The United Nations refugee agency says there has been a steep increase in the number of people seeking asylum in Poland since July. The agency says many of the new arrivals are from Russia's troubled regions of Chechnya and Ingushetiya. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, the increase may be linked to Poland's accession to the so-called Schengen zone allowing free travel across internal borders.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reports nearly 5,000 people sought asylum in Poland in the first 11 months of this year, about 70 percent of them since June.
UNHCR Spokesman William Spindler says the increase in new arrivals is probably due to Poland's accession Friday to the so-called Schengen zone, and fears that it will lead to stricter controls on Poland's borders with non-member countries.
"There are reports that smugglers have been intentionally spreading rumors among potential asylum seekers that their access to Polish territory would be hampered after 21 December, thus encouraging more people to go to Poland before today's deadline," he noted. " Also, some asylum seekers erroneously hope that, once in Poland, they will be able to move freely throughout the Schengen Zone."
Poland is one of nine new states to join the Schengen agreement. This brings to 24 the number of European Union member countries that allow residents to travel freely across their borders. It also allows travelers from outside the European Union to move freely within the zone on a visa obtained from any of the Schengen member countries.
UNHCR's Spindler says many asylum seekers are resorting to smuggling networks, because of increasing restrictions on borders. He says they pay up to 7,000 euros to be smuggled into EU countries.
After years of brutal war, he says, Chechnya's economy is starting to improve and reconstruction is gathering pace in the capital Grozny. But he says widespread material damage still exists in the war-torn Russian territory. And, he says, human rights violations remain a big problem.
He says many people in Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia feel threatened.
"About 60 percent of the people who apply for asylum in Poland - last year, for instance, 60 percent of them received either full refugee status or some sort of humanitarian status," he added. "If you take into account that almost 90 percent of those who apply for asylum in Poland are Chechens or Ingush, we can see that the recognition rate is fairly high, which means that they have a case to be recognized as refugees."
Spindler says the increase is leading to an overcrowding of reception facilities in Poland. He says the current influx of asylum seekers has forced the Polish government to increase the number of reception facilities to accommodate all the new arrivals.