‘It’s fine here, but we would still like to move to Austria’
Hundreds of refugees from Chechnya try to reach EU countries via the Belarusian city of Brest, with only a dozen of them managing to travel by train to Poland, where they get to the refugee centers and await the decision on their official status. However, not all of them are lucky enough to get it. It took a Euroradio reporter three days to travel the same route that the Chechen refugees spend months, and sometimes years, to cover.
It was 6 a.m. and the international lounge at the Brest railway station was gradually getting crowded. I was there 20 minutes before the start of the border control procedure, and unintentionally listened to the local smugglers’ conversation:
“Look, there are so many of them today.”
“There are always plenty of them here.”
“No, there are more of them today than usually.”
“A train has just arrived from Moscow. So, they’ve probably come from there.”
“They go there to apply for asylum.”
“Well, perhaps we should go there too, shouldn’t we?”
“We won’t be granted it.”
Those ladies from Brest used the word ‘they’ when referring to the Caucasus people, mostly the Chechens, for whom the Brest railway station is a transit point on their way to getting refugee status in the European Union. The route is simple: Grozny-Moscow-Brest-Terespol. Those who are lucky enough reach the last point. The Chechen nationals don’t have Schengen visas (or at least the national Polish ones). According to the Belarusian human rights activists who render assistance to the Caucasus nationals in Brest, there are about 400 of them at present. Some of them have tried to cross the Belarusian-Polish border a dozen times in a row, but in vain. Polish border guards don’t let everyone who wish to cross into the country do it. The Poles’ approach to the entry issue is less comprehensible.
The doors opened for the border control. A man in green uniform was standing in the doorway. He stopped the Caucasus nationals one by one, demanding to produce their passports. Having noticed my blue passport cover he just nodded silently.
The Brest-Terespol train is comprised of four passenger carriages and somehow resembles the times of the German occupation, when public transport was divided into sections ‘for the Germans’ and ‘for the rest’. Chechen nationals with bags and children travel in the 3rd and 4th carriages, while Belarusians and Poles in the 1st and 2nd ones. As I was going to the 2nd carriage to find my seat, I came across a young Chechen woman with two children. She didn’t answer any of my questions during our 20-minute trip from Belarus to Poland.
“I’m a political refugee, while they are commercial ones.”
I interviewed Lomali Kaytukaev, 59, a builder from Grozny, in a children’s room at the Distribution and Accommodation Center for Aliens in Biała Podlaska. There were cheerful wallpapers, colorful chairs and flowers all around. The room was lit by sunlight. Lomali told me how he got there:
“It happened in 2004. Two people were killed outside my house, while I was visiting Gudermes. They wanted to drag me into that. They attacked my wife while my two-year-old son witnessed it. It happened right in front of his eyes. But they failed to charge me with those murders, because at that time I was being interrogated by an investigator in Gudermes. And that saved my life, I had an alibi,” said the Chechen man.
Lomali refused to expand on the case details, saying it was ‘too premature’ to discuss it. His fate will be decided on 20 June, with the consideration of the documents on recognition of his refugee status scheduled for that date. Lomali finally decided to immigrate to Europe with his family after that very incident in 2004. “You think that the war in our country has ended, but that’s not true. It continues, though in a different way. It took us 13 years to save money so that we could come here. Now I can openly discuss that, because I don’t have any other relatives staying in Chechnya,” said the Chechen man.
He managed to save RUB 85,000 (USD 1,500) and had to borrow an additional RUB 100,000 for the trip. “There are no jobs in Chechnya. Sometimes you have to get by on RUB 5,000 (USD 88) a month. We were saving up RUB 100-200 per month,” recalled Lomali. All his efforts were nearly thwarted at the Brest railway station, when a Belarusian border guard officer insisted that they should produce their children’s birth certificates. “We only had our children’s international passports, but the border guard started to demand their birth certificates. He said he couldn’t let the children pass without them, adding that we could continue our trip and they couldn’t. It took me a great deal of effort to persuade him. I barely managed it. Whereas the Polish border guards in Terespol let us pass without any problems. The only thing they asked was why I hadn’t applied for asylum in Belarus,” the Chechen man shared his adventure.
I repeated the Polish border guards’ question. What I heard in response was that Belarus had the same system as Russia. “There are intelligence services everywhere and they can do anything to a person.”
Lomali invited me to his room for a cup of tea. He shared this room with his wife and two children, a son and a daughter. “You are lucky to have met me. Few people here would have agreed to communicate with you. Most of them are commercial refugees,” the Chechen explained, referring to those of his compatriots who left for the EU for the sake of social assistance, rather than due to political persecution.
While we were having tea in a narrow room with bare walls and uncomfortable furniture, I asked Lomali what he was going to do after being granted refugee status. “I would like to appeal to the European Court to tell everyone about the situation in Chechnya. Are we going to stay in Poland? No. We would like to move to Austria. All my relatives are already there. We will settle down in Vienna,” said the Chechen man.
At the end, I asked Lomali and his wife, Asia, how they were treated by the local Poles. “The Poles treat us normally. They particularly like being addressed in Polish. We are learning the language little by little. We mostly have conflicts with each other. Different people come here and sometimes it’s hard to get along with them,” said Asia Kaytukaeva.
Birlant Kaysarova used to work as a saleswoman in a butcher’s shop in Chechnya. She also arrived in Poland via Brest. Like the Kaytukaev family, she also stayed in the Biała Podlaska-based special center for a while, awaiting a decision on her asylum application. The Polish authorities decided to transfer her to the Białystok-based center for aliens. She has been staying here for 1.5 years already. She has a private room with a tiny kitchen.
Birlant Kaysarova. She has been staying in Białystok-based center for aliens for 1.5 years already.
“I’ve been living quite normally here so far. Of course, there have always been some problems, but I get on with my life. To tell the truth, I’m quite fine here. It could have been better, but I’m not the only one here, am I? One can’t please everybody. I decided to leave Chechnya after I’d started experiencing some health problems. That’s the reason I’ve come here. I could have undergone treatment at home, but I wasn’t sure they could help me. I was told, there could be some serious problems, cancer or something like that. That’s what I was told. I was very scared and I left the country. I didn’t even tell all of my relatives about my departure,” said Birlant.
Birlant left Grozny for Moscow and then traveled to Brest. That’s where her adventures began. “We first arrived in Brest in September, two years ago. We made some 11 or 12 attempts to get to Terespol, but we were denied entry. We stayed at the Brest railway station for a month and then returned to Chechnya for a month. Then we traveled to Brest again. We tried to pass the border control 22 times. I was with my seven-year-old girl. It was a real torture for her. I asked the Polish border guards the reason for refusal, requesting them to say for sure that we wouldn’t be let into the country, so that we wouldn’t travel to and fro…” Birlant shared her story.
In her words, she spent about RUB 40,000 (USD 700) on a trip from Grozny to Terespol. She borrowed half of the sum and she’s still paying it off. “People helped me when I was staying at the Brest railway station. Those were mostly the Chechen nationals. They didn’t give me money, but they would buy me tickets to Terespol sometimes,” said Birlant.
Birlant’s daughter attends the school here (which is a mandatory condition for staying in Poland; all children under 6 should go to school). She, in turn, is busy with household chores and often travels to town. She says there aren’t any problems with the locals: “On the contrary, they themselves come to us, especially the elderly people. They would come and ask something in their language, though we don’t understand everything. They are very friendly.”
Birlant isn’t sure whether she will be granted refugee status or not. Her application was already rejected once and she had to collect additional documents to substantiate that she had to migrate from Chechnya to the EU.
While we were talking, some other Chechen women entered the room. They couldn’t speak Russian well, and their Polish was even worse. The only thing I could guess from their stories was that their life in Białystok was ‘much better than in Chechnya’.
Białystok-based center for aliens is accommodated in the former employee dormitory, in the industrial area.
“About 5% of the Chechen nationals are granted refugee status”
“How many of those people are granted refugee status? It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it’s just 5% of those who have actually applied for it. But one should understand that if rejected once, they still have a chance to file an application again. The only thing they are required to do is to state some new circumstances. The legislation has changed nowadays. Even if the head of our department issues a rejection for refugee status, the border guard service may issue a permit to stay on humanitarian grounds. It’s also a legal status in Poland. The only difference is that a holder of such permit isn’t entitled to participate in the integration programs. But he/she can live and work here,” Pavel Ukalski, an employee of the Białystok-based center for aliens explained.
People awaiting refugee status are eligible for free meals.
The Białystok-based center for aliens currently accommodates 198 people. Two hundred and ten more refugee status seekers live in the rented apartments in town. So, there are 400 of them in this town in total. Each person is eligible for a state allowance amounting to PLN 70 (USD 17) per month, meals three times a day and a once-off pecuniary aid for procurement of food and essentials (PLN 140, approximately USD 35). Children received about PLN 9 (slightly more than USD 2) per day for school meals. While they stay in the center, some of them find jobs, get driver’s licenses and even buy their own cars.
“The future fate of those people depends on the status they get, be it refugee status, a permit to stay on humanitarian grounds, or even a rejection. In the case of the first two options, they are engaged in a 12-month integration program and are assisted by the government. If they are rejected, they are still entitled to stay in our center for two months,” Pavel Ukalski explained.
“The Ukrainian nationals from Donbas, as well as the Crimean Tatars, have also started migrating here alongside the Chechens. At first, the Ukrainians were rejected refugee status, since it was believed that they could escape the war and find shelter in some other regions of Ukraine. But the situation has changed nowadays. The Ukrainian nationals have also been granted refugee status on a number of occasions. It’s very individual,” the Center employee stated.
In his words, Białystok residents have got accustomed to the Chechen nationals. Even if there are some conflicts, they never occur on ethnic grounds. “They may scuffle with each other in a disco club, but it’s hard to tell the reason for that. Maybe it’s because they are young and their hormones are raging,” said Pavel.
It takes up to six months to process an application for refugee status. However, many Chechen nationals can stay in the center for two years or even longer. “Naturally, this situation is uncomfortable for them. But we try to help those people. Our task is to make them feel good as far as possible. We are also assisted by several nonprofit organizations. The decision on granting of refugee status is made by some other institutions,” said Pavel Ukalski.
For thousands of Chechens it takes years to travel here, while I managed it in less than three days. Most of those, whom I tried to talk to, refused to communicate. Some of them are really afraid of persecution, whereas others, as Lomali Kaytukaev from Biała Podlaska put it, have no grounds for being granted political asylum and they use this relatively legal status in Poland to move farther to the West. However, they do it because they have no other choice.