Support independent journalism in Central & Eastern Europe.
Donate to TOL!
For Chechen refugees, the route from Belarus to Poland only takes three days with the right papers, but for others it can take an eternity. From Euroradio.by Ales Pilecki 15 June 2017
Hundreds of Chechen refugees have been trying to reach the EU via Brest, a city in western Belarus. Only dozens manage to take the train to Poland, where they get stuck in camps, awaiting official refugee status – but not all succeed. A correspondent from Euroradio spent three days on the route refugees usually complete in months – and sometimes, years.
It is six in the morning, and the international waiting room of the Brest train station is gradually filling up. I arrived 20 minutes before passport control began, and I involuntarily caught a glimpse of a conversation between two local, female smugglers:
"Look how many are here today."
"There's always many of them."
"No, today there are more than usual."
"The train from Moscow just arrived, maybe that's why."
"They're going to seek asylum."
"Should we go, too?"
"We wouldn't get it."
When speaking about "them," the women from Brest refer to those from the Caucasus, mainly Chechens, for whom the Brest train station has become a transit zone on their way to seeking refugee status in the European Union. The route is simple: Grozny – Moscow – Brest – Terespol. But you only get to the last stop if you're lucky. The Chechens have visas for neither the Schengen space, nor for Poland. According to Belarusian human rights activists helping Caucasian refugees in Brest, at the moment there are approximately 400 people in Terespol. Some try to cross the Belarus-Poland border dozens of times in a row, all in vain: Polish border guards only let a few of them through, and their admission criteria are unclear.
The train doors open for passport control. In the aisle, a man in a green uniform stops the Caucasians one by one, demanding to see their passports. Noticing the blue cover of my Belarusian passport, he merely nods in silence.
The Brest-Terespol train has four carriages, which is vaguely reminiscent of the times of the Nazi occupation, when public transport was divided into carriages "for Germans only" and "for others." Chechens with baggage and in some cases with children too, are travelling in the third and fourth carriages. Belarusians and Poles, in the first and second one. In the second carriage, where my seat is, I unexpectedly meet a young Chechen woman with two children. She refuses to answer any of my questions during the 20- minute ride between Belarus and Poland.
“Politicals” and “Commercials”
In the children's room at the reception center for foreigners in Biala Podlaska, eastern Poland, I am talking to Lomali, a 59-year-old construction worker from Grozny. We are surrounded by cheerful wallpaper, colorful chairs, flowers. The room is overflowing with sunlight, and Lomali is telling me how he got here.
"It was in 2004, when two people were killed in my home while I was away in Gudermes, [a town in Chechnya, to the east of the capital Grozny]. They wanted to drag me into it, they attacked my wife – all in front of my two year-old son, who saw everything. But they didn't manage to blame me. I was actually being questioned by police investigators in Gudermes, so I had an alibi – this saved me," he says.
I did not manage to get more details on the incident (Lomali says "It's too soon"). His fate will be decided on 20 June, when his application for refugee status will be processed. Lomali decided to leave for the European Union with his wife and children in 2004, after the event took place.
"You people think that the war is over,” he says. “The reality is that it is still going on, only differently. We were saving money for 13 years to come here. And I am now able to talk about this because I don't have anyone left in Chechnya." He saved 85,000 Russian rubles (around $1,500), and borrowed another 100,000.
"There's no work in Chechnya. Sometimes we had to live off 5,000 rubles a month. We would save around 100, 200 rubles at a time," Lomali remembers. All his efforts nearly failed at the Brest train station: the Belarusian border guard demanded the children's birth certificates. "We only had their passports. We had made international passports for the children, but the border guard started demanding the certificates. He said he wouldn't let them through without them – we could go, but not the children. I barely managed to convince him. The Poles in Terespol let me through straight away, on the first try. They only asked why we didn't ask for asylum in Belarus," Lomali says, recalling his adventures.
I repeat the question of the Polish border guards. Lomali says that it's the same type of regime in Belarus as in Russia: the secret services are everywhere, and they can do whatever they want.
"You are lucky you met me. Hardly anyone would talk to you here. They're mostly commercials here," he explains. When talking about a "commercial," Lomali refers to his countrymen who left for the EU not because of political persecution, but for economic reasons.
During our teatime in the long and narrow room with bare walls and uncomfortable furniture, I ask him what he intends to do after being granted asylum.
"I want to go all the way up to the European Court of Justice. I want to tell everyone what is going on in Chechnya. Do I intend to live in Poland? No. We want to move to Austria. Our whole family's already there. We're going to live in Vienna," he says.
Before leaving, I ask Lomali and his wife Asiya how the local Poles treat them. "The Poles treat us all right. They especially like it when we talk to them in Polish. We have learned the language a bit. Our conflicts are mostly among ourselves: all sorts of different people come here, and it can be difficult to get used to each other," Asiya Kaitukaeva tells me.
In Search of Better Health Care
In Chechnya, Birlant Kaisarova worked as an assistant in a meat shop. She also arrived in Poland via Brest, and, just like the Kaitukaevs, stayed at the reception center in Biala Podlaska, awaiting the official decision on her refugee status application. The Polish authorities decided to relocate her to the Center for Foreigners in Bialystok, where she has been staying for a year and a half. She has a separate room and a small kitchen.
"I get by. There have been and always will be troubles, but I'm all right. I'm trying to stay in Poland and, to be honest, I live well. It could be better, but I'm not alone here: it can't be perfect for everyone. I decided to leave Chechnya when my health first deteriorated. I could've stayed at home, but I had doubts whether I would get any treatment. They said it could be serious – cancer, or something similar. I got very scared, and left straight away. I didn't even tell all my relatives," Birlant says.
From Grozny, Birlant first travelled to Moscow, and from there to Brest. Her adventures began there.
"We came to Brest in September two years ago. We tried to cross the border to Terespol 11 or 12 times, but they didn't let us through. We spent a month at the train station, then returned to Chechnya for a month. Then back to Brest. We tried 22 times. It was terrible. My seven year-old daughter was with me, and I felt like I was tormenting her. I was constantly asking the border guards “Why it is like this?” I asked them to tell us that they wouldn't let us through for sure. Then we would've stopped trying, but like this …" she says.
Birlant says she spent about 40,000 rubles on the journey from Grozny to Terespol. Part of it was borrowed, and she is still paying it back.
"Several people helped me at the train station in Brest, mostly Chechens. They didn't give me any money, but they sometimes gave me tickets – train tickets to Terespol."
Birlant's daughter goes to school – a requirement for staying in Poland. All children above the age of six have to attend. Birlant is mostly occupied with the household, or running errands in town. She says she has no problems with the locals: "Quite the opposite – they approach us. Especially the ones who are older. They come up to us, talk to us in Polish, even though we don't understand. They are very friendly."
Birlant still doesn't know whether she will be granted refugee status. She has already been rejected once, and had to collect further documents to support her claim that leaving Chechnya was unavoidable.
While we talk, several other Chechen women enter the room. They speak Russian poorly, and their Polish is even worse. The only thing I can make out from their stories is that in Bialystok "it is very good, much better than in Chechnya."
Ukrainians Are Also Applying for Polish Asylum
"How many of them get refugee status? I don't want to lie – only about 5 percent of applicants,” explains Pawel Ukalski, an employee at the Bialystok Center for Foreigners in northeastern Poland. “But it's important to understand that if they're rejected, they can apply again. They just have to declare that their circumstances are now different. The legislation has been recently changed, and even if the head of our department issues a denial of refugee status, the border control can still issue a residence permit on humanitarian grounds, which is also a legal status within Poland. The difference is that, in the latter case, one is not eligible for integration programs, but one is allowed to work and live here."
The Bialystok Center for Foreigners currently houses 198 people. Another 210 applicants for refugee status rent apartments in the city. Each of those approximately 400 people receives 70 zlotys (around $18) per month from the government, plus three meals a day and one-off assistance of 140 zlotys for acquiring clothes and other necessities. Children also receive nine zlotys a day for their school meals. After years of living at the center, some find jobs, get driving licenses, and sometimes even get their own cars.
"People's fate here is decided by the status they are granted: refugee status, humanitarian protection, or denial,” Ukalski explains. “In the first two cases, they can begin an integration program that lasts 12 months, and are taken under the protection of the local authorities. In case of denial, they are still allowed to stay here for two more months."
"Apart from Chechens, we also started receiving Ukrainians from the Donbas, and Crimean Tatars. At the beginning, Ukrainians would be denied refugee status on the grounds that they should be able to seek refuge from the war within Ukraine. But now the situation is changing – there are some cases when Ukrainians are recognized as refugees, too. But it varies from case to case," Ukalski says.
According to him, the locals have grown used to the Chechens. Even if there are conflicts, they are not ethnic-related. "Sometimes there are fights in clubs, but the reasons are hard to pinpoint. Perhaps it's just young blood."
The evaluation procedure for refugee status applications takes up to six months. However, some Chechens have to live at the center and wait for a decision for two years or longer.
"This obviously is an uncomfortable situation. But we are doing our best to help people. Our main goal is to make them feel more or less content. There are also some NGOs who are helping in our work. The decision on granting the refugee status is made by other departments," Ukalski tells me.
It took me less than three days to trace the route it takes years to complete for thousands of Chechens. Most people I tried to talk to would not answer my questions. Some genuinely fear persecution. Others, as Lomali told me in Biala Podlaska, simply do not qualify for political asylum, and use their relatively legal residence in Poland to continue further west. In any case, they do not come here with a light heart.
Transitions magazine = Your one-stop source for news, research and analysis on the post-communist region.
Sign up for the free TOL newsletter!
The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.
This innovative approach to story telling gives voice to ordinary people and takes the reader on the virtual trip across Moldovan rural and urban landscapes.
It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.