BERLIN — There are a record number of asylum seekers pinning their hopes on Germany this year, and refugees from Russia by far represent the largest group. Of those, some 90% are from the North Caucasus, particularly Chechnya.
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has characterized the situation as “unsettling.” Germany has more asylum requests than any other country in the European Union, and about a fifth of these come from Russian citizens. This year was the first time since 2000, when the German Immigration Service started collecting data, that Russian citizens represented the largest group of applicants, edging out countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Serbia.
“The overwhelming majority of the Russian asylum applicants come from Chechnya and the North Caucasus,” says a German Immigration Service source. The German newspaper Die Welt has described it less politely. “Terrorists apply for asylum in Germany.”
Alexander Kamkin, an expert from the German European Research Institute, says refugees are "often seen as people who were not able to integrate into Chechnya’s power structure or as supporters of radical Islam, who choose to apply for asylum in a country where the government won’t interfere with the diaspora’s way of life.”
The German Immigration Service source says the security situation is, just as before, “quite problematic” in the North Caucasus. Asylum seekers are motivated by a desire to escape poverty and hope for a better life. And they are helped by the proliferation of criminal organizations that help people emigrate illegally.
Word of German incentives
“Considering how attached Chechens are to their land, only interior reasons — like the problems of society and the political regime — could make people leave everything and leave for the unknown,” explains Svetlana Gannushkina, head of the Citizen’s Cooperation, an organization that helps refugees and forced migrants. She also says that among the reasons for increased migration to Germany is the widely spread rumor that the country has a quota for Chechens and that the government will give them money and land to establish themselves upon arrival.
The press service of Berlin’s Russian embassy confirms that those rumors are not entirely unfounded. “In comparison to other European countries, German attracts economic migrants from the North Caucasus because of remarkable social benefits,” it says. “In fact, some German experts say that more refugees come to Germany precisely because it offers a higher level of social benefits than other European countries.”
The German government denies that it has a quota for refugees from Chechnya, as the rumors in Chechnya would imply. The government explains that refugees and asylum applicants are all provided with housing, food and medical services, and monetary aid is tied to the German minimum wage.
The leadership in Chechnya doubts the validity of the statistics regarding Chechen refugees. “There are no official statistics on Chechnya,” explains Alvi Karimov, the press secretary for the head of Chechnya. That assertion is one the German Immigration Service acknowledges. “So there is no data on the real number of residents of the Chechen republic who apply for asylum. We have heard reliable testimony that residents of other parts of the North Caucasus who apply for asylum in Germany pretend to be Chechens, although they are not. In Chechnya itself, there are no political or economic reasons for people to move anywhere.”
The Russian embassy in Berlin is also unconvinced that all the supposed “Chechen” asylum applicants really come from Chechnya. “Russian consular officers don’t have access to asylum applicants,” explains an embassy employee. “Most of the applicants are here in violation of local laws. Asylum applicants are usually in the country totally without papers, so their personal information is based on their word alone and doesn’t always correspond to the reality.”
Whatever the case may be, the record number of refugees fleeing to Germany has had an enormous impact on the overall number of refugees in Europe. According to Eurostat, Russia sent more refugees to Europe than any other countries in the first quarter of 2013 and more than twice as many Russian citizens arrived as refugees this year than the previous year. This sharp increase could have a negative impact on the ongoing negotiations with the European Union on the issue of loosening visa requirements for Russian citizens visiting the EU. The EU has already had to toughen its visa requirements in response to increased migration from the Balkan countries.
“The negotiations with the EU have already encountered problems,” says Aleksai Makarkin, vice president of the Center of Political Technology. “The number of asylum applications will give the European Union a reason to say that Russia has problems with democracy and that they should be as careful as possible in relations with the Russian Federation.”
Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?
BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.
The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.
This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.
Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.
"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.
Can you trust environmental officials?
For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.
This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.
It could have sunk because of the rain.
After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.
The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.
"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.
"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.
Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water
A questionable claim
That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.
"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.
He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."
Living in pollution
The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.
"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.
He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.
The mining work should have been stopped long ago
Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.
The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.
In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.
The mine has affected the landscape around the villages
Resisting lignite mining
The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.
The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.
They were dependent on others' land for work.
Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.
In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.
The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.
"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.