By Mairbek Vatchagaev, Chechnya Weekly, Jamestown Foundation
A sternly worded statement made by the Austrian radical right-wing politician Jorg Haider served as yet another reminder to the world that the Chechen refugee problem remains acute (Gazeta.ru, January 12). Every day dozens of Chechens try to escape the Putin-proclaimed happy paradise in Chechnya by entering the European Union illegally via the border with Ukraine or Belarus.
Despite the news of general peace and prosperity widely circulated by the news media in the Chechen Republic, more and more people dream of leaving the allegedly problem-free Chechnya. For instance, according to an independent public opinion survey of Grozny residents conducted by the Caucasus Times Information Agency in November 2007, one out of three respondents (or 450,000 people when extrapolating using total population numbers) wanted to leave the region (Caucasus Times, November 20, 2007). Ironically, this widely held public sentiment was reported during a time that the mass media was describing the situation in Chechnya as “peaceful and prosperous."
So why are Chechens leaving behind their homeland, the place to which they always feel an invisible connection? No matter where Chechens happen to find themselves, it is a common practice to request that their bodies be sent to Chechnya after they die. Almost no Chechens are buried in Europe, as all the victims of disease, accidents and other tragic mishaps are transported to Chechnya for final interment. During the Soviet period, burying a Chechen outside of Chechnya was considered an insult to all their relatives, and the same tradition continues today. A Chechen outside of Chechnya still feels like a tourist, and Chechen parents continue to build homes for their kids in Chechnya with the money they earn in Europe.
According to unofficial reports, the number of Chechens in Europe may reach 70,000 by 2008, and in all likelihood, these numbers will keep growing.
The main obstacle faced by Chechens planning to leave Chechnya and Russia is the daunting challenge of obtaining a passport for travel abroad, which costs upwards of $300, or 2-3 months’ salary in today’s Chechnya.
A second barrier is the near-total refusal of European and U.S. embassies to consider visa applications submitted by Chechens, which forces people to seek contacts with numerous mafia groups specializing in the illegal trafficking of Chechens from Ukraine to Poland.
Chechen refugee diasporas are the youngest in Europe and are still being formed, so any estimates of numbers and locations would be premature today. However, a profile of the typical Chechen refugee in Europe is already emerging.
Over the last month, more than 1,200 Chechen refugees were registered at the Paris airport (Regnum.ru, January 15), which is the highest number since the start of the second Chechen War in 1999 (Kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 14). Chechen travelers usually purchase tickets to countries that do not require a visa, and choose a route with a stopover in Paris instead of flying directly to the destination. Upon arriving at the airport, they immediately apply for refugee status instead of moving to the transit hall. This modus operandi has existed since the communist era and it is still effective.
It is notable that despite the statements made by the pro-Moscow government in Grozny about its intent to arrange the return of Chechen refugees who settled in Europe, today’s refugees usually have first-hand knowledge of the situation on the ground in Chechnya, which human rights organization describe as a near-dictatorship (Caucasus Times, January 15). It is therefore not surprising that people try to escape the place as fast as they can in search of freedom and democracy.
Not all refugees stay in France; many seek to join their relatives in Austria, Belgium or northern Europe. Perhaps the new wave of Chechen refugees pushed the issue to the top of domestic political agenda in Austria, where extreme radical politicians have called for a halt in admissions of Chechen refugees (Kavkaz-uzel.ru, January 12). In this particular case, the real issue may have less to do with the Chechens or the problems of Chechen refugees than with the Austrian politician’s attempt to use the Chechen card for his anti-immigration policies.
Apart from the initial discomfort caused by the contrast in lifestyle, Chechens generally face few problems when it comes to adapting to their new countries. Many young people continue to behave as they did in Chechnya or Russia without realizing that many things accepted back home are not only discouraged but perhaps illegal in Europe. Members of the older generation often experience a clash between their traditions and customs and the European way of life. It is therefore not surprising that many older Chechens began to leave European countries and return to Chechnya.
The largest Chechen community in Europe today can be found in Austria, where the diaspora numbers approximately 17,000 people (according to Vienna’s Austrian Immigration Foundation). Austria is followed by France and Germany (approximately 10,000 each), Belgium (7,000-10,000), and so on (Norway, Sweden and even Poland, which most see as a country of temporary, not permanent residence). Other known communities include Canada (several hundred people) and Middle Eastern (in the United Arab Emirates there are 2,000-3,000). It is worth noting that migration is also high inside the Russian Federation—for instance, the Chechen community in Moscow already numbers some 100,000 people.
Chechen communities in Europe are fairly spread out across their respective countries. For instance, the largest communities in France, numbering several thousand each, can be found in Nice, Strasbourg and Paris. Chechens also live in Orleans, Le Mans, Besancon, Montpelier, Toulouse, Tours, and so on, and their settlement pattern in France is still undergoing changes as people move in search of better jobs and places to live. A unique feature of Chechen immigration is a very high percentage of constituents who seek to find a job and graduate from the welfare system. The nature of Chechens is to be competitive in getting better jobs and making more money; they are not affected by the welfare dependence factor so commonly found in other immigrant groups in France. In this community, the mere fact of receiving welfare payments is viewed as a sign of the lack of ability and poor adjustment to society.
Chechen refugees in France usually join cultural centers and try to maintain connections with other members. Political associations are uncommon because these communities tend to be highly heterogeneous; it is therefore the cultural centers, such as the Chechen-French Center in Paris, which today form the hubs of Chechen culture in their new home countries.
The mass exodus from Chechnya will continue until Chechens see peace on the ground made a reality as opposed to propaganda headlines disseminated by Moscow and its emissaries in Chechnya. No bans or legal innovations in the Schengen zone countries will stop them; they will continue to seek and find new ways to enter countries where they believe they will be guaranteed freedom—until the same freedom and stability comes to their homeland in the Chechen Republic.