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Azerbaijan Allows Refugees to Attend Public School

30 July 2003 Editor's note: EurasiaNet provides information and analysis about political, economic, environmental, and social developments in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as in Russia, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia.

Azerbaijan's recent decision to allow refugees to attend public schools marks a subtle change in a domestic policy with significant regional political ramifications. The decision came after UNHCR's office in Baku convinced Azerbaijani officials that the new policy was in the country's best interest. The international organization also pledged to help remodel sections of schools where refugee children will attend classes.

As head of the Ministry of Education's Department of Public Education and Pre-Schools for Cities, Arif Muradov is the man in charge of implementing the new policy throughout the country, although it mainly concerns Baku. In an interview with EurasiaNet, Muradov emphasized that the new policy pertained to "all refugee children currently residing in the territory of Azerbaijan."

The chief beneficiaries of the government's decision will be Chechen children. UNHCR figures show that Chechens account for over 80 percent of asylum applications in Azerbaijan since 2000--approximately 7,200 out of 8,700. Chechen children will be able to attend one of Baku's many Russian-language schools. Already 250 of an estimated 500 eligible Chechen children have registered with UNHCR to attend classes. Azerbaijani education officials have yet to finalize plans for handling children who do not speak Azeri or Russian. Most of those falling into this category come from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.

UNHCR decided to provide infrastructure reconstruction aid because the Azerbaijani school system is also grappling with a severe shortage of space. Some schools hold three shifts per day, as though three schools were housed in the same building.

Muradov's careful wording concerning the education of refugees underscores the sensitive nature of the new policy vis-à-vis Azerbaijani-Russian relations. On various occasions, Russian leaders have accused both Azerbaijan and Georgia of abetting the Chechen separatist campaign. Lately, Baku has managed to establish a sense of equilibrium in its relationship with Moscow. Some local experts believe Baku's refugee education decision has the potential to upset the delicate balance.

Whether or not Chechen fighters have utilized Azerbaijani territory as a safe haven, as Russia has alleged, the large number of refugees in Azerbaijan undermines Russian efforts to portray the conflict as under control and winding down. Indeed, the new education policy seems to help underscore a lack of progress for Russia in solving the Chechen conflict.

Chechens in Azerbaijan are not refugees in the strict sense of the term, in that they are able to travel to and from their homeland. Yet "able" in this case is a relative word because of the danger they face when attempting to make such a journey. According to Lyoma Atagayev, a former Chechen "interior ministry" official, there are over two dozen security checkpoints in Russian territory--both in Chechnya itself and in the neighboring autonomous republic of Dagestan, which borders Azerbaijan. Especially in Chechnya, these checkpoints have been the scene of countless documented disappearances of Chechen males.

At present in Azerbaijan, Chechen children have limited access to educational opportunities. Refugee groups are running five unofficial Chechen "schools" in Baku, each operating independently of one another. Ruslan Zelimkhanov, a Chechen refugee who once was a top education official in Chechnya, played a leading role in organizing one of the learning centers, which are akin to vocational schools. At Zelimkhanov's school, up to 180 students take English-language lessons and various computer courses. They also receive practical training in safety awareness, learning how to identify and avoid mines and other unexploded ordnance. Boys and girls attend classes on alternating days. Although initial support for the school came from a Chechen-American woman, the Norwegian Refugee Council is currently providing material and educational support.

For Chechens seeking to leave their war-ravaged homeland, almost twice as many seek refuge in Azerbaijan as in Georgia, according to expert estimates. While those going to Georgia can obtain official recognition as refugees, and receive regular WFP-supplied food rations, economic opportunities for refugees are far greater in Azerbaijan, especially in Baku.

Azerbaijan officially views Chechens to be economic migrants, and thus declines to grant them official refugee status or extend them much in the way of assistance. However, Bohdan Nahajlo, UNHCR Representative in Azerbaijan, says Azerbaijani officials have a de facto policy of "passive intolerance," under which Chechens are allowed to remain. As an alternative to official registration, the Chechen register with UNHCR and receive a so-called protection letter that, according to Nahajlo, is "usually enough to prevent harassment."

One aid worker, however, reported that Chechen men are often the target of arrest and extortion by Azerbaijani police. Currently the Azerbaijan government does not have an office to deal with the registration of refugees, although UNHCR is presently helping Azerbaijani authorities on establishing such a mechanism. Some observers believe the Azerbaijani education move may be a first step towards the official recognition of Chechens as refugees.

By Troy Etulain
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