“It is more horrible to wait for your killers than to be killed”
31 May 2010
(An edited version of this article appeared in Caravan India today)
When I met Aslan Daudov, a 30-year-old Chechen asylum seeker whose name
has been changed here on his request, he was afraid that he would be
deported within a couple of hours to Poland. He was not as concerned
about Poland’s negligible acceptance rate of Chechen asylum seekers; but
was terrified of a much worse fate: that he might be kidnapped by agents
of the Chechen government, tortured and killed.
We met in a crowded café in Vienna’s Westbahnhof train station. Midway
through our conversation Aslan indicated that we should leave. A couple
of policemen had occupied a nearby table, and an ID check would have
shortened the time that Aslan had left in Vienna. We regrouped outside
the station, where Aslan laughed off our protests about him paying for
For a man whose life could be in jeopardy in the coming days, Aslan
seemed remarkably upbeat. When I asked how he managed to stay that way
in face of such imminent threat, he replied that he was just trying to
hide his fear. “Each time I see a policeman I lose one kilo of weight”
he added, expressing the sort of gallows humour common amongst asylum
Aslan had arrived in Vienna in 2006 and has been living here ever since.
He fled his village in Achkhoi-Martan district in Chechnya, where he had
assisted rebels during the Second Chechen War.
Ever since the downfall of the Soviet Union, Chechnya has seen seemingly
unending conflict. A tiny republic in Southern Russia, Chechnya declared
independence in 1991 which led to an invasion by Russian troops in 1994
to end the insurgency. The invasion proved abortive in the face of
stubborn resistance from guerrilla fighters and the troops withdrew in
1996. The Second Chechen War started when Russian troops renewed their
campaign in Chechnya, following a series of bombings in Moscow in 1999.
Russia claimed victory in 2000 and established Akhmad Kadyrov, a
pro-Moscow cleric, as president. Akhmad was assasinated in 2004, shortly
after which his son, Ramazan Kadyrov, became the de-facto ruler and,
seeking to avenge his fathers death, launched a campaign a brutal
campaign of repression. Since then the insurgency has waned, but
allegations of kidnappings, assassination and brutality by Kadyrovs
militia have increased.
Aslan was evasive about his exact role in the war, claiming that he only
provided the rebels with clothing and ammunition from time to time. He
also mentioned an uncle who was part of the rebel forces who was killed
during the Russian invasion. He said that he and his family were under
constant threats from the military ever since. When his younger brother
disappeared without a trace, Aslan decided to leave Chechnya.
He crossed the border from the Russia into Belarus and from there into
Poland, where he was arrested and put in a camp with other Chechen
refugees. He says that he never felt secure there. “There were people
asking about me”, he says, “I knew that there were some people involved
in crimes in Chechnya there, and when I heard of some people that I knew
disappearing, I decided to leave myself”. He went south, through
Slovakia and entered Austria, where he was arrested again and asked to
report to Traiskirchen refugee camp, a few miles south of Vienna.
On arrival in Austria, the first question he was asked was how he got
here. When he indicated in his reply that he had crossed two member
states of the European Union before arriving in Austria, Aslan was
immediately marked as a ‘Dublin hit.’ His claim of asylum in Austria was
rejected, and he was meant to be sent back to Poland. Aslan fled
Traiskirchen, ‘worse than a prison’ according to him, and appealed his
case in the courts several times. He got the last decision a few days
before I met him in which the court indicated that it could not
establish any reason for Aslan to be afraid of going to Poland, and that
he ought to be sent back according to the Dublin procedure (contd).
The Dublin Regulation was adapted by the EU in 2003 with the view of
“determining rapidly the member state responsible for the asylum claim”.
It has come to represent a de-facto fencing policy of Western Europe,
whereby the responsibility for asylum goes to the first country where
the asylum seeker entered the EU. In most cases these are the border
states of the EU which are often ill equipped to meet the demands of
refugee protection. The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE),
a Brussels based NGO network that lobbies for the rights of refugees,
says that this concept of ‘protection elsewhere’ “disregards fundamental
rights of the asylum seekers.”
Aslan says that he is terrified of being sent to Poland. “There are
people there, Russians and Chechens, who are on the lookout for people
like me.” He also says that there is a likelihood that he would be sent
to Belarus, a former Soviet republic heavily under Moscow’s influence,
where he would almost certainly be imprisoned and tortured.
Aslan has good reason to be fearful. Our meeting had come a week after
Austrian investigators implicated the 33-year-old President of Chechnya
Ramazan Kadyrov in the killing of Chechen dissident Umar Israilov in
Vienna in January 2009. Israilov had filed cases in the European Court
of Human Rights against Kadyrov, accusing him of torture, murder and
rape. These were the first accusations against the Chechen president in
an international forum, and were particularly damning since Israilov was
a former bodyguard of Kadyrov, and claimed to have witnessed a number of
these abuses firsthand. He was shot dead in broad daylight by three
Chechen men, whom the police found were connected to close aides of Kadyrov.
Human rights groups have repeatedly criticized Kadyrov for brutally
silencing any critic of his regime. In the same year as Israilov, three
human rights activists who had reported on abuses committed by Kadyrov
were killed in Chechnya. In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who
filed several reports on abuses under Kadyrov was killed in Moscow.
Israliov was afraid of reprisals, and had repeatedly requested the
Austrian authorities for protection saying that he had been threatened
by agents of Kadyrov to withdraw the case and return to Chechnya. None
was forthcoming and Israilov was attacked while he was returning from a
The incident has instilled deep fear in the Chechen community. Akhmad
Sadulayev (name changed, on request), a Chechen refugee who has been
living in Austria since 2005, and who introduced me to Aslan, says that
ever since Israilov’s killing, Chechens are afraid of the reach that
Kadyrov has across Europe. “They don’t understand how serious the
situation is, especially in other countries,” he says. “If they could
reach us in Austria, how difficult it would be in the former Soviet
states.” He tells me about a case of how a Chechen asylum seeker that he
knew was once kidnapped in broad day-light in Poland. “We are all very
afraid here,” he adds, “It is more horrible to wait for your killers
than to be killed.”
Aslan claims to have met Israilov in Traiskirchen, where he says
Israilov urged him and other Chechen asylum seekers to stay on in
Austria at any cost.
Austria hosts the largest population of Chechen refugees in Europe. The
numbers of asylum seekers have increased since the outbreak of the
Second Chechen War. According to Michael Genner, founder of
‘Asyl-in-Not’, and a ferocious critic of European Asylum policy, the
rate of acceptance of Chechen asylum seekers prior to the Dublin
Convention being adapted in 2003 was almost 100 percent. Now, under the
Dublin convention, that figure has dropped to around 40 percent.
Aslan’s case highlights the limitations of European asylum policy in
protecting asylum seekers. Chechen asylum seekers might be at greater
risk when they are refouled to Eastern European countries where agents
of the Chechen government allegedly have easy access.
“European asylum policy is essentially based on racism,” says Genner,
“it is an instrument of Fortress Europe.” “There is a war against
refugees, driven by fear that is drummed up by some politicians. The
current policy makes no sense, from economic or human rights perspective.”