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North Caucasus: UNHCR asks for camp closures postponement

Briefing notes

North Caucasus: UNHCR asks for camp closures postponement

29 November 2002

UNHCR is asking Russian authorities to postpone their announced closures of tent camps in Ingushetia, including one that the Russians have said would be closed this weekend. We are also requesting a joint assessment of alternative accommodation sites to determine their suitability, as had been previously agreed with the authorities before any relocation would take place.

Our most immediate concern is the Aki Yurt camp, which houses over 1,500 people, and which authorities said could be closed on Sunday. Given that lows of -5ºC. 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. Other recent statements by Russian authorities indicate that they intend to close all tent camps in Ingushetia by the end of the year.

Authorities 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. We again raise these concerns and reiterate 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.

In the camps, a number of factors are contributing to an overall atmosphere of fear, tension and insecurity. These include 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.

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. A UNHCR technical team had earlier assessed the relocation sites in Ingushetia proposed by the federal and Ingush migration authorities and found they would need significant improvements to bring them up to a standard suitable for winter use. On Wednesday, our team updated these assessments and identified three sites which could most quickly be brought up to minimum standards. But they also estimate that, even using our prefabricated "box tents," it would take at least three weeks to provide alternative winter shelter at these sites for just 300 to 400 people. There are over 1,500 people currently in Aki Yurt. Another - possibly quicker - option could be to set up the box tents in existing settlements which already have gas, water and electricity. Currently, we have a stock of some 150 box tents which could house approximately 900 people.

Another serious concern is the fate of a large number of displaced people currently living in Aki Yurt camp who are not officially registered by the migration authorities. UN statistics indicate that over 1,500 displaced people were living in the camp as of early this week, while 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.

UNHCR has repeatedly raised these concerns with both Ingush and federal authorities. On 22 November, when the Federal Migration Service announced that gas and electricity would be cut in Aki Yurt by 30 November, UNHCR immediately approached the federal authorities to stress that the principle of voluntary return should continue to be respected and safe haven should continue to be provided in Ingushetia for those not wanting to return at this time. In the letter, UNHCR 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 25 November, UNHCR and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) met with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to express our concerns and explain the situation on the ground according to our daily monitoring reports. We have also raised these concerns in Geneva with the mission of the Russian Federation.

In the five other tent camps in Ingushetia, UNHCR is also concerned about winterization. We had received authorization from authorities to replace worn-out or damaged tents in Alina and Sputnik camps and were seeking authorization for tent replacement in other camps as well. We have now been informed, however, 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, of whom approximately 20,000 live in tent camps. The rest live in settlements, host families or private accommodation.