Central and Eastern Europe

The women of Brest Station

These Chechen women are falling foul of changing attitudes on the EU’s eastern border, but they have made the railway station in Brest an unlikely piece of home in Belarus.

The waiting hall of the train station in the Belarusian city of Brest looks monumental, even grandiose — and yet startlingly cosy. Built in a Stalinist classical style, with arches, rosettes and salmon pink walls covered by marble-imitating claret-coloured material, this station used to be a showcase of the Soviet Union, its western door at the border with Poland.

Since the summer of 2016, the station has come to perform another role: a meeting space for dozens of Chechens trying to seek asylum in neighbouring Poland. Over the past several months, Poland has been denying refugees from Belarus entry and the right to claim asylum. The practice is a clear violation of EU asylum law and Poland’s international obligations, but the country’s authorities have made it clear that, in the current political climate, migrants are no longer welcome. Only randomly selected individuals make it into the country.

While making numerous attempts to enter the country, these Chechen refugees are struggling to survive the limbo in Brest. Numbers may be consistently decreasing (from around 3,000 in August), as every day only two or three families are let into Poland, but the crisis is far from over. Among these people, single women and children are particularly vulnerable. Gripped by fear, trauma and faced with an unknown future, they have nevertheless managed to organise a substitute for a community life at the train station, their temporary home.

I visited the station on 2 December and spent three days there, talking to Chechen asylum seekers and their families.

A rare corner of home

Marina is a middle-aged widow with dark blonde hair and bags under her eyes. Since making the first of her 47 attempts to claim asylum in Poland in late August, Marina has barely slept. She used to rent a place in the city with another single woman, but when the money ran out she moved to the station.

The conditions are far from rosy. Her sleep is usually disturbed by the station security guards — most of whom jab her with their keys as soon as she falls asleep. She is not allowed to lie down on the benches, as it would not “look good” in front of other passengers. Thus, over the past three months she has been forced to sleep sitting up, sometimes during the day, when the guards are not watching.

Marina usually starts her day around five or six am. As the shower and bathroom at the train station are not free of charge, Marina uses the facilities at the accommodation rented by other Chechen women. Chechens seeking asylum help one another and make sure that no one is left behind.

Raisa has been in Brest since November, but she only stayed at the station for a couple of days. The station being a public building with no prayer rooms, it was impossible for Raisa to carry out any religious rituals there.

The station guards said: “We have different rules here,” suggesting that praying is not advised.

The guards also forbade her from performing ablutions in the waiting hall. Raisa shows me the area where she used to pray, in the far right corner of the hall, behind a wall, hidden from travelers’ sight.

She decided to rent private accommodation, and is now staying with six other Chechen women, all of whom are single. Ever since Raisa left the station, however, she has been back several times a day to look after babushka, an elderly disabled woman she befriended.

Raisa suggested to her that they should move in together, but babushka refused as she would find it hard to walk to the station every morning to catch the 8:28 train to Poland. Thus, Raisa would go there every day around midnight to check if her friend managed to fall asleep. “At the train station they wake you up every half an hour”, she tells me.

The second day we met, however, babushka was let into Poland. When we talk, Raisa has not heard from her friend yet. She discusses the news with the other women in the far right corner of the train station, where they meet every day to exchange information, gossip and try to live their lives. This is the only place where they feel secure. They keep it clean and tidy, a rare corner of home abroad.

A climate of fear

Watched by the vigilant Chechen men, most women do not venture into town. They don’t mind this, though. In fact, they say that the men’s presence gives them a sense of security and limit their activities to contacting relatives via the Internet (available for a small fee at the station), shopping for necessities and commuting between the station and their temporary accommodation.

Most women stick together, it will take a while before they are let into Poland. Between January and October 2016, 68,255 people were denied entry, while in the same period the year before, the number was 12,630.

One of the reasons for the situation, as officially explained by the Border Guard Service, is that Chechens and other nationals who are trying to enter Poland do not ask for asylum and are refused entry because they do not possess valid visas. However, according to the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights’ report on the situation at the Brest-Terespol border, officers often take no notice of people’s intention to claim asylum or else conduct the conversation in a way to reveal the economic motives behind the migration.

As explained by Marta Szczepanik from HFHR, many asylum seekers report that when they say that they have fled their country and cannot go back home, the guards often ask if they are planning to claim any benefits in Poland. If the person answers that they want to work, support themselves and their families, this is immediately interpreted by the border guards as an economic motive for migration, rather than politically motivated asylum seeking, which would be the only legal reason for admittance into the EU.

Ekaterina Sokirianskaya, the Crisis Group’s Project Director for Russia and North Caucasus, claims the reason why Chechen migration into Poland has been portrayed by the authorities as mainly financially driven is that there is little information available about the nature of Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime and the level of human rights abuses in Chechnya. This is partially because of the overwhelming climate of fear within the republic.

Moreover, according to Sokirianskaya, the timing of the mass flow out of the region is not accidental: “Chechnya is becoming even more repressive and a new deterioration happened exactly at this time, between 2015 and 2016, when the regime began an even more brutal harassment of any dissent or any attempt to leak information to the outside world.

“There was a moment at the end of 2015 when Kadyrov felt really vulnerable because of the economic crisis in Russia, when there was a feeling that the regime in Moscow may shatter. For Kadyrov this has direct implications, because he knows very well that if there is no Putin in the Kremlin, there will be no Kadyrov in Grozny,” she adds.

But this is only part of the problem because, as Sokirianskaya notes, “everyone can come into conflict with the ruling clan, and by clan I do not mean just the kinship group, but the loyal people appointed to power positions, down to local police chiefs.

“You have very little chance to stay in this republic unless you are completely submissive.”

What complicates the situation further is the simultaneous existence of three legal systems in Chechnya: Russian law, Islamic Sharia and adat (the customary law). Each of them is applied arbitrarily and twisted or instrumentalised for the benefit of the regime. Such legal pluralism adds to confusion in the federal centre when it comes to individual rights and freedom, and it contributes to the inability of Russian law to regulate the affairs of the republic.

No country for young women

Since Kadyrov became president in 2007, women in Chechnya increasingly have to comply with rigid dress code rules and accept polygamy, as many men were encouraged to take second wives. In case of divorce, children usually stay with the father and are subsequently raised by his next wife, aunts or other female family members. Women face honour killings, involuntary marriages with members of the security services and have to comply with very strict rules of conduct, often denying them agency and freedom.

Russian officials are not interested in getting involved in the internal dealings of Kadyrov’s regime, even when it comes to women’s rights. As Sokirianskaya was told by a high level human rights official, “they have lived like that for centuries and we cannot change it.”

For many women, this means years of humiliation and oppression.

According to a 2014 report by Irina Kosterina, a project coordinator in the Moscow office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, 78% of Chechen women think that life in the republic is more difficult for them than for men. When asked about the most common problems faced by women in Chechnya, 51% mentioned a lack of equality, 42% mentioned restrictions on women’s freedom, 45% said they think they are controlled by men, and 35% thought that there is a lack of protection from violence and injustice. To the question of whether they know of any women who are regularly beaten by their husbands, 43% answered yes.

The regime’s traditionalist and discriminative policies towards women and a rise in domestic violence have forced Chechen women to seek asylum elsewhere. Some of them have made it to the Brest train station. Kamisa, a 30-year old woman suffering from chronic panic attacks, is one of them. She ran away from an abusive husband, with whom she has three kids. Her mother Eliza, who has been living in France since 2007, has joined her in Brest to support her attempts to claim asylum in Poland. So far, no success.

Some women were left by their husbands. Kheda is one of them. People say that her husband went to Syria to join the Islamic State. As a result, Kheda was stigmatised in her community and often questioned by security services. One day, she took her two children and ran away.

Marina, who lives at the train station, fled because of the persecution she experienced at the hands of people she presumes to be connected to the regime. They took over her flat after the First Chechen War during the 1990s — when she and her husband tried to reclaim their property in court their tragedy began. He was killed and Marina was abducted from a city centre bus stop and then taken out to the outskirts of the city. Luckily her screams were heard by construction workers working close by and she was saved. But she had nowhere to go.

Layla is an attractive divorcee in her forties with big blue eyes and a wide shiny simile. Her headscarf has a colourful floral pattern and she gives the impression of being an optimist. But her mood often sours. “In such moments I would like to recall some good times, but I do not have such memories,” Layla tells me. “I got married in 1993 and in 1994 the war started.”

After getting divorced Layla wanted to start a new life in Chechnya, but the social pressure and stigma associated with divorce were so unbearable she decided to leave. “Now the situation in Chechnya is worse than during the war”, she adds. “At least back then you could run away, now you cannot.”

“We are all terrorists”

Indeed, as explained by Poland’s Minister of the Interior and Administration, Mariusz Błaszczak, Chechnya is no longer at war, and therefore there is no reason for Poland to open its doors to Chechens. In an autumn 2016 speech on the situation of people stranded at the border, Błaszczak stated: “In my view this is an attempt to create a new migration route for the inflow of Muslims to Europe […] As long as I am the Minister of the Interior and as long as the Law and Justice government is in power, we will not put Poland at risk of terrorism.”

Since the Law and Justice party came to power in October 2015, xenophobic comments in the public domain have become more permissible and political correctness has been mocked as a left-wing propaganda.

The current political climate in Poland allows for the use of untrue and highly stigmatising labels in relation to foreigners, especially Muslims.

Chechens have fallen victim to this worrying trend. As the women at the train station told me, jokingly: “we are all terrorists”.

According to lawyers, non-governmental organisations and Poland’s Ombudsman for Human Rights, by not permitting people at its eastern border to claim asylum, Poland is failing to live up to its obligations derived from European and domestic refugee law. The country has also violated the international rule of non-refoulement, which prevents refugees from being sent back to countries where their life or freedom could be threatened. (Chechens have made repeated claims about the presence and activities of kadyrovtsy – Kadyrov’s agents in Belarus, which, due to the level of infiltration by Chechnya’s special services, cannot be considered a safe place.)

Poland’s Border Guard has also regularly acted outside of their area of competences, as the decisions in cases of asylum applications lie with Poland’s Office for Foreigners, whose representatives are not present at the border. The fact that many officers speak basic Russian and thus employ no extra translators often plays out to Chechens’ disadvantage: communication is limited, and there is no structured way of individual case recording and no appeal procedure in case of denial of entry. Moreover, people seeking refuge often have little knowledge of the rights they have, as well as the asylum law and procedures in place.

According to experts I spoke to (who prefer to remain anonymous), the pressure not to allow people migrating into Poland may come from Germany and other European countries. Between January 2015 and October 2016, around 12,5000 asylum claims made by Chechens in Poland have been withdrawn, most probably because they left the country.

The situation in Brest has garnered attention from the EU authorities. Between 2017 and 2020, Minsk will receive €7m in order to build the so-called “migrant accommodation centres” on the Belarus-Poland border. The establishment of these centres will be financed from the European Neighborhood Instrument (ENI) and will be carried out by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The centres are meant to host refugees from Syria, Russia and Ukraine, fleeing poverty and armed conflicts. It is, however, most likely that the greatest proportion of migrants in this centres will be Chechens.

The structure and the services in these new migrant accommodation centres may have mixed effects on situation of those trying to enter Poland from Belarus. On the one hand, the conditions in the centres, each able to host 30 to 50 persons, are meant to comply with the EU hygiene and privacy standards. Also, psychological support and special for women, girls and families are planned. On the other hand, some of these centres will be “closed”, effectively functioning as detention facilities, and the moment the criteria for placing individuals there are not defined.

Moreover, it is not yet clear, how high the proportion of “closed” facilities will be in contrast to “open” centres. It is, however, planned, that FRONTEX, the EU border agency, will receive access to data gathered in all centres.

“Magic cards” and guardian angels

The situation has put immense pressure on asylum seekers in Brest.

As they can only stay in Belarus legally without registration for 90 days, the fear of being sent back home is widespread.

However, people seeking asylum have not been left alone, as local and Polish volunteers have been supporting those in need. One such organisation has been the International Humanitarian Initiative Foundation, whose psychologists have made individual interventions with the Polish Border Guard, providing psychological support and assessment to those who have been victims of torture, persecution or honour killings. Such assessments often help individuals in their asylum application and they have gained the status of “magic cards” among the women at the station.

According to Hulia, however, the future which awaits them in Poland might be far from perfect. “At the beginning, when they are let into Poland, they are full of hope and happiness. But I am afraid that after some time, they will begin to miss the Brest train station, where we were one big community and had our goal — to get into Poland. I hope that Poland will not become a huge disappointment.”

Note from the author: Last September, Ramzan Kadyrov declared that the people at Brest station should not be referred to as “refugees”, claiming that there were no valid reasons for them to have left Chechnya. Despite Kadyrov’s words, there are valid grounds for reconsidering our use of the term “refugee”.

As the process of migration has become increasingly securitised since the beginning of the “refugee crisis”, journalists and analysts alike have faced new language-related dilemmas. The term “migrant” has become pejoratively loaded and the category, instead of encompassing all people are involved in the act of migration, became associated with a wrongful activity.

People who migrate were divided into refugees and asylum seekers, who move places for the right reasons, and migrants, or economic migrants, unworthy of the act, a growing problem. And a security issue. Many journalists have followed the trend and began to distinguish between worthy and unworthy migrants, thereby, often unintentionally, stigmatising economic migration. A natural process, which has existed since the beginning of time.

The return to the use of the term “migrant” in its unbiased form is therefore necessary if we are to confront the growing nationalism and xenophobia in Europe.

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This article was reprinted from OpenDemocracy under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 licence.

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is an editor with New Eastern Europe and editor-at-large and board member with E-International Relations. She is also a co-editor of Ukraine and Russia: People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives and Migration and the Ukraine Crisis: A Two-Country Perspective (forthcoming 2017). She writes on topics related to post-Soviet space, migration and minorities.

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Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is an editor with New Eastern Europe and editor-at-large and board member with E-International Relations. She is also a co-editor of Ukraine and Russia: People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives and Migration and the Ukraine Crisis: A Two-Country Perspective (forthcoming 2017). She writes on topics related to post-Soviet space, migration and minorities.