to learn about all aspects of UNHCR's operations in the region.

In Ingushetia, a republic bordering Chechnya, she visited Bella and Sputnik camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), meeting with displaced Chechens and visiting them in their tent homes. She paid particular attention to their worries about the security situation in Chechnya and their fears that they would have to go back there without being given an alternative option of continued accommodation in Ingushetia.

There are some 80,000 IDPs from Chechnya in Ingushetia. About 12,000 of them have been living in tented camps for the last four years.

On August 15, UNHCR reported that local authorities in Ingushetia were putting pressure on some Chechen IDPs to return to Chechnya. At the same time, the refugee agency expressed concern about the lack of alternative housing for those IDPs who do not wish to return to Chechnya at this time. In a statement issued at its Geneva headquarters, UNHCR stressed that returns to Chechnya can only be considered voluntary if the displaced persons are fully informed about conditions for return and if they have a genuine alternative available to allow them to remain in Ingushetia.

In North Ossetia, a republic bordering Georgia, Jolie visited the Gizel collective centre in Vladikavkaz, as well as a housing project for refugees in Komsomolskoe. She congratulated Prime Minister Mikhail Shatalov for the good co-operation between the North Ossetian authorities and UNHCR in the efforts to create durable solutions for some 30,000 refugees from Georgia in the republic. She also expressed her appreciation for what the North Ossetian government has done and is doing to help refugees integrate and start new lives.

UNHCR has launched a three-year integration programme to improve the situation of 7,000 refugees in North Ossetia who are living in appalling living conditions in 71 collective centres. Over the last two years, 140 one-family houses were constructed and another 70 will be completed this year. The housing project is being complemented by legal, medical and psychological counselling as well as community-oriented activities implemented by local non-governmental organisations.

In Moscow, Jolie met several families of asylum seekers. She also paid a visit to the Morozov children's hospital and donated $20,000 to the hospital.

During her visit to the Russian Federation, the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador met with Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Yuri Fedotov, President of the Republic of Ingushetia Murat Zyazikov, and Prime Minister of the Republic of North Ossetia Mikhail Shatalov.

On August 22, President Zyazikov of Ingushetia awarded Jolie with the highest order of the republic, the Order for Merits, for her outstanding services to the cause of humanity, specifically in aiding refugees and displaced persons.

The Goodwill Ambassador's concerns however, did not stop at people uprooted by war and persecution. While on mission, she expressed "outrage and shock" at last week's bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad.

"I am joining all UN staff in mourning and extending my deeply felt sympathies to the families and colleagues of the victims," she said.

"Such senseless attacks, directed against those who are dedicating their lives to the service of people in need, are unfortunately not a new phenomenon," she added, noting that in the region of Northern Caucasus alone, 117 attacks against aid workers took place between 1995 and 2002, killing 11 people.

© UNHCR/T.Makeeva
Jolie at Bella tented camp, which houses some 1,000 displaced Chechens.

She made a personal plea for the release of Arjan Erkel, the Head of Mission of Médecins Sans Frontières, who was kidnapped a year ago in Daghestan and has not been heard from since.

"I urge the people who are holding him to let him go immediately and return him unharmed to his family and friends," said Jolie. "I also appeal to all those with influence in the Russian Federation and the international community to do everything they possibly can to secure his release."

This was Jolie's first visit to the Russian Federation in her capacity as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. She has previously visited the agency's operations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Balkans.