UNHCR to open office in Chechnya as soon as security allows, says High Commissioner António Guterres
MOSCOW, Apr 11 (UNHCR) - UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said that UNHCR will open an office in the war-torn republic of Chechnya in the Russian Federation as soon as security conditions allow. "Our staff is anxious to work in Chechnya," he told a press conference in the Russian capital after a six-day visit to Moscow, St. Petersburg and three republics in the North Caucasus.
"Our partners are very skilled and reliable, but if we can be present also we will be able to provide more effective protection and assistance to returnees. We are ready to open an office in Chechnya as soon as security permits it," he added.
The UN refugee agency has offices in Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia and Nazran in Ingushetia. Although security restrictions limit access to Chechnya for its staff, UNHCR maintains protection monitoring functions through missions and through the activities of its local partners.
Between 9 and 11 April, Guterres visited the Russian Federation republics of North Ossetia, Chechnya and Ingushetia. He met the presidents and other government officials of the three republics and held frank and open discussions with them on how best to meet the needs of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the North Caucasus, offering his organisation's assistance and expertise.
"The remaining problems in the North Caucasus can only be solved first by efforts of the federal authorities, then the authorities of each republic as well as the international community," he said.
Guterres highlighted some of the main challenges in providing protection and durable solutions for refugees and the internally displaced in the North Caucasus. "The development of a true system of law and order is the basis for more effective solutions to the problems of refugees and IDPs", he explained.
The High Commissioner's visit to the North Caucasus began in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia. "First of all, I want to pay tribute to the victims of Beslan and thereby to demonstrate my complete solidarity with the people of North Ossetia," Guterres said on arrival at Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia's capital. He and his delegation then laid wreaths on the monument commemorating the victims of the Beslan school siege.
The gutted shell of the school gym still stands, a grim reminder of the shocking violence that has marred this turbulent region in the last ten years. On September 1, 2004, armed Chechen militants seized Beslan's School Number One, taking hundreds of people hostage. Two days later, the stand-off between the militants and the Russian security forces came to a violent end. In the ensuing bloodbath at least 331 people, including 186 children, were killed and hundreds more wounded.
In North Ossetia, the High Commissioner also visited the refugee settlement of Tsalik, which houses some 400 refugees from South Ossetia. He also visited a collective centre, one of 50 in North Ossetia, where some refugees have lived in extremely difficult conditions for more than 10 years.
Guterres praised North Ossetia for its hospitality to refugees. "The people of North Ossetia and the Republic's government have nobly given shelter to a large number of refugees and, what is more, created conditions for their integration," he said. Local officials who accompanied Guterres during his visit highlighted unemployment as the main problem facing the refugees.
In Chechnya, Guterres met the president, Alu Alkhanov and key implementing partners. He also visited a temporary accommodation centre for Chechen returnees from Georgia and Ingushetia, who told him about some of the difficulties they face in obtaining documents, compensation for lost property and finding jobs. Over 60,000 people are so far registered as internally displaced by the Chechen authorities, however due to the security restrictions in place not all people may have been able to register, and thousands have sought asylum in other countries.
In order to support the reintegration of returnees, UNHCR has 55 quick-impact projects in Chechnya, focusing on income generation and the repair of small-scale public infrastructure.
In 2005, some 220 box-tents were distributed to 196 returnee families in Chechnya, as a part of UNHCR's emergency shelter assistance. This brings to over 1,100 the total number of beneficiary families since this programme was started. In addition, some 900 households received construction materials.
Through its implementing partners, UNHCR provides qualified free legal advice and counselling services to the war-affected population, including returnees and people displaced inside Chechnya, on a series of issues ranging from documentation and compensation for lost housing and property, to legal representation in the criminal courts in order to address human rights abuses.
In Ingushetia, Guterres visited the Berd-Yurt settlement in the Sunzha district, which houses more than 100 IDP families from Chechnya who want to remain in Ingushetia. During his visit, the High Commissioner also met with local government representatives. As of 31 January 2006, some 26,000 IDPs from Chechnya had been registered by a UNHCR implementing partner for assistance in Ingushetia.
The mountainous North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation is a mosaic of nationalities, languages and religions. For centuries, Moscow has been trying to pacify this volatile region.
The epicentre of the region's troubles is the republic of Chechnya, where ten years of fighting between armed separatists and the Russian army and its Chechen allies, combined with banditry and organised crime, have left the local economy and infrastructure in ruins.
Chechen separatists have been blamed for a spate of attacks targeting civilians.
But, human rights groups, on the other hand, have accused Russian security forces and their Chechen allies of widespread human rights abuses in Chechnya.
By Vera Soboleva in Moscow
and William Spindler in Geneva