The Plight of Chechen Refugees in Georgia

Islamic Human Rights Commission

17 June 2003

The Plight of Chechen Refugees in Georgia

Following the second Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1999 and the resultant genocide, an estimated 200,000 civilian refugees, predominately Chechen Muslims, fled to neighbouring republics. Approximately 4,000 have sought safety and security in neighbouring Georgia. The majority have settled in the Pankisi Gorge, 90 miles north of Georgia’s capital Tibilisi, with an estimated 250-300 resident in Tibilisi.

The Pankisi Gorge

According to the Georgian Refugees and Accommodation Ministry, 85 percent of Chechen refugees in Pankisi Gorge (hereafter referred to as the Gorge) are women and children. 15% reside in communal accommodation, often without electricity. According to United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 85 percent of the Chechen refugees live with local Chechen families in several villages in the Gorge.

Russian pressure and US involvement: Violation of basic rights as a result of ‘counter-terrorism’ measures

The Pankisi Gorge has been a diplomatic sore point between Moscow and Tibilisi, based on the former’s ascertain that the Georgian government has been incapable of containing the movements of Chechen fighters allegedly operating from the Gorge. In 2002 Vladimir Putin, the Russian premier, threatened military action against the Gorge. Tbilisi relented to Russian pressure, agreeing to joint border patrols and the extradition of suspected Chechen separatists. However, in Autumn 2002 Russian jets bombed the Gorge, inflicting causalities amongst the Chechen refugee population. In October 2002, the Georgian government handed to Moscow five of thirteen Chechens requested by Russia, despite fears for their safety and the absence of due process. But, citing a European Court of Human Rights ruling, Georgia refused to hand over the remaining suspects. Nevertheless, the extraditions elicited the condemnation of the Chechen government-in-exile.

The Gorge has also fallen under the Washington spotlight, with the Bush administration making as yet unsubstantiated claims of an Al-Qaeda presence. This led the U.S. to establish a $64 million “Train and Equip” program to strengthen Georgia’s counter-terrorism capabilities, with focus on the Gorge.

Welfare of Chechen Refugees

The humanitarian situation of the Georgia’s Chechen refugees, not just in the Gorge, but also in Tibilisi is dire. The Georgian government has provided weak protection and material support for Chechen refugees. The Chechen refugee experience in the Gorge is defined by the severe lack of healthcare, including mental health services, poor living conditions and near 100% unemployment. Illness, depression and other mental health problems are epidemic amongst the refugee population. Malnutrition amongst newly born and small children is a great concern, as is the psychological impact of war on older children, a traumatised generation brought up on conflict and dislocation. Domestic violence is also recognised as a serious problem. Schooling and other social provisions are intensely sporadic.

Individuals in Tibilisi, predominantly young men, do not receive humanitarian aid. As with their Gorge co-patriots food and clothes problems, lack of medical care and mental health problems highlight the extent of their problems.

The Chechen refugee population have also been ill served by international agencies and NGOs. In August 2000 both the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières ceased humanitarian work. Late May 2003 saw a number of Chechen refugees embark on a hunger strike in protest at their poor living conditions and the failings of the UNHCR to provide adequate food aid. IHRC is deeply concerned, as commented upon by Panski Gorge refugees, at the decrease in general humanitarian aid post-9/11.

Certain behaviour by the Georgian government actively hamper humanitarian efforts designed to help Chechen refugees. In late 2002, the government refused to recognise foreign donations of second hand clothes as humanitarian aid, instead placing tax on their importation. This effectively halted the collection of the donated clothes and has delayed the delivery of food donations.

Anti-Terrorism operations in the Panski Gorge and the treatment of Chechen refugees

The Georgian government’s harsh position towards the Chechen refugee population of the Pankisi Valley is perhaps informed by the involvement of independent Chechen groups in Georgia’s 1992-93 civil war.

Both Russian and US pressure has led to Georgian “anti-terror sweeps” in the Panski Gorge. The presence of Georgian military has reportedly made the situation tense in the Gorge. The nature of the sweeps prompted Chechen refugees to protest for transference to a third country of residence. With the October 2002 extraditions, the Chechen refugee community’s lack of security has been exacerbated. Anonymous aid workers expressed the opinion that human rights were being disrespected. Indeed a number of incidences seem to confirm this view:

  • On March 22 2002 Georgian ethnic Chechen journalist, Islam Saidaev of the Caucuses Committee, and fellow Chechen, Zurab Khangoshvili, were arrested on the basis of suspected Al-Qaida connections. Their arrests were prompted by a letter from the US embassy to Georgian authorities that they were the only two people from Georgia to have performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, that year. This religious act alone was sufficient to raise the suspicion of Al-Qaida sympathies, a surreptitious argument used by the US to justify an enlarged military presence in Georgia.
  • On April 28 2002 three men of “Arab” origin “disappeared” after their car was stopped by the Georgian military. Their driver, a local named Vizuri Khangoshvilli, was shot dead. The magazine, ‘Time’, claims that this action was carried out on the basis of intelligence provided by the United States.
  • On September 25 2002, Chechen refugee, Hussein Yussupov, disappeared after being detained.

Other cases of mistreatment

  • On the advice of the U.S., on December 7 2002, in a mass passport check in Tbilisi, the Georgian Interior Ministry detained one hundred ethnic Chechens, including children. The U.S. ambassador to Georgia expressed approval of the operation
  • Chechen refugees have reported the planting of drugs on Chechen males who cross from the Gorge.

IHRC concerns for Chechen Refugees

IHRC seeks to remind the Georgian government of its obligations under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and calls upon the Georgian premier, President Eduard Shevardnadze, to rigorously adhere to its responsibilities. IHRC makes specific reference to Article 33 (cited below) in light of Russia’s call for the extradition of suspected Chechen separatists and the possibility that the U.S. may attempt to intern Chechen refugees in Guantanamo Bay (Camp X-Ray):

“No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (Article 33).

IHRC is equally concerned at the behaviour of the Georgian armed forces in the Pansiki Gorge and seeks acknowledgement from the Georgian authorities as to the above alleged human rights abuses. IHRC is further disturbed by the racial and religious profiling as displayed in Tbilisi on December 7 2002. IHRC calls for parity in the treatment of Chechen refuges, as with all refugee groups and other ethnic and religious minority groups resident in Georgia.

For more information please contact:

Islamic Human Rights Commission
PO Box 598
United Kingdom

Telephone (+44) 20 8902 0888
Fax (+44) 20 8902 0889