Burundi + 4 more

UNHCR Briefing Notes: Chechnya, Timor, Burundi

This is a summary of what was said by the UNHCR spokesperson at today's press briefing at the Palais des Nations. Quoted text from this briefing note may be attributed to the UNHCR spokesperson named below
Ron Redmond

UNHCR is shocked and saddened by the sudden death of David Riley, our Chief of Mission for Kosovo. Mr. Riley was 50 and died of apparent natural causes overnight 19-20 January. His remains are being flown today to Geneva, where his wife and son reside.

1. Chechnya

As a fierce battle between Russian troops and Chechen rebels raged in and around Grozny, the flow of people from Chechnya to Ingushetia increased substantially on Thursday. By 2 p.m. an estimated 2,300 people crossed - the highest daily figure in many weeks. It was not immediately clear whether the group includes residents of Grozny or other areas in Chechnya. Also on Thursday another 800 people went back to Russian controlled areas in northern Chechnya from Ingushetia. The sharp increase in those fleeing Chechnya comes after a week of very limited cross-border movement following a January 11 order by Russian military commanders to bar males between the ages of 10 and 60 from crossing the border. The ban was lifted three days later but all those crossing have since been subject to elaborate checking and body searches by the Russian military and security forces. There are also unconfirmed reports about draft-age men being detained at the border and held by Russian forces in their main military headquarters in Mozdok.

A total lack of international humanitarian and monitoring presence inside Chechnya makes it virtually impossible to assess the number of civilians remaining in Grozny, let alone their plight. The city has become an active battlefield. According to various rough estimates, up to 20,000 civilians remain inside. Over the past few weeks only a handful of people have left Grozny, braving artillery bombardment in and around it. Most civilians are believed to have been hiding in cellars for weeks, without electricity and adequate food or water. Estimates of the number of displaced Chechens now in Ingushetia range up to 180,000.

UNHCR yesterday (20 Jan.) sent its 24th convoy of relief items (12 trucks with food, blankets, tents, beds).

2. European Asylum Statistics

During 1999, an estimated 431,000 people lodged an application for asylum in 22 European countries, an increase of 19 percent over 1998, when 361,000 requests were made. In 1999, European Union member countries received 349,000 asylum applicants, compared to 293,000 during 1998 (+19%).

Germany received the largest number of asylum-seekers during 1999 (95,300), followed by the United Kingdom (89,700) and Switzerland (46,100). The Netherlands, which had been the third largest asylum-seeker receiving country in 1998, fell to the fourth position in 1999, whereas Switzerland moved from the fourth to the third position.

Countries experiencing a major increase in the number of applications during 1999 were Belgium (63%), Hungary (55%) and the United Kingdom (53%). Countries where the number of applications fell in 1999 compared to 1998 include the Netherlands and Sweden (both -13%) and Germany (-3%). In 1999, Hungary became the eighth largest asylum-seeker receiving country in Europe, surpassing both Sweden and Norway.

Compared to its total population size, Switzerland continues to receive the largest number of asylum-seekers in Europe. In 1999, Switzerland received 6.5 asylum-seekers per 1,000 inhabitants, followed by Belgium (3.5 asylum-seekers per 1,000 inhabitants) and Austria and the Netherlands (both 2.5 asylum-seekers per inhabitant). France received the lowest number of asylum-seekers compared to its total population during 1999 (0.5), almost half the European average (0.9 asylum-seekers per 1,000 inhabitants).

3. Timor

UNHCR conducted another look-and-see visit for Timorese refugees on Wednesday, bringing two people from Bakatieu camp near Betun, in Belu district, back to Suai and Ainaro to speak with local leaders and the population. One of the individuals was a well-known pro-autonomy figure. He had indicated that many pro-autonomy advocates or former militia would like to repatriate but are frightened by rumors of insecurity in East Timor.

The pair were able to meet with the UNTAET district administrator and six Timorese who, it was rumored in the camps, had been killed on return. The visits went very well. The refugees were warmly greeted by extended family and exchanged messages from other refugees. They were told that all East Timorese were welcome to come back, whether former militia or not, and that it was up to the new administration to handle individuals accused of criminal activity.

In West Timor, a joint-UNHCR/WFP/Govt. of Indonesia food assessment mission is returning today to Kupang after field visits in Atambua, Betun, Kefa, and Soe. The group examined the food distribution system for refugees and the situation and self-reliance mechanisms of the affected population. They are to report findings and recommendations to the government on Monday.

On the basis of their findings and the first UNICEF nutritional study (supported by UNHCR), the group is likely to recommend an increase and diversification of the food ration, as well as specific efforts to ensure that each refugee gets the intended amount. A second nutritional survey is planned next week for camps in Kupang and the Kefa area, south of Oecussi.

The total for returns to East Timor through last night stands at 130,460.

On the number of refugees remaining in West Timor: The Indonesian Government is presently using a figure of 156,000. UNHCR's working figure is 100,000-110,000,and we estimate that about half of those people will likely repatriate from West Timor in the coming months.

4. Burundi

Along with other UN Humanitarian Organizations and members of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), UNHCR welcomes the commitment made yesterday by the Burundian Government to work towards an end to forced relocation of the civilian population in so-called "regroupment" sites

Since September 1999, more than 330,000 people living in the province of Bujumbura Rural, have been forcibly relocated by the government into 53 sites. It is estimated that almost 1 million people are displaced inside Burundi, while more than 300,000 others have already fled the country and are refugees in Tanzania.

The agencies of IASC agree to seek resources from the international community for emergency humanitarian aid to those affected by forced relocation. This assistance will be limited to "life-sustaining" items, including food, water, shelter, health care, sanitation and agricultural inputs.

The primary and essential condition for UNHCR as well as the other agencies, will be access and full freedom of movement for humanitarian workers to these "regroupment" sites and the organisation of a formal forum addressing human rights issues.

This document is intended for public information purposes only. It is not an official UN document.