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The Warsaw Voice » Society » April 23, 2008
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In Search of a Better Life
April 23, 2008   
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Walk into an asylum seeker center in Poland and you'll find a motley bunch of political activists, fugitives from persecution, people looking for better opportunities in the West, petty criminals and people with dubious intentions.

More than 90 percent of those applying for refugee status in Poland are from Russia and 88 percent of that number come from Chechnya in the North Caucasus. Chechnya does not imply Chechen ethnicity. Many of those statistically stamped as Chechens are in fact Ingush, Ichkerian or Ossetian. Poland has been receiving between 4,500 and 8,000 applications annually from Chechnya over the past few years. This compares with 70 applications from Belarus in 2006, 66 from Pakistan, 60 from Ukraine and a dozen or so from each of a few other countries.

The number of applications in Poland has increased dramatically since the country joined the European Union in 2004. Poland received 8,000 applications that year compared with 4,600 applications in 2000. The figure stood at 7,093 in 2006 and is expected to surpass 8,000 for 2007 although reliable data are not yet available. Applying is one thing, being granted is quite another. Only 423 people, or 5 percent, of applicants were granted refugee status in Poland in 2006 and 312 in 2005.

Why so few?
Under the UN Geneva Convention on Refugees, refugee status may be granted to any displaced person with a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political views. Rafał Rogala, head of Poland's Office for Repatriation and Foreigners, says that few applicants meet this criterion. Most, he claims, are here for economic reasons. "Refugee status was introduced by the United Nations and the definition has only been modified once, by the New York Protocol," he says. "The procedure for granting refugee status in Poland adheres strictly to international guidelines. Most applicants are simply unable to demonstrate any specific threat to themselves. This is the case even in Chechnya where the internal situation is very harsh."

Adam Borowski, honorary consul of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in Poland, does not agree. Borowski claims that Polish officials are indifferent to the tragic fate of Chechen asylum seekers. "This is a country where practically everyone is threatened with persecution," he says.

"Polish officials sometimes justify refusal on the grounds that there is a general threat in Chechnya, but it is difficult to link this threat to any one person.

"In my opinion, this reading of the Geneva convention is unacceptable. It is an injustice to people who have lived through the nightmare of war."

Polish officials deem the holding of a passport by a refugee to be proof of lack of persecution on the part of the authorities. "They seem to forget that corruption is endemic in Chechnya and that passports can be purchased for $500," he says. "For the life of me, I can't see how people can be required to prove they were persecuted when so many documents were destroyed during the war. This is how a lot of disadvantaged people like Malica Aydamirova, daughter of the dissident Chechen poet and songwriter, have been unjustly denied refugee status."

Hundreds of thousands of people have been either killed or displaced since the first Chechen war broke out in December 1994.

Waiting for a decision
It can take asylum seekers more than a year to have their applications assessed. In the meantime, they are usually housed in one of 18 special centers, all but one of which, in Warsaw's Siekierki neighborhood, houses people from Chechnya.

These offer accommodation, food, money and Polish language instruction. They also have a resident psychologist and a nurse is on hand to arrange for medical treatment. Adults receive health insurance and a benefit of up to zl.1,000 per month. Children attend primary or junior high school where they are taught alongside Polish pupils. They receive special tutoring and several hours of Polish language classes per week. A Russian-speaking teacher comes to the Improwizacji Street center in Warsaw's Bielany district to help with homework and Polish classes.

Nation in miniature
These centers provide temporary shelter to opponents of the pro-Russian Chechen government. Here you can find dissidents, activists and fugitives fleeing Russian reprisals for Chechnya's bid for independence. Some of them fear for their own lives and those of their relatives should they return. But poverty, not politics, has driven others out. The ongoing Chechnyan wars have destroyed families, homes and properties. But there are still others who simply want a better life in the West. These people are busy squirreling away money and looking for contacts who can get them into countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and France by fair means or foul. Some of their new best friends can be seen turning up at the centers in expensive cars.

Meet the residents
These rooms have people from all walks of life, from every station in life, and from every stage of life. Some are ambitious, hardworking and honest people who see Poland as a land of opportunity and make sure their children attend Polish schools. Others are wallowing in despair, profoundly depressed about their past and frustrated by having their lives put on hold. Some are just waiting for the chance to head west, where they believe they will be provided with state housing and earn thousands of euros a month from casual work.

There are rowdy adolescents who wag school and repeatedly get busted for shoplifting. On the other hand, a wheelchair-bound boy has become a competitive fencer and one girl has mastered Polish in just over two years and gone on to win school competitions.

Some are grateful for what they have been given in Poland while others complain incessantly and either throw their food out of the window or sell it at street markets. The police and city patrols are frequent visitors, often confiscating entire crates of food being sold illegally. Wojciech, a worker at one Warsaw center, claims that some residents sells their children's textbooks and school accessories. "I often get phone calls from primary and junior high schools," he says. "I was asked once why a student from our center didn't have any textbooks. All I could say was that we had recently provided the child with a set of books."

What happens to the zl.350 monthly meal allowance for children attending school is another mystery given the high truancy rates.

A lot of the asylum seekers are employed as cleaners, baby-sitters, kitchen hands or construction workers but there is a large group that doesn't want to work. "We've had cases where companies from outside Warsaw have come to us looking for workers. They've had no takers despite offering free training in trades like fitting and carpentry with a guaranteed job at the end of it," says Andrzej, a worker from a center in Warsaw. "One of the most outrageous cases I remember was a three-month EU-subsidized Polish-language course. You got an extra zl.1,000 just for doing the course. Unfortunately, no one enrolled so the funds were withdrawn."

What happens to those denied refugee status? A lot of them are granted "tolerated stay" status which allows them to stay in Poland. A total of 2,048 people, of whom 2,015 were Russian citizens, were granted this in 2006. This amounts to some 35 percent of applicants.

People given tolerated stays are also given three months to leave the center and brave the icy squalls of the private rental market. Isman, a Chechen who has been living in Warsaw for over a year, says, "As soon as the owner finds out the prospective tenant is a Chechen, or worse still, a Chechen family, they pull out. There's nowhere for us to go. Besides, apartments in Warsaw are so expensive that even if we do manage to earn a pittance somewhere, it all goes on rent. We can't afford anything. This is just existence, it's not living."

This leads unsuccessful applicants to reapply. According to the Office for Repatriation and Foreigners more than half (3,280) the 2006 applications were re-applications.

Re-applications have become increasingly common over the past few years, partly as a delaying tactic that lets the applicant stay in a center and continue receiving benefits. This prompted the government to change the law in July 2006 so as to make asylum seekers holding tolerated stays ineligible for benefits. This, however, can be easily gotten around by renouncing the tolerated stay immediately prior to re-applying.

Go West
Those who fail to obtain refugee status or a tolerated stay are ordered to leave Poland, although very few comply. When such illegal aliens are apprehended, they usually re-apply for refugee status. This means being sent back to a center, receiving benefits and restarting the entire procedure. This loophole has kept thousands of immigrants living in Poland for years. The state budget forked out zl.36 million on foreigners last year of which zl.15 million went on accommodation, zl.10.5 million on food, zl.2.8 million on benefits outside the centers and zl.4.3 million on medical assistance.

The idea is to see that Chechens are integrated as well as they possibly can be. Non-governmental organizations like the Polish Humanitarian Organization (PAH) run a number of programs on vocational training, Polish language and so on, some of which are subsidized by the EU. The problem is that not everyone wants to stay in Poland. Most of the lucky few granted refugee status hotfoot it to the West. Of the 5,000 people recognized as refugees by Poland since 2000, no more than 1,000 have stayed in the country according to Rogala. Poland is but a stepping stone to a better life.

Agnieszka Domańska
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