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UN Refugee Commissioner to Observe Chechnya Situation - 2002-01-15

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers visiting Russia to check out the situation of tens of thousands of people displaced by the war in breakaway Chechnya. During his three-day trip beginning late Tuesday, Mr. Lubbers will discuss refugee and migration issues.

This will be Ruud Lubber's first visit to Russia since he became High Commissioner for Refugees last year. His spokesman, Kris Janowski, said a main reason for the trip is to refocus world attention on Chechnya.

"It is an extremely difficult situation with 150,000 people being stuck in extremely difficult conditions, living in tents, sometimes living in, even, railway carriages, sometimes living with host families who are slowly getting tired of hosting them. So, it is a tough situation," he said.

Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya in 1994 after a failed attempt to suppress the region's movement for independence. They returned in 1999, following an incursion into neighboring Dagestan by Islamic extremists and a series of bombings in Russian cities that were blamed on the Chechens.

Many of the Chechens will be spending their third winter in neighboring Ingushetia. This is the UNHCR's largest operation in the Russian Federation. The agency provides shelter and other humanitarian aid to displaced Chechens.

The agency also improves water and sanitation facilities, counsels the Chechens, and helps them with legal matters.

Mr. Janowski said High Commissioner Lubbers will urge top Russian officials not to forcibly return these people to Chechnya.

"Our main request to Russia is that these people not be pushed back to Chechnya which, of course, is a huge security risk for a number of reasons. There is not a week without violent incidents being reported from Chechnya so we do not want these people pushed back to Chechnya and we want these people to continue, to be able to stay in Ingushetia although the situation there is not ideal," he said.

Mr. Janowski said there are reports of local authorities encouraging people to return to Chechnya. But, he said there have been no cases of people actually having been physically pushed back.