There Are Almost No Chechens in the United States—Here's Why

It's much easier for refugees from the region to settle in Europe than in the U.S.
A photo showing Tamerlan (center, bottom) Tsarnaev, accompanied by his father Anzor (left), mother Zubeidat, and uncle Muhamad Suleimanov (right), is seen courtesy of the Suleimanova family in Makhachkala. (Reuters)

When the first reports emerged that the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were Chechen, there were of course reactions of outrage and calls for justice. But at the same time, a collective "huh?" arose from the Internet.

Radio hosts stumbled over the unfamiliar territory. The Czech ambassador issued a reminder that the Czech Republic is not Chechnya. The satirical Onion newspaper posited that most Americans are too uninformed about the region to make assumptions about it.

One reason Americans might not be familiar with the Chechen people and their war-torn homeland is that there are surprisingly few Chechens living in the United States. The Jamestown Foundation estimates that there are probably fewer than 200 Chechen immigrants in the United States, and most of them live in the Boston area. As the Daily Beast reports, one Chechen refugee in New York tries to keep track of every Chechen in the country the refugee has met -- he's gotten to 81.

Chechens have a horrific, bloody history. Hundreds of thousands of people died in two wars with Russia in the 90s and early 2000s, and the capital, Grozny, was nearly leveled to the ground. There were claims that Russia was attempting ethnic cleansing. "Not a single night goes by without someone disappearing. Masked men come into homes and take people away," one resident told a Boston Globe reporter in 2003. 

Unlike people from Iraq, Somalia and other hotbeds of strife, however, very few displaced Chechens resettled in the U.S., despite the fact that the decade of conflict caused 350,000 Chechens to flee from their homes.

So why are there so few Chechens in America? Mainly, because we don't resettle Chechen refugees here.

There are two primary ways to make it into the U.S. if you have the misfortune of living in a war zone or an especially repressive country: You can become a refugee, which is someone who still lives abroad, or an asylum seeker, which is someone who has managed to make it either inside the U.S. or to a port of entry.

Each year, the U.S. resettles about 50,000 refugees -- individuals who are thought to face extreme danger in their home countries. At the moment, the top countries of origin for refugees to the U.S. are Burma, Bhutan, and Iraq. In all, the U.S. allows in up to 80,000 refugees, and most of those slots are allocated to the Middle East and South Asia. Europe and Central Asia, where Chechnya is located, get the smallest tranche -- just 2,000 spaces.

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After 9/11, it became much more difficult to resettle individuals from countries where Islamists movements are taking root -- as appears to be the case in Chechnya -- because of stricter security screenings.

And frankly, says Kathleen Newland, director of refugee programs at the Migration Policy Institute, the Chechen population was never of "special concern" to the United States, and the hope was that the region's displaced citizens would return home when its wars ended.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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