As recently as 2013, the second largest number of applications for political asylum in Europe came from Russia, primarily from residents of the North Caucasus region complaining of rights abuses (40,000 Russian citizens sought asylum that year). And according to a report this week from Human Rights Watch, violations like punitive house-burnings and forced disappearances in Chechnya persist against critics of the regime.
This summer, an estimated 1,000 residents from the North Caucasus region have mustered in the Belarusian border town of Brest, making repeated attempts to cross the border into Poland, saying it is too dangerous for them to return home.
“You have to see it to believe it,” said 32-year-old Magomed Kadyrov, Radio Free Europe reported on Aug. 10. “I don’t know whom to trust, whom to talk to. Border officials don’t listen to us. There are a lot of us trying to get across. The other day, there were more than 700 people. The train from Brest to the border is now seven or eight cars long. Completely packed. Now there are more and more of us here.”
Some have made dozens of attempts to cross the border. In telephone conversations on Thursday, several of the refugees told The Washington Post that Polish border guards had refused to accept their asylum applications after the protest and that they were not sure what to do next. Hundreds were traveling back to Brest from the border area by train to regroup.
"Returning home for me is not an option," Bilal, one of the men who was part of the border protest and had previously spoken with other journalists near the border, said by telephone. He declined to give a last name, saying he had relatives in Chechnya. "Every person has [their] own reason, but many have very real problems with the government, with the current politics, and it's physically dangerous for them to go back to Chechnya."
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has sought to portray himself as a guarantor of stability against Islamic extremism in the war-torn republic but has been accused of serious human rights violations since he assumed power in 2007.
Human Rights Watch earlier this week released a report on rights abuses in Chechnya based on interviews with 43 victims chronicling torture, forced disappearances, punitive house-burnings, and other violations. Their crimes were often expressing dissatisfaction with the regime in the months before this month's elections.
"Even the mildest expressions of dissent about the situation in Chechnya or comments contradicting official policies or paradigms, whether expressed openly or in closed groups on social media, or through offhand comments to a journalist or in a public place, can trigger ruthless reprisals," the report says.
Poland's new ruling party, Peace and Justice, is avowedly anti-immigrant, and the Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak on Wednesday said that the country had not admitted the Chechens because "we will not expose Poland to the threat of terrorism."
“The point is to ensure security for Europe,” he said in remarks carried on Polish television, the Associated Press reported.
By Polish law, border guards should admit asylum seekers into the country in order for their cases to be reviewed, said Rafał Kostrzyński, a representative of the U.N. Refugee Agency in Warsaw office.