Don't close Ingushetia's camps until proper alternatives are found, urges UNHCR
AKI YURT, Ingushetia, November 29 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has appealed against the scheduled closure of a camp in northern Ingushetia this weekend that could leave over 1,500 displaced Chechens homeless in a harsh winter. At the same time, it has asked the Russian authorities to postpone the closure of other tent camps by year's end until suitable alternative accommodation can be found.
"Our most immediate concern is the Aki Yurt camp, which houses over 1,500 people, and which authorities said could be closed on Sunday," said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond at a press briefing in Geneva Friday. "Given that lows of -5º Celsius are predicted for the area this weekend, it is imperative that real alternatives are available for the displaced people before gas and electricity are cut."
UNHCR has repeatedly raised these concerns with both the Ingush and federal authorities. On November 22, when the Federal Migration Service announced that Aki Yurt would be closed by November 30, UNHCR immediately approached the federal authorities to stress that the principle of voluntary return should continue to be respected and that safe haven should continue to be provided in Ingushetia for those not wanting to return at this time.
The refugee agency also reminded the authorities of their previous assurances that any relocation sites for people living in Aki Yurt would offer better conditions than those currently in the camp.
On November 25, UNHCR and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) met with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to express their concerns and explain the situation on the ground according to their daily monitoring reports. UNHCR has also raised these concerns in Geneva with the mission of the Russian Federation.
Authorities in Ingushetia continue to offer assurances that any return to Chechnya will be voluntary. However, UNHCR has stressed that return can only be considered voluntary if displaced persons are fully informed about conditions for return and if they have a genuine alternative available to allow them to remain in Ingushetia.
"We have repeatedly underlined that regarding return to Chechnya, assistance should follow the people, not the other way around," said Redmond. "We are raising these concerns again and reiterating our desire to work with the authorities to resolve these issues and meet the humanitarian needs of the displaced."
While some people have returned voluntarily, others continue to express fears about returning to Chechnya because of the security situation there.
For those displaced persons in Aki Yurt camp who do not want to return to Chechnya, UNHCR is concerned that there is no immediately available and viable alternative accommodation in Ingushetia. Assessing the relocation sites in Ingushetia proposed by the federal and Ingush migration authorities, a UNHCR technical team found they would need significant improvements to bring them up to a standard suitable for winter use.
On Wednesday, the UNHCR team identified three sites that could most quickly be brought up to minimum standards. Even then, using pre-fabricated "box tents", it would take at least three weeks to provide alternative winter shelter at these sites for just 300 to 400 people. Another, possibly quicker, option could be to set up the box tents in existing settlements which already have gas, water and electricity. Currently, UNHCR has a stock of some 150 box tents that could house approximately 900 people, but it is insufficient for the over 1,500 people at Aki Yurt.
Besides alternative accommodation, registration is also a cause for concern. A large number of displaced people currently living in Aki Yurt camp are not officially registered by the migration authorities. Of the over 1,500 displaced people living there as of early this week, only 716 are reported to be officially registered by the authorities.
"We are very concerned that viable alternatives are available to all the displaced people physically present and actually living in the camp, not only those who are registered," said UNHCR's Redmond.
Aki Yurt is just one of six tent camps in Ingushetia which Russian authorities have stated they want to close by the end of the year.
The overall atmosphere in the camps is one of fear, tension and insecurity. This is partly due to repeated official statements that the camps are to close imminently, active campaigns by migration authorities supported by the Chechnya administration and religious leaders promoting return to Chechnya, the increased military presence near the camps, and the harsh winter weather in the area.
Winterisation is another pressing concern. UNHCR had received permission from the authorities to replace worn-out or damaged tents in Alina and Sputnik camps and were seeking authorisation for tent replacement in other camps as well. However, it has now been informed that all tent replacement is to stop. In one camp, most of the necessary replacements had already been made. But in others the process had only just started and very few tents had been replaced so far.
In addition, large numbers of people in the camps have reportedly been de-registered by the authorities, for reasons that are still unclear.
There are some 110,000 displaced Chechens living in Ingushetia. Approximately 20,000 of them live in tent camps, while the rest live in settlements, host families or private accommodation.