Chechen arrivals in Poland are back to normal

Tuesday 1, April 2008 Warsaw, April 1 (UNHCR) – The number of Chechen asylum seekers arriving in Poland is back to a normal average of some 300 per month. Last November and December figures dramatically increased and refugee facilities were bursting with over 3000 newly arrived asylum seekers. Also, the […]

Tuesday 1, April 2008

Warsaw, April 1 (UNHCR) – The number of Chechen asylum seekers arriving in Poland is back to a normal average of some 300 per month. Last November and December figures dramatically increased and refugee facilities were bursting with over 3000 newly arrived asylum seekers. Also, the number of asylum seekers who are intercepted elsewhere and returned to Poland has declined after a high in January.

Many dreams about the indefinite freedom of movement in the Schengen Area have meanwhile been shattered in the Chechen community. In November Polish authorities registered 1148 first asylum application, in December even 2275. At the same time many asylum seekers moved on westwards, but not necessarily the same individuals.

The movement in one of the reception centre’s, aptly located in Improvisation Street in the outskirts of the Polish capital was indicative for the entire situation. Andrzej Zagwojski, the Manager of the facility for 470 persons says, “In December we had an enormous turnover in this facility. On one single weekend in December for example, some 40 new arrivals came and 40 other residents left.”

“We did not know that moving on was illegal, so we set out for France,” says Madina A., a Chechen woman in her late twenties. Like many others, she and her husband thought that Poland’s accession to the Schengen area and the abolition of internal EU borders would allow asylum seekers to move as freely as EU citizens.

Madina and her family of four arrived in Poland a few days before Poland became part of the Schengen Area on December 21. On 30 December they moved on to Germany, heading for France. “We have no connections there, but we hoped that my husband could finish his studies and it would be good country for us.”

What followed was a rather traumatic experience. Their journey ended 10 kilometres into German territory when they were intercepted by German police. Madina was separated from her children and spent two days in detention. Finally she was taken to a reception centre and reunited with her family. After only one month they were all returned to Poland under the so-called Dublin II procedure.

Dublin II regulations stipulate that asylum seekers can only lodge an asylum claim in the country of first arrival. If they move on to another EU Member States they will be returned there.

Madina and her husband were not the only ones who misunderstood the Schengen concept. An instant research carried out by NGOs at UNHCR’s request revealed two main reasons for these increase of movements, all of them based on erroneous assumptions:

• Chechens who already considered fleeing Russia feared that they would no longer be able to access Polish territory once the country was part of the Schengen Area.

• Chechens who already lived in Poland thought that once border controls were abolished they could go to any other EU country and seek asylum there.

Knowing about those misconceptions, UNHCR produced an information leaflet about Schengen and the asylum seekers. It was distributed in 17 languages to refugees and asylum seekers in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia in December. But many asylum seekers disregarded the warning.

Today, asylum seekers in Improvisation Street are wiser. They saw Madina and other fellow Chechens being returned against their will and understand that they have to plan for a future in Poland.

Ismail is one of them. A tiler by profession, he is desperately looking for employment in Poland. Ismail, his wife and his six children have arrived in Poland two years ago. “I have no legal status here,” he says. Ismail has been denied asylum three times already and three times he reapplied.

“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 says. Other refugees were more successful in their job-hunt than Ismail. According to the UNHCR’s knowledge, tilers and other skilled construction labourers normally do not have problems in finding jobs in Poland.

However, many Chechens feel that their integration prospects are weak. But this is about to change, says UNHCR’s Representative to Poland, Hiromitsu Mori. “As of May persons with subsidiary protection will be eligible for government integration schemes and enjoy the same rights as recognised refugees.” With new language and vocational skills life should become easier for the several thousand Chechens in Poland.

Melita H. Sunjic in Warsaw, Poland