Russia’s war in Chechnya rumbles on – in Europe’s deportation of asylum seekers
European countries should not return Chechen refugees to Russia, where they face imprisonment, torture and even death
Twenty years ago, one of the first things you’d see when opening an international newspaper was the word “Chechnya”. The North Caucasus republic, caught in a separatist struggle in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, became a byword internationally for atrocities by the Russian military, plus the occasional kidnapping of foreign journalists and aid workers.
Today, the conflict is over in Chechnya, and Kremlin-backed warlord Ramzan Kadyrov is firmly ensconced in power as head of the Chechen Republic. But the war still rumbles on in Europe, which has become a haven for thousands of Chechens who fled the bloody war and the brutal attention of the Russian security forces.
Indeed, before the migration crisis hit Europe, migrants from Russia made up one of the largest groups of asylum seekers on the continent. In 2013, more than 40,000 Russian citizens - many of them Chechens - applied for asylum to EU countries. In 2020, 5,500 people from Russia sought asylum in EU states.
But when Chechens manage to get to Europe – often via the Belarusian-Polish border – life is far from easy. Aside from the challenge of setting up new lives, the threat of return remains in the background, as Chechens have to deal with hostile migration authorities, agents of the Chechen authorities, and European law enforcement, which cooperates with their Russian counterparts.
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Since 2014, around a dozen Chechen asylum seekers who were returned to Russia are known to have died at the hands of the Russian security forces, disappeared or have been imprisoned for lengthy prison terms after suspicious conviction. These extraditions, or deportations, often take place without a genuine right to appeal the decision.
A recent deportation by France only strengthens this worrying trend.
No right to deport
Last month, Magomed Gadaev, 37, went to sign in at a police station in Limoges. He had been living with his wife and children in France since 2012, having left Chechnya at the end of the 2000s after being imprisoned for fighting in the Chechen war.
A few weeks earlier, Gadaev had been released from a French migration detention centre, where he’d been placed after losing his asylum claim in autumn 2020.
But when Gadaev got to the police station on 8 April, he was placed back in detention. The next day, he was put on a plane to Moscow. In protest, he cut open his stomach while in detention, and filed an urgent appeal against deportation via his lawyer. This appeal, it seems, was ignored. A few days later, Gadaev was in a Chechen prison, facing suspicious charges.
“The migration authorities did not have the right to deport Gadaev before the court made a decision on our urgent appeal on the legality of his deportation,” Arnaud Toulouse, Gadaev’s legal counsel, told openDemocracy. He also said that a previous deportation ban, from 10 March, was still in force. Toulouse had appealed against the decision to refuse his client asylum status – and a hearing was set for the end of April. Gadaev was deported before it could take place.
This case has caused public indignation among French and international human rights activists. Amnesty International and Le Comité Tchétchénie condemned the French authorities for violating both French law and their international obligations to protect human rights, calling on President Macron “to make efforts to return Gadaev to France”.
Soon after, 12 major human rights organisations published a joint statement on Gadaev’s situation, accusing France of being responsible for what was likely to happen to him – that is, torture at the hands of Russian security forces in Chechnya.
“Alarming information about abductions, unlawful detention, torture and other human rights violations arrive regularly,” Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, said regarding Chechnya’s human rights situation.
Mijatović continued: “Council of Europe member states deciding on asylum requests and return are required to assess, in relation to each individual case, the risk that the person will be subjected to serious human rights violations in the country of return. If there is a real risk that the person concerned would be returned to torture or other ill-treatment in a country, they must not expel that person there. The prohibition on return in such cases is absolute, and cannot be circumvented by states in any way, regardless of the background of the person involved.”
“They [the French authorities] are complicit in illegal actions against Gadaev and are directly responsible for his fate in Russia”
Speaking to openDemocracy, a spokesperson for the French Embassy in Moscow stated that Magomed Gadaev had been deprived of asylum status in Poland, and that the French migration authorities had also declined to give him asylum status - a decision confirmed by the national asylum court. The embassy did not answer when asked whether they were monitoring what happened to Gadaev in Russia.
Tortured and killed
Civic Assistance, a leading human rights organisation in Russia, notes that the deportation of Chechen refugees from France and Germany began to gain momentum in 2014. The organisation’s director, Svetlana Gannushkina, said the situation with Chechen refugees in Europe continues to deteriorate every year.
Most refugees who are denied asylum in Europe go missing when they are returned to Russia or become involved in criminal cases – they are forced to confess to uncommitted crimes under torture, Gannushkina said.
For example, in 2014, Kana Afanasyev, 22, was deported to Russia from Sweden after being denied political asylum. He was killed three months later in his home village in Chechnya after being detained by security forces. Afanasyev’s body, local residents said, showed signs of torture.
According to Magomed Gadaev himself, he was convicted in 2006 by a Russian court for participating in the Second Chechen War. After his release from prison in 2009, he was abducted by security forces in Chechnya and spent five months at a riot police compound in the country’s capital, Grozny. When freed from this illegal detention, Gadaev travelled to Poland, where he was granted refugee status.
In 2012, he moved to France and applied for refugee status there. That year, he was made a witness in a Russian criminal investigation into torture at the Grozny police compound and testified against Russian security officials.
“This is a breakdown of values which are commonly called European”
In January 2019, France denied Gadaev asylum because he already had refugee status in Poland. Then Poland withdrew Gadaev’s status and refused to take him back, after which Gadaev again requested asylum in France.
According to Arnaud Toulouse, a French court ruled on 10 March that Gadaev could not be deported to Russia – because he could be at risk of physical harm there – and released him from detention on the condition that he report daily to his local police station. On 8 April, when Gadaev went to check in, he was detained – and then deported.
Toulouse says Gadaev was convicted twice in France. First, in connection with a fight, for which he was sentenced to six months in prison, and then for violating restrictions on movement, for which he was imprisoned for several months.
Gadaev was a member of two Chechen groups based in France: Bart Marshaw and the Assembly of European Chechens. Both advocate for “the de-occupation of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria” – in other words, state autonomy for Chechnya and the withdrawal of Russian military from the republic.
Intense scrutiny of Chechen refugees
Human rights activists claim that the French authorities have intensified the persecution of the country’s Chechen community in the wake of the shocking murder of Parisian teacher Samuel Paty by a young Chechen refugee last October.
Indeed, Gadaev received his official asylum refusal three days after the teacher’s death, noted Toulouse. In response to this new wave of attention, Chechen activists in France began collecting information about deported refugees and those facing deportation, and are planning to transfer these lists to human rights activists.
Toulouse links Gadaev’s deportation to a recent agreement between the French and Russian interior ministries on the return of Russian citizens from France. In November 2020, in the wake of the murder of Paty, French interior minister Gérald Darmanin came to an agreement with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, regarding the return of Russian citizens, including persons "suspected of radicalisation". Its effect, Toulouse said, is that France can now send Russian citizens who lost their asylum claims, and those who are on France’s ‘Fiche-S’ security watchlist, back to Russia.
The details of the agreement have not been officially disclosed, but the Fiche-S list holds information on citizens deemed by the French state as posing a threat to national security. It is unclear, said Toulouse, whether Gadaev had been placed on this list.
According to Raphael Bossong from the German Institute for International Relations and Security Issues (SWP) think tank, the criteria for and consequences of putting an individual on a list of ‘potential threats’ (which all European states use), are often far from clearly defined. For example, the French Fiche-S list includes up to 50,000 people, and focuses mainly on alleged “Islamic terrorism”. Germany’s similar Gefährder terrorism watchlist has about 20,000 people on it, and an emphasis on right-wing violent extremists.
Inclusion on such a list does not amount to a criminal conviction, but it can subject someone to restrictions and monitoring. An individual may not even know that he or she is on the list. Bossong says it is possible, in theory, to find out if a person is on one of these lists, but this request could also be denied on “national security” grounds.
Using Interpol’s wanted list
According to Chechen human rights association Vayfond, which protects the rights of Caucasian refugees in Europe, the Russian authorities actively use Interpol’s wanted list to request the extradition of Chechen refugees seeking asylum in Europe.
Russian authorities often place Chechen refugees on the international wanted list for political reasons via trumped-up criminal cases, the organisation claimed. Vayfond said that it has managed to remove 15 people, originally from the North Caucasus, from Interpol’s database since 2017 after the Russian authorities placed them there.
However, a refusal to extradite an individual on Interpol’s wanted list does not necessarily protect them from being deported to Russia. A recent report by Civic Assistance highlights the story of a Chechen refugee called Shamil Soltamuradov.
Soltamuradov was on Interpol’s wanted list, but the French and German authorities refused to extradite him on Russia’s request. However, after he was refused asylum in Germany, he was deported to Russia in 2018 by the German immigration authorities. He is now serving a 17-year sentence in Russia after being convicted on charges of participating in an illegal armed group – a conviction that human rights activists believe was fabricated.
Breakdown of values
Magomed Gadaev is now in Chechnya. He was transferred to the republic by the police of Novy Urengoy, a city in Yamalo-Nenets where he hoped to stay after he was allowed to leave Moscow’s airport. On 12 April, Russian security officials searched the house of Gadaev’s parents. According to the investigation, police found a firearm at the house, where Gadaev had not been for 11 years. Gadaev was subsequently charged in a criminal case on weapon possession.
Gadaev’s case is not an outlier. Three other Chechens have been deported from Europe in recent weeks. Ilyas Saduev and Lezi Artsuyev were both deported by the French authorities; there is no further information about what has happened to them since their return, according to the Memorial human rights association. On 25 March, Nurmagomed Mamuev, another Chechen asylum seeker, was detained at his apartment in Berlin by German police and placed on a plane to Russia.
Svetlana Gannushkina, from Civic Assistance, calls the practice of deporting refugees back to Russia without the right to appeal “monstrous”.
“This is a breakdown of values which are commonly called European,” she says. In her opinion, there can be no question of a fair trial in Russia for deported Chechen refugees – and when it comes to the Gadaev case, she says that the French authorities had to have been aware of the danger facing him.
“They [the French authorities] are complicit in illegal actions against Gadaev and are directly responsible for his fate in Russia,” Gannushkina says.
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