(An edited version of this article appeared in Caravan India today)
When I met Aslan Daudov, a 30-year-old Chechen asylum seeker whose name has been changed here on his request, he was afraid that he would be deported within a couple of hours to Poland. He was not as concerned about Poland’s negligible acceptance rate of Chechen asylum seekers; but was terrified of a much worse fate: that he might be kidnapped by agents of the Chechen government, tortured and killed.
We met in a crowded café in Vienna’s Westbahnhof train station. Midway through our conversation Aslan indicated that we should leave. A couple of policemen had occupied a nearby table, and an ID check would have shortened the time that Aslan had left in Vienna. We regrouped outside the station, where Aslan laughed off our protests about him paying for our coffee.
For a man whose life could be in jeopardy in the coming days, Aslan seemed remarkably upbeat. When I asked how he managed to stay that way in face of such imminent threat, he replied that he was just trying to hide his fear. “Each time I see a policeman I lose one kilo of weight” he added, expressing the sort of gallows humour common amongst asylum seekers.
Aslan had arrived in Vienna in 2006 and has been living here ever since. He fled his village in Achkhoi-Martan district in Chechnya, where he had assisted rebels during the Second Chechen War.
Ever since the downfall of the Soviet Union, Chechnya has seen seemingly unending conflict. A tiny republic in Southern Russia, Chechnya declared independence in 1991 which led to an invasion by Russian troops in 1994 to end the insurgency. The invasion proved abortive in the face of stubborn resistance from guerrilla fighters and the troops withdrew in 1996. The Second Chechen War started when Russian troops renewed their campaign in Chechnya, following a series of bombings in Moscow in 1999. Russia claimed victory in 2000 and established Akhmad Kadyrov, a pro-Moscow cleric, as president. Akhmad was assasinated in 2004, shortly after which his son, Ramazan Kadyrov, became the de-facto ruler and, seeking to avenge his fathers death, launched a campaign a brutal campaign of repression. Since then the insurgency has waned, but allegations of kidnappings, assassination and brutality by Kadyrovs militia have increased.
Aslan was evasive about his exact role in the war, claiming that he only provided the rebels with clothing and ammunition from time to time. He also mentioned an uncle who was part of the rebel forces who was killed during the Russian invasion. He said that he and his family were under constant threats from the military ever since. When his younger brother disappeared without a trace, Aslan decided to leave Chechnya.
He crossed the border from the Russia into Belarus and from there into Poland, where he was arrested and put in a camp with other Chechen refugees. He says that he never felt secure there. “There were people asking about me”, he says, “I knew that there were some people involved in crimes in Chechnya there, and when I heard of some people that I knew disappearing, I decided to leave myself”. He went south, through Slovakia and entered Austria, where he was arrested again and asked to report to Traiskirchen refugee camp, a few miles south of Vienna.
On arrival in Austria, the first question he was asked was how he got here. When he indicated in his reply that he had crossed two member states of the European Union before arriving in Austria, Aslan was immediately marked as a ‘Dublin hit.’ His claim of asylum in Austria was rejected, and he was meant to be sent back to Poland. Aslan fled Traiskirchen, ‘worse than a prison’ according to him, and appealed his case in the courts several times. He got the last decision a few days before I met him in which the court indicated that it could not establish any reason for Aslan to be afraid of going to Poland, and that he ought to be sent back according to the Dublin procedure (contd).
The Dublin Regulation was adapted by the EU in 2003 with the view of “determining rapidly the member state responsible for the asylum claim”. It has come to represent a de-facto fencing policy of Western Europe, whereby the responsibility for asylum goes to the first country where the asylum seeker entered the EU. In most cases these are the border states of the EU which are often ill equipped to meet the demands of refugee protection. The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), a Brussels based NGO network that lobbies for the rights of refugees, says that this concept of ‘protection elsewhere’ “disregards fundamental rights of the asylum seekers.”
Aslan says that he is terrified of being sent to Poland. “There are people there, Russians and Chechens, who are on the lookout for people like me.” He also says that there is a likelihood that he would be sent to Belarus, a former Soviet republic heavily under Moscow’s influence, where he would almost certainly be imprisoned and tortured.
Aslan has good reason to be fearful. Our meeting had come a week after Austrian investigators implicated the 33-year-old President of Chechnya Ramazan Kadyrov in the killing of Chechen dissident Umar Israilov in Vienna in January 2009. Israilov had filed cases in the European Court of Human Rights against Kadyrov, accusing him of torture, murder and rape. These were the first accusations against the Chechen president in an international forum, and were particularly damning since Israilov was a former bodyguard of Kadyrov, and claimed to have witnessed a number of these abuses firsthand. He was shot dead in broad daylight by three Chechen men, whom the police found were connected to close aides of Kadyrov.
Human rights groups have repeatedly criticized Kadyrov for brutally silencing any critic of his regime. In the same year as Israilov, three human rights activists who had reported on abuses committed by Kadyrov were killed in Chechnya. In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who filed several reports on abuses under Kadyrov was killed in Moscow.
Israliov was afraid of reprisals, and had repeatedly requested the Austrian authorities for protection saying that he had been threatened by agents of Kadyrov to withdraw the case and return to Chechnya. None was forthcoming and Israilov was attacked while he was returning from a supermarket alone.
The incident has instilled deep fear in the Chechen community. Akhmad Sadulayev (name changed, on request), a Chechen refugee who has been living in Austria since 2005, and who introduced me to Aslan, says that ever since Israilov’s killing, Chechens are afraid of the reach that Kadyrov has across Europe. “They don’t understand how serious the situation is, especially in other countries,” he says. “If they could reach us in Austria, how difficult it would be in the former Soviet states.” He tells me about a case of how a Chechen asylum seeker that he knew was once kidnapped in broad day-light in Poland. “We are all very afraid here,” he adds, “It is more horrible to wait for your killers than to be killed.”
Aslan claims to have met Israilov in Traiskirchen, where he says Israilov urged him and other Chechen asylum seekers to stay on in Austria at any cost.
Austria hosts the largest population of Chechen refugees in Europe. The numbers of asylum seekers have increased since the outbreak of the Second Chechen War. According to Michael Genner, founder of ‘Asyl-in-Not’, and a ferocious critic of European Asylum policy, the rate of acceptance of Chechen asylum seekers prior to the Dublin Convention being adapted in 2003 was almost 100 percent. Now, under the Dublin convention, that figure has dropped to around 40 percent.
Aslan’s case highlights the limitations of European asylum policy in protecting asylum seekers. Chechen asylum seekers might be at greater risk when they are refouled to Eastern European countries where agents of the Chechen government allegedly have easy access.
“European asylum policy is essentially based on racism,” says Genner, “it is an instrument of Fortress Europe.” “There is a war against refugees, driven by fear that is drummed up by some politicians. The current policy makes no sense, from economic or human rights perspective.”