Refugees Magazine Issue 98 (After the Soviet Union) - Bitter legacy of banishment

Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1994

In 1944, the entire Crimean Tatar nation upwards of 250,000 to 350,000 people was deported by Stalin to Central Asia. Today, the Tatars are going home, but their return is a difficult one.

By Arthur C. Helton
(Mr. Helton, a lawyer, directs Migration Programs at the Open Society Institute in New York. He recently led a mission of inquiry to Ukraine, including Crimea.)

They are a young family, although the mother and father look older than their years. Their young son, Ismail, plays fitfully with his rusty bike, but never smiles. Their home for the past several months has been a metal cargo container in a field in Churkurcha in the outskirts of Simferopol, the leading city in Crimea. They are a family of Crimean Tatars who returned three years ago from Uzbekistan to their ancestral home. But they were evicted from the first place they encamped, and they are now squatters in a flood plain populated mainly by grazing cows and dotted with half-built stone houses.

The Crimean Tatars are a deported people. In 1944, the entire Crimean Tatar nation upwards of 250,000 to 350,000 people were deported by Stalin to Central Asia, allegedly for collaboration with the Nazis. Many perished in the exercise. In 1988, after more than 30 years of agitation, permission was given to the Tatars to return. While the repatriation began slowly, the pace has quickened as Ukraine, the nation in which Crimea is now located, became independent in 1991. Upwards of 280,000 Tatars are now estimated to have returned, and a similar number are expected to repatriate over the remainder of this decade.

Upon return to Crimea, the Tatars found their homes and lands occupied. Some resorted to seizing lands which they then homesteaded; sporadic conflicts with local authorities have resulted. At the political level, this tension resonates with a simmering dispute in Ukraine about the status of Crimea, given to the Ukrainian republic by Khrushchev in 1954 as "a gift from the Russian people." In general, the population of Crimea, mostly ethnic Russians, now desires closer links with the Russian Federation, an outcome reflected in the recent presidential election. Elements of the population openly agitate for seccession.

There are many potential political fault lines in Ukraine, including disputes over scarce energy resources and the status of the Black Sea Fleet, but some believe that the treatment of repatriating Tatars could provide the spark that ignites a broader conflict between Russia and Ukraine which could have monstrous consequences. The prevention of such a conflagration should be a first order priority of the international community.

In the effort to repatriate, Crimean Tatars face a panoply of obstacles, including difficulties in arranging inter-state transport of their personal property, exaction of prohibitive tariffs, and other measures that frustrate movement. Upon their arrival in Crimea, they find their homes have long since been destroyed or occupied. Many acquire new land and build new homes. Others of lesser means simply squat on unused land and build makeshift shelters, hoping for normal lives and lawful residence. The situation is unregulated and rife with uncertainty and potential for conflict.

In an effort to begin addressing the situation, and in recognition of the meagre resources available from Ukraine because of the abysmal state of its economy, the Kiev office of the United Nations is preparing a prospective appeal to donor governments to support projects that will contribute to the maintenance of peace and stability in Crimea through development of infrastructure to absorb returning Tatars and other ethnic minorities. About $15 million would be sought from the international community to realize this initiative. Ongoing consultations are being held with potential donor governments to assess interest. While the concept is laudable, it will be crucial to ensure that the affected populations (including Crimean Tatars) participate as much as possible in the design and implementation of these rehabilitative projects. A development effort shaped by those immediately concerned would stand the best chance of success.

If anything, a focus by the U.N. solely on issues of absorption in Ukraine (Crimea) may be too limited. A broad multilateral approach involving the affected host governments, impacted transportation facilities, and the authorities in Ukraine, could better manage a movement that became international in character after the dissolution of the former Soviet Union. International institutions, including UNHCR, International Organization for Migration, and the United Nations Development Programme, among others, should work together to promote international cooperation and facilitate the orderly movement of people in this sensitive context. Inter-agency consultation should be initiated immediately in order to organize a consolidated international appeal for funds to support a comprehensive approach.

The various international institutions concerned have a unique opportunity now to mediate between the affected governments in order to regulate this extended repatriation. The Crimean Tatars are not refugees in flight from persecution, but rather people who seek to return to their homeland after enduring mass expulsion and gross violations of their human rights. Of course, they are not the only people who have been punished by banishment in this region. Others include the Meskhetian Turks, approximately 100,000 of whom now reside in Azerbaijan en route from Central Asia to Georgia; or the Volga Germans, the most numerous of the deported groups.

But there is potential now for effective solution-making which may prevent conflict, and which may establish an important precedent in the region. Effective redress could be provided to the Crimean Tatars, and the prospects for international cooperation and security could be enhanced. The basic objectives of ensuring justice and peace are surely among the most urgent tasks for the international community to address in the new world disorder.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 98 (1994)