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.
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.
Meanwhile, foreigners who are already in the United States -- either illegally or on some sort of temporary visa -- can apply for asylum, which means that if their application is accepted, the U.S. government won't send them back, for fear of persecution in their homelands. In 2011, 25,000 such people were granted asylum, with most coming from China, Venezuela, and Ethiopia.
This asylum process is how the suspects' father, Anzor Tsarnaev, a Chechen man who was living in Dagestan in southern Russia, ended up in Boston: He and his then-8-year-old son Dzhokhar, the surviving suspect, arrived in the U.S. legally in 2002 on a tourist visa, and then petitioned to stay as asylum seekers.
Most Chechens haven't tried to gain asylum, according to Newland, because it's prohibitively expensive for them to get to America, and there are so few Chechens here that it can be hard for newcomers to find communities of support. What's more, the European Union is much nearer and is an attractive destination for Chechen asylum seekers -- a 2009 estimate found that there were 130,000 Chechen exiles living in Europe.
I asked Newland if the U.S. had perhaps been reluctant to admit Chechen refugees and asylum seekers over the years in order to play nice with Russia, Chechnya's sworn foe. Newland says that's not the case. Throughout the 80s and early 90s, the United States admitted thousands of Russian Jews and evangelical Christians as refugees even as the Soviet Union claimed that religious minorities did not face discrimination there. And in 2004, the U.S. granted asylum to a high-ranking Chechen separatist, Ilyas Akhmadov, despite Russia's claims that he was a "terrorist."
Perhaps partly because of that controversial move, the Boston bombing prompted some smugness from the Russian media. Russia Today opined:
"Russia has long cautioned Washington about giving asylum to Islamists from the North Caucasus," Voice of Russia political analyst Dmitry Babich told Russia Today, adding that some of them might be "die-hard Islamists." "They think that they have the right to ascertain their convictions, they have the right to commit violent acts if they feed their cause ... That's their thinking and I'm afraid in Boston they are dealing with exactly that kind of thinking."
That perspective falls in line with the Russian leadership's tendency to use the actions of individual Chechen radicals as justification for Russia's continued stranglehold on the region, as Human Rights Foundation CEO Thor Halvorssen pointed out in The Atlantic recently:
[Islamist rebel leader Dokka] Umarov provides Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev, and the criminal gang that controls Russia's vast energy resources with a scapegoat villain. Fear works, and in Russia the Chechen people are cast as the perfect enemy: Islamist radicals who celebrate the 9/11 attacks and pay homage to Al Qaeda. In the next few days, the Putin government will point to the Boston bombings as the result of any and all Chechen opposition to Russian rule.