Promoting the right of IDPs to be protected against forcible return or resettlement in any place where they life, safety, liberty or health would be at risk has been at the forefront of the humanitarian community’s advocacy efforts in the North Caucasus since the outbreak of the second conflict in Chechnya (September 1999), which led to the displacement of over 240,000 Chechen civilians, mainly into neighbouring Ingushetia.

Shortly after the resumption of the hostilities, Russian authorities – namely through the Federal and Ingush Migration Service (MS) – started to strongly encourage these IDPs to return to their homes in Chechnya. This pressure gradually intensified in 2001, when the authorities began to reduce the provision of basic humanitarian assistance to the IDPs (mainly through discontinuing the registration of new displaced from Chechnya[1]) as well as, on an intermittent and unpredictable manner, to halt the provision of essential utilities, such gas, water and electricity, in the camps in Ingushetia.

In May 2002, the government’s growing determination to proceed in this direction was displayed by the adoption of a 20-point plan that envisioned the closure of all existing camps and the return of all IDPs to Chechnya by end-September 2002[2], as well as by the abrupt closure of two IDP camps, hosting more than 2,000 people, located in Znamenskoe (Chechnya) in July of that year. This episode – which resulted in the transfer of those IDPs to inadequate Temporary Accommodation Centres (TACs) in Grozny – triggered a strong reaction on the part of the international community, which, up to date, has remained consistently engaged in advocating for the IDPs’ right to a ‘voluntary’ return.

In the aftermath of the closure of these camps, the UN seized all occasions to express its concern at the circumstances surrounding the closure and reiterate its position on the issue[3]. In early August 2002, the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) in New York handed to the Federal Deputy Minister for Emergencies an aide memoire outlining the UN common position on the issue and confirming, inter alia, that the return of the IDPs from Znamenskoe could “not be regarded as voluntary”, thus calling upon the Russian authorities, at all levels, to “urgently stop all actions that would jeopardize the right of the IDPs to a voluntary return, in safety and with dignity”[4]. In addition, at the country level, the UN Country Team repeatedly raised with the authorities its grave concern at the situation and coordinated its action with demarches undertaken by key members of the diplomatic community, both in Moscow and in Western capitals.

Following the authorities’ announcement that another camp (Aki-Yurt, in Ingushetia) was to be closed by 1 December 2002, various advocacy steps were taken, both through private and public demarches, which included co-ordinated statements issued by the ERC and the EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Affairs, Mr. Nielson (27 November) as well as simultaneous press releases by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International (29 November). Despite this mobilization, the camp was dismantled and emptied on the established date, while representatives from UN and other humanitarian agencies were prevented from visiting the site to witness and assess the closure process[5]. The vigorous reaction of the international community to these developments may well have contributed to the authorities’ decision to postpone to “the spring of 2003” their original plan to ‘liquidate’ all other five camps by the end of 2002[6].

The authorities’ pressure on the remaining camps in Ingushetia (which by that time hosted over 19,000 IDPs) resumed during the following Summer, with an initial focus on ‘Bella’ camp, whose closure (by 1 September 2003) was announced by the MS in August. This process coincided with the visit to Russia by the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on IDPs, Dr. Francis Deng (7-12 September). In his final press release, Dr. Deng stated, inter alia, that he had been “impressed by the positive policy statements made by the authorities, which strongly and consistently upheld freedom of movement and the right to choose from options that include voluntary return in safety and dignity”. On the other hand, while not explicitly referring to the situation in ‘Bella’ camp, the Representative noted that his field visits had “revealed significant discrepancies between the positive official policy statements and the perspectives of the displaced”, who remained “acutely apprehensive that the camps might be closed and that they might be forced to return to a situation in Chechnya which they regarded to be unsafe”.

Despite the concern raised by various international actors, the authorities proceeded with their plan, so that by 29 September the last IDPs living in ‘Bella’ moved out of the camp. The dismantling of the latter was again preceded by intermittent cuts of essential utilities as well by the direct pressure exerted by officials from the MS and the Chechen government. In parallel, the number and intensity of search operations and arrests conducted by governmental security forces in Ingushetia (including in and around IDP camps and settlements) reached unprecedented levels, which certainly contributed to increasing the general sense of insecurity for IDPs from Chechnya[7]. In addition, humanitarian agencies were again occasionally denied the permission to visit the camp during the month of September[8].

It is possible to state that, in connection with the process that led to the closure of ‘Bella’, the issue of the IDP voluntary return started to evolve. The authorities, in fact, while continuing to exert, through a wider and more sophisticated range of means, a significant pressure on IDPs living in camps, abstained from resorting to the harsh methods that had marked the previous camp ‘liquidations’ – which allowed them to claim that “no IDP would be forced to return to Chechnya” – and finally agreed to let the IDPs who did not intend to return relocate to other camps (‘Satsita’ in particular) or private accommodation, thus conceding that the IDPs’ return could be regarded as voluntary only if the option to remain in Ingushetia was kept open. In addition, the MS informally announced that the remaining camps would be closed only once their respective population fell under a ‘cost-effective’ threshold of 1,000 IDPs.

The international community, on its part, while raising its concerns at the pressure exerted on the IDPs in ‘Bella’ – as well as at the “aggressive and unacceptable manner” in which some 200 IDPs were first forcibly relocated to a temporary settlement and later unceremoniously returned to the camp[9] – appeared to come to recognize that a closure would be inevitable and focused its efforts on advocating for the IDPs’ right to be offered alternative options to stay in Ingushetia as well as on mitigating the closure’s impact on the IDPs’ access to basic services. Considerable energies were therefore put in negotiating with the authorities to obtain the authorization for the IDPs to relocate to other camps or have access to alternative accommodation (mostly located in nearby IDP settlements) as well as to ensure that the IDPs themselves would be informed about the possibility to relocate to alternative shelter in Ingushetia[10].

In mid-November, the attention of the authorities shifted towards another camp, ‘Alina’, as the FMS declared that it would “stop functioning on 1 December. Human rights organizations, such as Amnesty, expressed their concern that the closure of the camp would “result in more involuntary returns”[11]. By that time, however, it appeared that possibility of avoiding the camp closure was no longer regarded as a realistic option. In a statement, for example, the EU Commissioner Nielson placed the emphasis on the fact “in order to respect the principle of voluntary return, authorities have to make sure that IDPs who want to stay in Ingushetia for the moment are offered decent living conditions”[12]. The UN agencies focused their action on monitoring the voluntary nature of the process, assisting with the preparation of the alternative accommodation and requesting the authorities to maintain all utilities until the completion of the relocation process.

In late January 2004, in the course of his visit to Russia, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator received from the authorities new assurances that the principle of voluntary return for displaced persons would be observed; in his final statements, however, the ERC highlighted that “conflicting statements regarding the deadline for the closure of tent camps” in Ingushetia “persisted throughout the visit”. In February 2004, the Presidential Commission on Human Rights released a report stating that, in light of the insufficient accommodation capacity existing in Chechnya, the IDPs could “not return to Chechnya even if their security is ensured”. The report also raised the issue of the alternative accommodation capacity in Ingushetia and recommended that “no exact date for the IDPs’ final return to Chechnya should be fixed” and “IDPs should be given a chance to settle in other regions/republics of the Russian Federation”[13].

Despite the Ingush authorities’ reiterated commitment to the principle of voluntary return, the MS proceeded with their plan to close existing camps and issued an instruction for the closure of ‘Bart’ on 1 March. At the same time, occasional cuts of utilities were reported, which stopped only after the reactions of the humanitarian community[14].  On the other hand, the intensification of the dialogue between the aid agencies and the authorities led the MS to instruct its officials to cooperate with humanitarian agencies in providing alternative accommodation to the IDPs who would not wish to return to Chechnya. These arrangements allowed the closure process to be completed in a relatively smooth manner, particularly as alternative shelter was offered in temporary settlements in Ingushetia[15].

A similar dynamics unfolded in conjunction with the closure of one of the two remaining camps, ‘Sputnik’, which was completed by the beginning of April, although under less than ideal circumstances: the return process, in fact, was only defined as “largely voluntary” by humanitarian agencies, due to the authorities’ intense pressure on IDPs to leave the camp and return to Chechnya. In any case, the IDPs who did not intend to return to Chechnya were provided with alternative accommodation in Ingushetia[16]. An instruction related to the closure of the remaining camp ‘Satsita’ (hosting some 1,300 IDPs) was issued on 25 May 2004 and led to its dismantling in June. Despite the unacceptably short notice provided, the authorities fulfilled their pledge to maintain essential utilities until the departure of the last IDP[17].

The role of the international community

The extent of the effectiveness of the humanitarian community’s attempt to uphold the principle of IDPs’ voluntary return in the North Caucasus could be the subject of diverging appreciations. On the one hand, it might be argued that the humanitarian community has failed in its efforts to safeguard the existence of the camps (from some quarters it has even been claimed that the international community has at times shown indifference to their fate[18]) and that what the authorities have implemented should be regarded, if not as a “forced” return, as a “strongly induced” one at least.

From a different perspective, however, it could be maintained that the continued and coordinated involvement of a range of international actors has been instrumental in achieving a number of significant results:

  • The authorities’ progressive restraint in resorting to overt intimidation and pressure or taking direct enforcing measure;
  • The slowing down of the pace – and the minimizing of the impact – of a camp ‘liquidation’ policy that was, in all likelihood, irreversible. Had the aid community failed to voice in clear terms its concern and alarm in the aftermath of the initial closures, the remaining camps would have been rapidly closed, their utilities cut and their residents forced to leave abruptly, perhaps under harsh winter conditions. The timely and coordinated response of various agencies, instead, allowed for the provision of adequate shelter (both to the IDPs who intended to return to Chechnya and those who wanted to stay in Ingushetia) and the relocation of educational and health facilities established in/around camps and settlements.
  • The authorities’ gradual provision – to the IDPs as well as to the aid agencies – of some advance notice about their plans, which greatly contributed to minimize the consequences of the closures for the IDP themselves.
  • The authorization for IDPs to remain in Ingushetia and the permission (gradually obtained) to have access to adequate alternative shelter – which has come to be progressively recognized as the key benchmark to assess the voluntary nature of the return process.
  • The preservation of a satisfactory – although periodically subject to temporary hindrances – degree of “rapid and unimpeded access” to the camps and the IDPs by the humanitarian agencies, in line with the provisions of Guiding Principle n. 30.
  • In addition, the intense dialogue developed around the fate of the IDP living in camps may have indirectly contributed – thus far, at least – to ‘shield’ from the authorities’ pressure those IDPs (the majority) who were, and still are, living in spontaneous settlements or with host families in Ingushetia.

On the humanitarian community’s side, the case of IDPs from Chechnya has also contributed to articulate the definition of what makes the return of IDPs ‘voluntary’, i.e. to develop the elements included in the Guiding Principle n. 28, with its reference to conditions “which allow IDPs to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity” or “to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country”. Considerable efforts, in particular, have been put into reiterating that the notion of ‘voluntary return’ implies much more than the lack of physical coercion or overt intimidations, but stretches to include key elements such as the consultation/participation of the IDPs concerned in the decision-making process related to their return/resettlement/reintegration; the provision of alternative options (including the possibility to remain in their place of current sojourn) and concrete support to implement those options (including access to alternative shelter); the provision of reliable information about the situation in the areas of origin (including, in the case of Chechnya, in the TACs in Grozny), so that the displaced can make an informed decision about their future.

The wide and flexible range of advocacy tools and tones utilized by the international community appears to have contributed to the relative success of these efforts. The combination of visits by UN and other high-level officials to the region, bilateral demarches (verbal as well as written and made at various levels) and public steps, in fact, has allowed the UN and its partners to sustain a certain pressure on the Russian authorities, while not neglecting to reaffirm the international community’s readiness to assist the authorities in addressing the complex IDP situation and promptly acknowledge any progress witnessed on the ground. In this sense, the constructive tone used in official statements and correspondence seems to have complemented quite effectively the more vocal statements and reports issued by relief or human rights NGOs[19].

As described above, it cannot be denied that UN agencies and their key partners devoted constant attention and considerable energies to the issue of IDPs’ voluntary return/safe haven preservation. On the contrary, someone could even argue that these focused efforts might have impacted negatively on the commitment displayed by the same actors in addressing other relevant protection issues, starting with the broader issue of the protection of all conflict-affected civilians, including IDPs, living inside Chechnya. The scope of this collective ‘protection gap’, however, should be realistically assessed in the context of the very limited agree of access, information and ‘leverage’ available to the humanitarian community, as well as to the wider issue of the international community’s positioning towards the crisis in Chechnya.

In any case, in the aftermath of the closure of all camps in Ingushetia, the humanitarian community continues to be confronted with policy and operational challenges of no lesser importance: the preservation of a safe haven for the 50,000 IDPs who remain in Ingushetia; the reintegration of the IDPs who have returned (or will return) to Chechnya; the future of those IDPs (about 20,000 and mostly of Ingush origin) who have stated that they do not intend to return to Chechnya and plan to resettle in Ingushetia; the situation of those who remain displaced within Chechnya. The humanitarian community’s mission to uphold the fundamental rights of the IDPs from Chechnya, in other words, is far from over.

Tullio Santini served as desk-officer for the North Caucasus with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in New York from 2001-2003 and currently works for the United Nations in Moscow. The views expressed in this article are purely personal and are not intended to reflect those of any other individual or organisation. A shorter version of this article will be published in the Forced Migration Review.

[1] UNHCR, paper on ‘Asylum Seekers from Russian Federation in the Context of the Situation in Chechnya’, January 2002.

[2] An unofficial English translation of the Plan is provided by the Global IDP Database (Russian Federation) at

[3] Including through a statement issued by the Emergency Relief Coordinator in New York on 24 July (OCHA Humanitarian Action in the North Caucasus Information Bulletin, July 2002).

[4] On file with the author.

[5] UNHCR briefing notes, 3 December 2002.

[6] As announced by the Ingush Deputy Prime Minister for Refugee Affairs (‘Refugee Camps in Ingushetia to be Closed by Spring’, Interfax, 14 January 2003).

[7] See, for example, Human Rights Watch, ‘Russia: Abuses Spread Beyond Chechnya’, 16 July 2003; Amnesty International, ‘Ingushetia Must Remain Safe Haven for Displaced Chechens’, 22 August 2003; MSF, press release, 3 October 2003.

[8] UNHCR, press briefing, 23 September 2003.

[9] UNHCR briefing notes, 15 August 2003.

[10] Ibidem.

[11] Amnesty International, 5 December 2003.

[12] European Commission – Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), 10 December 2003.

[13] The report was released on 10 February 2004 (the unofficial translation is on file with the author).

[14] OCHA Information Bulletin, February 2004.

[15] UNHCR, 8 March 2004.

[16] OCHA Information Bulletin, April 2004.

[17] OCHA Information Bulletin, June 2004.

[18] See, for example, MSF, “Ingushetia: One of the three largest camp is being emptied, under the indifferent watch of the international community”, 8 August 2003.

[19] See  Human Rights Watch, ‘Into Harm’s Way: Forced Return of Displaced People to Chechnya”; January 2003; MSF, ‘Left Without a Choice – Chechens forced to return to Chechnya’, April 2003.


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