The Beslan school hostage tragedy in Russia has triggered a fresh flow of refugees out of Chechnya and some of them are seeking asylum in Poland. Around four hundred ethnic Chechen Russian citizens have petitioned Poland for refugee status in the weeks since the Beslan school siege in which over 320 people died. Poland is now asking - can it cope with the growing number of asylum seekers?
Every day, groups of Chechen citizens arrive by train from Belarus at the Polish town of Terespol. They come with their entire families saying that they fear for their lives. A dramatic increase in the number of Chechens requesting refugee status in Poland has been observed for several years now within a month of a dramatic event in the Russia-Chechen conflict, like a bombing or hostage taking. This Warsaw student told me that the Polish authorities should do their best to extend humanitarian assistance to these people.
"We should be able, within our financial possibilities, to allow refugees entry from over there and give them political asylum, if necessary, within our limits and within our political possibilities. It's just a question of resolving the issues and finding a good policy for it."
Since the beginning of the year, 4,500 thousand Chechens have crossed the border into Poland. According to Jakub Boratynski, an expert on Eastern European affairs in the Batory Foundation, Poland is able to cope with the problem for now:
"The basic system and infrastructure that has been created in Poland over the past ten years, is able to cope with that number of people. Of course, if the trend continues, if we are talking about numbers that exceed, I would say, 10,000 people, then obviously some extra measures are needed. It's only financially a problem, because it's not a difficult thing to find places to accommodate these people in Poland. It's really a question of funding that should come into play and Poland has to accept them."
The influx of Chechen refugees figured prominently in talks that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, recently had in Warsaw. In his view, Poland has two options:
"Either you give them refugee status, Poland does that in a limited number of cases already, or you give them only a temporary status. This means for a year, you can prolong it for another year. That choice I leave to Poland."
So far this year, some six hundred Chechen applicants have been granted refugee status. About 20 people have been given temporary residence permits. According to many politicians and analysts, European Union assistance to Poland should come as soon as possible. Jakub Boratynski again:
"Poland is now obviously in a difficult position as it is the first country on the way of Chechens to Europe. So, in that sense, I think, we should approach this problem constructively, which means actually creating conditions for hosting asylum seekers. But at the same time, I think it would be appropriate for a legitimate request from Poland to other EU countries to help with providing conditions of stay for these people."
Ruud Lubbers agrees that Poland must not be left alone on the Chechen refugee question:
"Either directly by burden sharing or by practicing the right for accepted asylum seekers refugees to travel further from Poland towards other countries. Burden sharing could be money, but I'm thinking more in terms of persons."
Since the second Chechen war in 1999, almost fifteen thousand Chechens sought refuge in Poland. Some have settled here but with the unemployment rate at 19 percent, finding a job borders on a miracle. Small wonder therefore that most Chechens see Poland as a transit country to Western Europe. There seems to be an urgent need for a coherent EU strategy on the matter.
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