Written Answers. - Chechen Refugees.

John Bruton

Question:

96 Mr. J. Bruton asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the action, if any, he will take to deal with the refugee situation created by the Russian military actions in Chechnya; and his views on whether there are different policy considerations which apply in this case to those which applied in Kosovo. [22058/99]

The Government is seriously concerned at the loss of civilian life in Chechnya and the plight of the refugees fleeing from the conflict zone. Russia has been bombing alleged rebel bases in Chechnya since 5 September, has occupied a security zone covering the northern third of Chechnya, and has crossed the Terek river and encircled the Chechen capital, Grozny.

An estimated 350,000 Chechen refugees, mostly women and children, have fled the conflict area, mainly to the neighbouring Russian republic of Ingushetia, whose own population numbers only some 340,000, but also to North Ossetia and Dagestan. There have been reports that a similar number of people are displaced within Chechnya. Current concern relates to the Russian sealing of the border with Ingushetia two weeks ago, out of fears that rebel gunmen might enter federal territory. There are reports that up to 50,000 refugees are waiting along roads leading in and out of Chechnya. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, expressed concern over the large numbers massing on the border, with the refugees complaining of bitter cold and food shortages as they waited without shelter. The UNHCR has sent convoys of food supplies, tents and blankets to the area.

The European Union has already decided to channel significant amounts of humanitarian assistance to the region through international organisations such as the UNHCR. The European Union has noted the Russian Government's decision, communicated to the Union on 20 October in Moscow, that an inter-agency needs assessment mission will be allowed to travel to the region. Russia has also agreed to an OSCE observer mission to visit Dagestan and Chechnya before the end of next week to inspect the humanitarian situation, but it remains unclear whether the mission will actually travel to Chechnya or merely to surrounding areas. Prime Minister Putin has acknowledged that a humanitarian crisis has been triggered by the conflict. It is understood that Russia has also begun to transport those refugees who wish to return back to their homes in the Russian-controlled part of Chechnya.
On behalf of the European Union Presidency, Finnish Foreign Minister Halonen visited Ingushetia on 30 October. In her discussions with Russian federal and local authorities, Foreign Minister Halonen emphasised that those seeking to leave the conflict zone should be allowed to do so and the road to Ingushetia should be opened forthwith. She deplored recent accounts of displaced persons being harassed and attacked as they have attempted to flee the conflict, and stressed that as the Russian government has repeatedly expressed its readiness to accept humanitarian relief operations in the region, it should accordingly remove all obstacles that delay them.
The security situation, including the threat of kidnapping and killing of aid workers, is seriously hampering humanitarian operations. The virtual absence of humanitarian agencies, as a result, makes it difficult to verify the needs of the vulnerable population. Ireland is awaiting the outcome of the inter-agency assessment mission and is prepared to respond quickly on the basis of information received.
The evacuation of refugees from a country of first refuge or the immediate region will generally only be considered by the UNHCR as a last resort and has not been proposed in relation to Chechnya. In the case of Kosovo, the evacuation of ethnic Albanian refugees from camps in Macedonia took place under a formal international humanitarian evacuation programme initiated and organised by the UNHCR. As in all such situations, the Government responded to a direct request from the UNHCR. The Government is continuing to monitor closely the situation in Chechnya in co-operation with our EU partners and the international aid agencies.