Displaced by Soviet Breakup and In Need of Help

The international community could and should do more to prevent the causes and consequences of forced migration

The haunting images of conflict in Eurasia are fading. The danger now is that the international community will forget that millions of people are still displaced and destitute, adrift in the void created by the implosion of the Soviet Union. The window of opportunity to help these people is open, but it's closing fast.

A crucial moment to regain the initiative came and went early this month, when representatives of governments and international and nongovernmental organizations met in Geneva. They were to follow up on commitments made last year to address the most pressing migration-related problems in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and neighboring nations. The lack of progress at this meeting further jeopardizes efforts to alleviate a potentially explosive problem.

More than 9 million people have been displaced since 1989, following the breakup of the Soviet empire. This massive migration is the largest since World War II. The 15 countries that have emerged or re-emerged with the dissolution of the Soviet Union are hardening their borders in the face of these movements.

The displacements have many causes: people returning to their ethnic homelands; refugees fleeing persecution and conflict; and migrants avoiding economic upheavals. Population movements, in turn, have produced ethnic friction, human rights abuses, economic deprivation, and threats to peace and security.

The war in Chechnya graphically illustrated the plight of people displaced within their homelands. But the world community has not responded adequately to this humanitarian catastrophe. The failure to assist in rehabilitation and reconstruction leaves intact the seeds for renewed conflict.

Security problems are a cause as well as a consequence of forced migration. Conflicts in the former Soviet Union have displaced well over 1 million people within their countries, including most of the approximately 500,000 people who escaped after the first wave of fighting in Chechnya. Conflicts in Central Asia and the Caucasus have forced millions more across international borders.

Continued upheaval in Afghanistan could wreak havoc in Central Asia, sparking new refugee emergencies. The Afghan conflict menaces the tenuous peace process in Tajikistan. Ongoing fighting in northern Afghanistan could cause refugees to seek safety in bordering states, including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Even Kazakstan's foreign ministry has expressed concern that the instability in Afghanistan could spread throughout Central Asia.

In the CIS, those forced to leave their homes have little to lose and are easily recruited into ongoing fights. These "refugee warriors" reportedly have been operating in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as in Tajikistan.

Though it's in the best interest of governments to foster stability and avoid hardship in the region, the international community's response has been tepid at best. The principal product of last year's migration conference, attended by representatives of 87 governments, 29 international organizations, and 80 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), was a nonbinding "Program of Action." But the document comprised a rote recitation of principles and goals, rather than concrete projects or specific legal obligations concerning population displacements.

So far, the only major contribution to this year's appeals for funding has come from the United States, which allocated $14.1 million for programs to assist refugees and displaced persons in the former Soviet Union. Of that total, roughly $4 million will be devoted to funding general programs under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. An additional $5.5 million will go to UNHCR's special program fund, and the International Organization for Migration will receive $4.6 million. The US stipulated that $500,000 be earmarked for a new NGO development fund to strengthen civil society and the rule of law.

Immediate progress could be made with the adoption of a few concrete measures, such as simplifying tax and registration laws to enable NGOs to work more effectively, professionalizing government policy and enforcement bodies, and introducing programs to promote tolerance. Such initiatives could prevent some of the causes and consequences of forced migration. In those instances where prevention fails, these new independent actors could help assist and protect the displaced. Such approaches could provide a framework to begin to manage the new world disorder.

* Arthur C. Helton, a lawyer, is director of the Forced Migration Projects of the Open Society Institute, with offices in New York and Budapest.

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