Order to Destroy Shelters for Displaced Chechens Constitutes New Obstruction of Rights

New York, March 26, 2003 -- The Ingush authorities have given the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) until March 26, 2003, to destroy 180 shelters constructed by MSF for the most vulnerable displaced Chechens in neighboring Ingushetia. This order represents an additional obstacle preventing humanitarian organizations from aiding a population increasingly threatened by forced repatriation.

These shelters are constructed of plywood on concrete foundations and are equipped with a gas stove and electricity. Showers and toilets have been constructed outside. In addition to the 180 shelters that have already been built, 1020 additional such shelters are currently under construction or planned to be built by the end of 2003 by MSF in Ingushetia.

The work in progress was interrupted by this new order. MSF, however, had previously received verbal guarantees from the president of Ingushetia, as well as all the necessary written authorization, to carry out this shelter construction project at a cost of approximately one million US dollars. By suddenly claiming that these shelters do not conform to urban building codes, the local judicial and administrative authorities have imposed a new obstacle to providing much-needed assistance to war-affected Chechen civilians.

These shelters are destined for displaced Chechen families who do not want to return to Chechnya and are currently living in deplorable conditions in weather-beaten tents and abandoned buildings in Ingushetia. At the end of January, MSF met with all of the families living in the tented camps in Ingushetia to determine their housing needs. Of 3,191 families (16,426 individuals) surveyed, 98% did not want to return to Chechnya and 92% gave insecurity as the main reason for this reluctance.

Displaced Chechens risk their lives by returning to Chechnya where insecurity and violence continues. Yet the pressures to return have been since the spring of 2002, especially for those living in the tented camps. Military detachments near the camps and the deletion of names from lists of beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance compound military closures of certain camps. The Aki Yurt camp was emptied in such a manner in December 2002.

The insecurity in the region extends to aid workers. Arjan Erkel, MSF head of mission in neighboring Dagestan, was kidnapped in Makhachkala on August 12, 2002, and MSF still has no news of his whereabouts. It is the responsibility of the Russian authorities to do everything in their power to obtain the immediate release of Arjan.

MSF is demanding that the Ingush and federal Russian authorities provide humanitarian organizations with the guarantees necessary to provide displaced persons with proper assistance, as well as assurances that these same persons will not be forced to return to Chechnya. MSF also urges United Nations agencies and the donor community to defend the right to refuge for war-affected Chechen populations.

MSF has been present in the North Caucasus since 1999 providing assistance to civilians in Chechnya, Ingushetia, as well as Dagestan, where programs are currently suspended due to the kidnapping of Arjan Erkel.