with Anne Marit Austbo
Anne Marit Austbo
of the Norwegian Refugee
Council is the coordinator of the Contact Group on Chechen Refugees
and IDPs, which was established among the member organizations of
the European Council on Refugees and
Exiles. She is the author of "Whose
Reponsibility", ECRE's report on Chechen refugees and IDPs.
Thank you for agreeing to do this interview at what must be a busy
time for you. To begin with, could you tell our readers about ECRE's
Contact Group on Chechen refugees and IDPs? When was it formed and
why, and how does it operate? What is your role in it?
A.M. Austbo: The European Council
on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) is a network of 78 non-governmental
organizations in different European Countries. Several of these
organizations are providing assistance to Chechen internally displaced
persons or asylum seekers. The purpose of the contact group was
to facilitate exchange of information and encourage advocacy with
regard to Chechen IDPs and asylum seekers. Another aim was to promote
understanding and knowledge of the rights of internally displaced
persons. We have been operating mainly by e-mail, but we also organized
a seminar in Moscow in August 2004. My role has mainly been to organize
such events, forward relevant information to members, and - of course
- to gather all the information on the report that we now have published.
How did you personally become interested in the issue
of Chechen refugees and IDPs? Is it because of an interest in Chechnya,
Russia or the former Soviet Union, or did it emerge as part of your
work on global refugee issues?
interest in the issue of Chechen refugees started when I was working
in a Norwegian human rights organization, the Norwegian Helsinki
Committee, a couple of years ago. I was initially working on human
rights issues mainly in the Balkan region, but I became interested
in Chechnya through colleagues who had already been traveling to
the region, and through encounters with Chechen refugees in Norway.
The report you have written is quite extensive and based on
in-depth research. Could you tell us how it was produced? Who contributed?
report is based on information and reports from ECRE-members, and
other relevant organizations. I have not done a lot of first-hand
research myself, but tried to gather all relevant information that
exists – either in publications or as knowledge among people who
work on these issues every day. Concerning the situation in the
Russian Federation, Memorial has
been the most important source of information. Also, in 2004, we
conducted a survey with questions that we sent to ECRE-members,
and this was the starting point for the section that I have written
about Chechen asylum seekers and refugees. Statistics provided by
UNHCR has also been helpful, although one should always be careful
not to rely too much on statistics.
What are the key conclusions of the report and what are the
Austbo: Basically, we are saying that Chechen internally
displaced persons (IDPs) are currently not granted the protection
they are entitled to according to international standards. We are
calling on Russian authorities to improve protection of internally
displaced persons from Chechnya through changes in the law and practical
policies. Based on the general situation of Chechen IDPs, we argue
that there is no viable so-called “ internal protection alternative”
for Chechens in the Russian federation, and we recommend against
the mandatory return of Chechens from European countries to Russia
at the present time. We also raise concern about lack of access
to asylum procedures for Chechens in some countries.
Since you dedicate part of the report to Chechen IDPs in Russia,
what is your opinion on their situation? How has it changed over
the last years? Do you think eventual return or integration in their
new home communities is the more realistic option?
Austbo: I worry that increased fear of terrorist attacks
in the Russian population at large contributes to making the situation
for Chechens IDPs increasingly difficult. With regard to a long
term solution, my impression is that most refugees and internally
displaced persons generally want to return to their homes, once
conditions permit it. During the last year many internally displaced
persons returned to Chechnya. Although we are stressing in the report
that the conditions for the return process were not conducive to
voluntary return, we cannot rule out that many who returned really
wanted to do this. Our point is that they have a right to choose
freely not to return, and that this must be respected.
In your work, you probably meet with many European asylum officials
and government representatives. How do they view the continuing
strong influx of Chechen refugees to Europe?
Austbo: As I said, most of my work is based on information
from other NGOs. But my impression is that many government officials
are truly concerned about the situation in Chechnya, but that they
are torn between this concern and domestic political pressures to
reduce the level of asylum seekers in their countries and to maintain
good relations with Russian authorities. I get the impression that
they are sometimes worried that they have a more liberal policy
than other countries because they fear that this will attract a
higher number of asylum seekers to their country. I also sometimes
feel that there is a lack of understanding of the very complex situation
in Chechnya, and the fear that people there are living with. For
example, if someone has been tortured and can prove it, that person
might get asylum, while his neighbor who may be in the exact same
situation, but has not yet been tortured, may be denied any kind
In your report, you rightly point out that the treatment of
Chechen asylum-seekers differs so much between European countries
that getting asylum is like a lottery. Obviously, the best solution
to this problem would be common European standards, possibly agreed
on at EU level. Has there ever been an effort to establish such
standards? Will the EU's current political crisis push this issue
into the background?
Austbo: A process aiming at harmonizing European asylum
policies has been going on for several years, but is far from being
the reality on the ground. I am not really in a position to predict
the consequences of the current crisis in the EU. What I think is
important is that states recognize that the preconditions for the
Dublin Regulations (ed.: EU-wide regulation that prevents refugees
from claiming asylum in more than one European country, based on
the assumption that asylum systems in all countries are equally
fair and open) are currently not in place, and accept the consequences
of that. Individuals in need of protection should not have to pay
the price for an imperfect system.
What about Europe's citizens? How are they reacting to this
new, growing group of refugees living among them?
Austbo: We did not focus on this in our study, and I think
that it is very difficult to generalize about these things. I would
guess that it differs from country to country. From my own experience
in Norway, I can say that people generally have quite a lot of sympathy
Recently, two young Chechen men, living in France and the Netherlands
and belonging to a militant Islamic network, were arrested in connection
with the murder last year of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh. Do
you think this incident will have an impact on policies and attitudes
vis a vis Chechen refugees?
Austbo: Yes, I think that this may heighten concerns among
government officials that there may be persons responsible for serious
crimes or with connections to militant networks among Chechens who
are applying for asylum in Europe.
Finally, what would you tell our readers if they want to get
Austbo: There are many non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
in European countries that are assisting Chechen asylum-seekers
and refugees in different ways. Many of these rely on volunteers
in their work. Take a look at ECRE's website (www.ecre.org)
to find information about these organizations. You can contact an
organization in the country where you live and offer your assistance.
There are many ways to help!