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Left Without a Choice - Chechens Forced to Return to Chechnya

As the tent camps are about to be closed in Ingushetia, an MSF survey shows that more than 98% of Chechen displaced families living in the camps do not wantto go back to Chechnya

Moscow, May 6, 2003 - The international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today reveals the results of a survey carried out in the eight tent camps used by displaced Chechens in Ingushetia. Over three thousand families were questioned and the results show that 98% of those people do not want to return to Chechnya, mainly because they fear for their lives.

MSF is particularly concerned because of the persistent pressure from the authorities on Chechen families to leave the camps and return to what is clearly still a very threatening environment in Chechnya itself.

The survey shows that people are afraid to return despite the fact that living conditions in the tent camps continue to be totally unacceptable, with 52% of families living in tents that either leak or lack a floor or do not have any insulation against the fierce climate. At the same time, 90% of those who want to stay in Ingushetia do not know of any alternative shelter if the camps close. As one mother put it, "If they are closed, I will dig a pit in the ground and sit in it with my children."

There have been official statements that no one will be forced back but at the same time the provision of alternative shelter by humanitarian organizations continues to be blocked. At the end of January 2003 Ingush authorities suddenly declared the improved temporary shelters being built by MSF as illegal. Mr. Zyazikov, the Ingush president, has twice given his approval to this program. Yet, a month after our last meeting with the president, shelter construction is still completely blocked by the authorities. The most vulnerable families, identified through this survey, have not been allowed to move in to the 180 shelters that are already completed. The additional 1,200 shelters planned for construction have been stalled.

The survey contradicts official statements that aid provision in Ingushetia keeps people from going back to Chechnya. Of the families who told MSF that they did not want to return, only 12% gave assistance as a reason for staying. It is however very clear that aid in Chechnya itself is completely inadequate, largely because the violence seen as a threat by Chechen civilians is also a major hazard for humanitarian workers.

MSF calls upon President Zyazikov and federal authorities to respect people's basic right not to be forced back to Chechnya. MSF demands that the Ingush authorities stop administrative harassment against humanitarian organizations trying to provide assistance to refugees. It also calls on UN agencies who are mandated to guarantee that the choice of people who want to stay is being respected, to give real protection to the displaced families from Chechnya and to take a clear position on the current policy of forced return.

The MSF survey was conducted between the 3rd and 16th of February 2003 with 3,209 families.

Arjan Erkel, MSF head of mission in Daghestan, was kidnapped on August 12th, 2002 in Makhachkala. His whereabouts remain unknown.