MINELRES: Fwd: RFE/RL Feature: IOM on Meskhetian Refugees in Russia

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RFE/RL Feature Article

Thursday, 29 April 2004

Russia: IOM Expects Up To 10,000 Meskhetians To Apply For U.S. Refugee

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

The United States says it is ready to extend refugee status to thousands
of Meskhetians from Russia's Krasnodar region, an area that human rights
groups have long been denouncing as being a hotbed of ethnic
discrimination. Although they would rather remain in the region or
return to their historic homeland of Georgia, many Meskhetians are
likely to accept the offer for want of viable alternatives.

Prague, 29 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The International Organization for
Migration (IOM) has initiated a program designed to help Meskhetians
from Russia's southern Krasnodar region migrate to the United States.

The program was officially launched on 16 February on behalf of the U.S.
government. Applications will be received by the IOM headquarters in
Moscow, which will in turn hand them over to the U.S. Department of
Homeland Security for clearance.

"We have -- since the opening [of the program] on the 16th of February
-- [received], I would say, upwards of 1,700 [family] applications.
Normally there [are] about three persons per application, so it is more
than 5,000 individuals who have applied so far."

Selected applicants will then be allowed to enter American soil under
the U.S. Refugee Program, which grants asylum to individuals it deems
have been persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, or for
political reasons.

Under U.S. rules, eligibility for refugee status is decided on a
case-by-case basis.

Upon arrival, immigrants will be assigned to private voluntary agencies
that will provide initial resettlement services, such as housing, food,
clothing, and other basic necessities.

The IOM will help arrange for the transportation of immigrants, who in
turn will be expected to repay the cost of their transfer. Meskhetians
will be eligible for permanent resident status one year after their
arrival and, after another four years, for American citizenship.

Mark Getchell is the head of the IOM mission in Russia. He tells RFE/RL
many Krasnodar Meskhetians seem willing to apply for refugee status in
the United States.

"We have -- since the opening [of the program] on the 16th of February
-- [received], I would say, upwards of 1,700 [family] applications.
Normally there [are] about three persons per application, so it is more
than 5,000 individuals who have applied so far," Getchell says.

Getchell says the IOM expects up to 10,000 individuals to volunteer for
resettlement by the program's mid-August application deadline -- which
may be extended if deemed necessary.

Only those Meskhetians who have no legal status are eligible for the
refugee program. Unless they are married to an individual who has no
legal status, U.S. authorities will not consider the case of those
Meskhetians who enjoy civil rights under Russian laws.

Russian authorities claim they have granted citizenship to some 4,000
Meskhetians and are currently in the process of reviewing a few hundred
more cases.

"The problem of the Meskhetians is closed and no longer exists," says
Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin, referring last January to a
newly effective law that reportedly makes it easier for former Soviet
citizens to obtain Russian citizenship.

Chekalin's remarks are symptomatic of the attitude of many post-Soviet
governments towards Meskhetians.

Today's Meskhetians -- also known as Meskhis -- are the survivors or the
descendants of a roughly 100,000-strong rural Muslim population of
southern Georgia that Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered deported on 15
November 1944..

Although Meskhetians themselves disagree on whether they descend from
ethnic Turks sent to Georgia under Ottoman rule or Islamicized
Georgians, they are generally described as "Turks" and perceived as such
in most of the former Soviet Union.

The Meskhetians have been uprooted twice over the past six decades.

In 1989, after bloody pogroms that claimed dozens of lives in Central
Asia's Ferghana Valley, tens of thousands of Meskhetians were forced to
leave Uzbekistan and resettle in other areas, mainly in Azerbaijan and
Russia's Krasnodar region.

Estimates put the number of Meskhetians living in CIS countries at
somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000.

Sixty years after their deportation, the Meskhetians are the only ethnic
group among World War II-era "punished peoples" -- as the late historian
Alexander Nekrich once described them -- that is still awaiting an
official pronouncement that their deportation for alleged collaboration
with German occupation forces was unjustified.

Under a commitment made upon its entry into the Council of Europe in
1999, Georgia is expected to provide a legal basis for the return of
Meskhetians with a view to organizing their collective repatriation.

Yet, very little has been done so far and the number of Meskhetians who
have returned individually to Georgia does not exceed a few dozen.

Some 15,000 Meskhetians are believed to live in Russia's Krasnodar

Like other non-Slav refugees and displaced persons, most Krasnodar
Meskhetians have been denied civic rights and suffer from isolation and
xenophobic attitudes fueled by the local administration.

Krasnodar Governor Aleksander Tkachev maintains that his tough stance on
refugees and immigrants has the backing of Russian President Vladimir
Putin. Although the Kremlin denies the claim, rights groups blame Putin
for failing to publicly disavow Krasnodar authorities.

Marat Baratashvili is the chairman of the Tbilisi-based Union of
Georgian Repatriates, a nongovernmental group that advocates the return
of Meskhetians to their original homeland. Baratashvili, himself an
ethnic Meskhetian, tells our correspondent he has reservations about the
U.S. resettlement program.

“I view this program with circumspection,” he says. “In itself, this
idea is not bad. But it would have been better for the Meskhetians if
their rights in Russia had been respected and if their rights in Georgia
had been restored. In that case, the [U.S.] program would have been a
wonderful thing. But under the present conditions it has nothing to do
with respect of human rights. Apparently, it is a political decision
made by the United States and Russia. The aim is to take this
problematic issue away from the [Krasnodar] region and make things
easier for Georgia too.”

Two years ago, after dozens of Krasnodar Meskhetians went on a hunger
strike to protest discrimination from local authorities, Putin pledged
to set up a special commission to examine their claims.

But during a visit to the region in October 2003, the Russian president
did not signal any apparent willingness to address the Meskhetian issue.

Talking before an assembly of Kuban Cossacks, Putin urged Georgian
authorities to take their responsibilities and provide for a quick
return of the Meskhetian population.

Yet, the Georgian leadership in turn gave no indication it would take
immediate action.

Then President Eduard Shevardnadze said Georgia could not face another
influx of migrants until it finds a solution to the many problems posed
by tens of thousands of displaced persons from the separatist republic
of Abkhazia.

Georgian authorities also say they fear Meskhetians might claim
ownership of lands and houses located in their home region of
Samtskhe-Javakheti and create problems with the local Armenian

The new government that took over from the Shevardnadze administration
last November has carefully avoided raising the Meskhetian issue.

In the words of Levan Berdzenishvili, a civil rights campaigner close to
Georgia's current leaders, the Meskhetian problem is so controversial
that "any government that would try to solve it must be ready to leave

Georgia's Prime news agency quoted Berdzenishvili as saying last
October, "This issue must be settled. However, no one would ever forgive
any government for trying to solve it."

IOM mission head Getchell, however, believes the U.S. government hopes
that by taking a few thousands refugees it would help improve the fate
of the majority of the Meskhetian population.

"It is just hoped by the government of the U.S., I think, that taking
[an] initial group might relieve some of the pressure in the [Krasnodar]
region to the point where for local authorities -- and perhaps for
Georgia -- the numbers [of Meskhetians remaining in the region] will be
smaller and the solutions may be more easily attainable," Getchell said.

Most Krasnodar Meskhetians reportedly see the U.S. refugee program as a
painful opportunity to temporarily escape harassment from regional

The Caucasian Knot information website quoted community leader Sarvar
Tedorov as saying (27 Feb), "Our people [have been uprooted twice] in 60
years and we do not want to [be uprooted] a third [time]. But if the
Russian government and the administration of the Krasnodar [region]
continue [with their policy toward the Meskhetians], we will have to
leave, no matter where, to the U.S. or elsewhere."

Baratashvili believes most of his ethnic kin would prefer remaining in
the Krasnodar region with all rights due to Russian citizens, or return
to Georgia.

"My impression is that for them it is a temporary measure, a forced
step. They are like a penned flock of sheep, which see that a gate has
just opened in the fence. They rush toward that gate to escape the
custody they live under in Krasnodar. They have the choice between dying
there or going out toward freedom, even if this is a relative freedom
because they still cannot return to Georgia," Baratashvili says.

Getchell of the IOM confirms that during talks with Krasnodar
Meskhetians, he had the impression many saw the U.S. refugee program as
a last-resort solution.

Yet, unlike Baratashvili, he does not believe the resettlement
initiative is an attempt at postponing the settlement of the Meskhetian

"What the U.S. is hoping is that this resettlement option is going to be
part of a grander solution," he says.

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