UNHCR publication for CIS Conference (Displacement in the CIS) - Forced to move by war or circumstance

The disintegration of the Soviet Union has given rise to the largest, most complex, involuntary movements of people since World War II. Some 9 million people have left their homes in CIS countries for a variety of reasons, several of them unique to the region.


When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, politicians and commentators in Western Europe began to worry out loud about the prospect of large numbers of migrants crossing from Central Europe and what was then still the Soviet Union into their own countries. These worries increased still further, despite major tightening of the borders, when the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991. The massive movements westward did not materialize, and the outside world has since grown somewhat complacent about many of the problems facing the Soviet Union's successor states. In the meantime, largely unnoticed by people outside the region, movements of an astonishing scale and complexity have been taking place within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which comprises 12 of the 15 independent states that emerged from the ashes of the USSR.

9 million on the move

Since 1989, around 9 million people have moved within or between the countries of the CIS - one in every 30 of the region's inhabitants. This figure, which is the product of research conducted as part of the process leading up to a major international conference taking place in Geneva on 30-31 May 1996, for the most part includes only people who have moved for involuntary reasons. It does not include internal migrants moving for purely economic reasons, nor other categories outside the scope of the CIS Conference, such as returning soldiers and people emigrating to non-CIS countries. The movements addressed by the conference are perhaps the largest, most complex, and potentially most destabilizing to have taken place in any single region of the world since the end of World War II. And they are continuing.

While some of the movements are of an all too familiar type (a total of some 2.3 million internally displaced people and around 700,000 refugees as a result of conflicts), others are unique: products of the special characteristics of the Soviet Union, and of the unexpected dissolution of a single state into 15 separate ones.

54-65 million find themselves abroad

In 1991, when the Soviet Union broke up, the total number of people who were living outside their 'home' republics or autonomous regions is estimated to have been somewhere between 54 and 65 million, or one-fifth of the total population. Of these, 34 million were Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians living in other republics. For them, 'home' had been the Soviet Union, which suddenly no longer existed.

Many of them were faced with a very uncertain future. The republics where they were resident suddenly seemed less secure places to live - nationalism was on the rise almost everywhere, and in many places living standards were dropping dramatically. In some countries, new language and citizenship laws placed them at a disadvantage, and some risked (and still risk) becoming stateless.

When ethnic tensions flared up into all-out conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and major civil wars also broke out in the Caucasus and Tajikistan, the Slavs began to go 'home' in large numbers, particularly from Central Asia. However, in many cases it was to a home they had never seen, or had all but forgotten, and one where their economic prospects were, to say the least, extremely uncertain. By the beginning of 1996, some 3.3 million 'repatriants' had left the countries in which they were residing to return to their ancestral homeland. More seem likely to follow, although the rate of departure has finally begun to slow (see Orphans of the USSR).

The deported peoples

Another type of current movement unique to the CIS countries is the direct result of an extraordinary policy adopted, and ruthlessly executed, by Stalin more than half a century ago, the full details of which are only now becoming apparent as academics gain access to previously secret files in Moscow.

Between 1936 and 1952, more than 3 million people were forcibly removed from their homes, crammed into train-convoys of cattle wagons and relocated thousands of kilometres away in Siberia and Central Asia under what was known euphemistically as 'the special settlers regime.' Among them were eight entire ethnic 'nations,' totalling some 1.4 million people. Tens of thousands died during the journeys and upon arrival (see Punished Peoples).

Three of these entire nations - the Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars and Meskhetians - had still not been permitted to return to their ancestral homelands by the time the Soviet Union disintegrated. Although not permitted to return to the Volga, a total of 850,000 Soviet Germans have been helped to emigrate to Germany since 1992. In all, close to 1.4 million have gone to Germany since they were first allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1961.

One of the other groups, the Meskhetians, became involved in ethnic conflict in Uzbekistan in 1989, and had to be evacuated by Soviet troops. At least 74,000 Meskhetians are now living as refugees in other CIS countries. Only 300 of them have managed to return to their original home republic, Georgia. The Crimean Tatars, who had also been deported en masse to Uzbekistan, began returning to Crimea spontaneously in 1988. Around half of them (250,000) have now arrived back there.

Numerous difficulties surround such groups who wish to return to their ancestral lands, and have either so far been unable to do so, or are in the process of doing so. What are the duties and responsibilities of the successor states for acts committed by the Soviet state? How can they satisfy the legitimate wish of groups to return while avoiding social disruption caused by returns to areas that have been populated by others for half a century?

Refugees, IDPs and involuntarily relocating persons:3,632,000(1)
Repatriants to country of ethnic origin:3,296,000(1)
Return movements of formerly deported peoples:1,184,000
Ecological migrants:689,000
Illegal migrants:580,000
Asylum-seekers/Refugees from non-CIS countries:68,000

(1) Overlap of 604,000 repatriants/involuntarily relocating persons is not included in overall total.

Lethal environments

Another Soviet legacy causing considerable suffering and displacement in CIS countries is some of the USSR's nuclear, industrial and agricultural installations and practices, which have led to the flight of at least 700,000 ecological migrants. The three worst-hit areas, in terms of displacement, are the Aral Sea basin and the Chernobyl district (both of which include three countries) and the area around the former nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk in Kazakstan. Hundreds of other areas in CIS countries are affected by severe air pollution and chronic chemical and nuclear emissions, leakages and waste (see Ecological Disasters).

Unresolved wars

There have been seven major conflicts in CIS countries since 1988, when the long-smoldering problem of Nagorno-Karabakh (the predominantly Armenian enclave which Moscow had put under Azerbaijan's administration in the 1920s) set off a full-scale war between the two neighbouring countries. Technically a civil war at the time, it subsequently became an international conflict after both countries became independent. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan was followed by four more conflicts in the Caucasus: two in Georgia (South Ossetia and Abkhazia), and two in the Russian Federation (North Ossetia and Chechnya) (see Conflicts in the Caucasus).

Moldova and Tajikistan have also experienced major conflicts, both of which broke out in 1992. All but about 8,000 of the 100,000 displaced from the Transdniester region of Moldova to other parts of the country and Ukraine have now returned. And, despite a continuing sporadic guerrilla war in the mountains, there has been something of a success in Tajikistan where a major international relief operation has assisted almost all the 600,000 people displaced inside the country, as well as 43,000 of the 60,000 refugees who fled to Afghanistan, to return home.

Yet by April 1996, even though serious fighting was confined to the Chechnya conflict, lasting solutions to the other six conflicts had not been found.

In addition to the conflict in Tajikistan, there have been two bouts of serious inter-ethnic fighting in Central Asia, both in the volatile Ferghana Valley which stretches from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan. The first involved the Meskhetians in 1989, and the second took place a year later on the Kyrgyzstan side of the border.

The ethnic mosaic

The ethnic mosaic which CIS countries have inherited from the Soviet Union was vastly complicated by the deportations, labour camps and collectivization of the Stalin era, as well as by the encouragement of certain groups to move to other USSR republics for reasons of political control and economic development. It was also further complicated by frequent tinkering with borders and creation of enclaves.

As a result, the potential for inter-ethnic strife remains a deep concern for many of the CIS countries. An academic study commissioned by the International Boundaries Research Unit and completed in December 1991, just as the Soviet Union was dismantled, identified no fewer than 164 ethno-territorial disputes and claims within the USSR.

One in 12 Central Asians on the move

Some of the largest and most complex movements that have taken place over the past seven years have been in Central Asia. In all, some 4.2 million people have been moving within, between or from the five Central Asian republics - an astounding one in 12 of the region's inhabitants in 1989, or in the case of Tajikistan, one in five of the country's population (see Central Asia on the Move).

The Russian Federation has seen the largest movements of any single country (although not in proportion to its size) with some 3.4 million moving to or within the country. Included in those numbers are some 450,000 illegal migrants, many of whom are thought to be trying to transit westward. The Russian Federation also has the largest number of asylum-seekers from non-CIS countries (42,000 in 1995).

Unique complexities

The complexity of the movements stems from the combination of three broad types of population flow, each of which is highly unusual in some respect. There are pre-existing movements which have acquired a new dimension due to their transformation from internal to international (for example, repatriants and economic migrants); movements that are well-known to the international community, but new to CIS countries (such as refugees, internally displaced persons, illegal and transit migrants); and movements of which the international community has virtually no experience (the return of formerly deported peoples).

The massive scale of the population displacements have strained the limited resources of countries which lack experience and institutions to manage the sudden large-scale movements of people, a situation compounded by the fact that all the countries of the CIS are going through an extremely difficult period of transition.

Why a conference?

At the beginning of 1994, as a result of growing concern among CIS countries at the scale of movement that had already taken place since the demise of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation proposed to the U.N. General Assembly that there should be a global conference dedicated to refugees, displacement and migration issues.

By that time, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was already fully involved trying to help pick up the pieces from three hugely destructive conflicts in CIS countries (soon to be joined by a fourth, in the shape of the Chechnya conflict). As a result, in line with its general policy of promoting regional solutions to complicated refugee problems, UNHCR had also begun taking soundings about a major regional conference.

The two ideas gelled, and the CIS Conference on refugees and certain other forms of migrants was born. Given the complexity and overlapping nature of the movements that were occurring, and the obvious benefits of taking a holistic approach that would confront the causes as well as the results of involuntary movements, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the human rights and democratic institution-building arm of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR) were obvious choices as partners to help lobby for and organize the conference. This unprecedented combination of organizations with different mandates meant that from the start the principal objectives were extremely wide-ranging and ambitious: the organizers and many of the participating governments were determined not to fall into the trap of arranging a glorious but ultimately inconsequential talking-shop, blazing briefly into life in the form of a major international conference before quickly fading into oblivion.

From the beginning, the organizers - all three of which, to varying degrees, were already operational within the region - stressed that the Conference should be seen as a major stepping stone in a continuous and open-ended process that would result not only in the establishment of important principles, but also in specific remedial and preventive actions on the ground. The Conference was not an end in itself. The set of principles and plan of action that it would hopefully endorse would be geared to helping the governments in the region not just to manage their existing colossal population movements, but also to try and boost the chances of preventing more large-scale involuntary movements from taking place at all. People should be free to move if they wanted to, but not forced to move by conflicts that could be prevented, tensions that could be reduced, or by the absence, shortcomings or weaknesses of laws and institutions. In short, one of the prime motives behind the Conference was to increase stability in a potentially dangerously unstable region. Further instability within the CIS region, and the massive population movements that this could engender, on top of those that have already taken place, could clearly have much wider ramifications for global security.

One of the first steps taken during the Conference process was a major data-gathering exercise. The rapid growth of shared information and experience that this engendered among the CIS countries themselves, as well as the other participating governments and the three international organizations that form the Conference Secretariat, provided the basic platform of knowledge that enabled the aims and precise format of the Conference process to begin taking firm shape.