Chechen arrivals in Poland back to normal after surge

News Stories, 3 April 2008

© UNHCR/B.Szandelszky
Chechen refugees learning Polish in a reception centre. Chechens who cross into Poland are beginning to realize that they cannot move on to other European Union countries without restriction.

WARSAW, Poland, April 3 (UNHCR) A surge in the number of Chechen asylum seekers arriving in Poland, and of those moving on to neighbouring countries, has eased as people apparently get the message that membership of the Schengen zone does not mean total freedom of movement within Europe.

After soaring from 335 last July to 1,148 in November and 2,275 in December, the number of asylum seekers arriving in Poland mostly from Chechnya or Ingushetia in the Russian Federation had sunk to an average of 300 a month since the beginning of this year, according to government figures.

The UN refugee agency also noticed a spike January in the number of asylum seekers who had been caught in neighbouring countries and returned to Poland, their original country of first arrival in the European Union (EU). Figures for these types of movement had also dropped.

UNHCR-commissioned surveys found that high figures for arrivals in Poland and onward movement within the EU reflected misconceptions among refugees and asylum seekers about freedom of movement within the Schengen border-free travel zone, which Poland and eight other countries joined last December 21.

Many crossing into Poland from countries to the east in November and December feared that they would be unable to reach the country once it signed the Schengen treaty, while refugees and asylum seekers already inside Poland thought that Schengen membership would mean they could move freely around the EU and work where they chose.

"People are under the impression that in addition to crossing borders without passports, they can also settle down and work wherever they want within the Schengen zone," Regional Representative Lloyd Dakin said at the time.

Recognized refugees in the nine new Schengen states can cross borders, but they are not allowed to stay longer than 90 days and they cannot work in other member states without residence and work permits. They need visas for the United Kingdom and Ireland, which are not members of the Schengen zone.

UNHCR produced an information leaflet in 17 different languages in a bid to correct misconceptions about Schengen and this is believed to have helped reduce the flow into Poland since December.

But some have learned the hard way, and word about their experiences is getting round to other refugees and asylum seekers. "We did not know that moving on was illegal," said Madina, a Chechen asylum seeker who crossed the border from Russia days before Poland became a Schengen member.

Madina and her family of four travelled to neighbouring Germany on December 30, hoping to reach France. "We have no connections there, but we hoped that my husband could finish his studies and thought it would be a good country for us," she explained.

Their journey came to a dramatic and traumatic halt some 10 kilometres inside Germany, when they were intercepted by police. Madina and her husband were separated from her children and spent two days in detention before being reunited with their family at a reception centre.

A month later they were returned to Poland in line with the EU's Dublin II Regulation, which aims to prevent asylum seekers from submitting applications in multiple member states. It generally requires someone seeking asylum to apply in the state first entered and to be returned there if found elsewhere in the EU.

With the example of people like Madina in front of them, the Chechen asylum seekers have begun to understand that they must plan for a future in Poland.

Ismail is one of them. A tiler by profession, he is desperately looking for employment to earn enough to support himself, his wife and their six children in Poland. But he finds it difficult because his asylum applications have been turned down three times and he cannot work legally.

"I live here at the expense of the Polish state. I don't want this. Give me a job and let me earn for my family's living," he said. Ismail and some other Chechens that UNHCR talked to at a reception centre on Warsaw's suburban Improvisation Street were pessimistic about their integration prospects.

Hiromitsu Mori, UNHCR's representative in Poland, is more upbeat about their future. "As of May, persons with subsidiary protection will be eligible for government integration schemes and enjoy the same rights as recognized refugees," she said, adding that life should become easier for several thousand Chechens in Poland with new language and vocational skills.

By Melita H. Sunjic in Warsaw, Poland