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Interview 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.

CAN: 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.

CAN: 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?

A.M. Austbo: My 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.

CAN: The report you have written is quite extensive and based on in-depth research. Could you tell us how it was produced? Who contributed?

A.M. Austbo: The 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.

CAN: What are the key conclusions of the report and what are the main recommendations?

A.M. 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.

CAN: 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?

A.M. 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.

CAN: 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?

A.M. 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 of protection.

CAN: 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?

A.M. 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.

CAN: What about Europe's citizens? How are they reacting to this new, growing group of refugees living among them?

A.M. 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 for Chechens.

CAN: 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?

A.M. 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.

CAN: Finally, what would you tell our readers if they want to get involved?

A.M. 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!

Humanitarian crisis in Chechnya:

Hunger, desperate poverty, people living in bombed-out ruins and squalid camps, landmines causing daily casualties, widespread health problems and a whole generation growing up without adequate schooling...
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