Extract from "The State of the World's Refugees 1995 - In Search of Solutions" "Changing approaches to the refugee problem", Chapter 1, Box 1.1 (p. 24-25)

Teaching Tools, 19 September 2006

© UNHCR
Cover of 'The State of the World's Refugees 1995 – In Search of Solutions'

published by Oxford
University Press © 1995 UNHCR

Displaced people in the former Soviet states

Since the collapse of the communist regime in 1991, millions of former Soviet citizens have migrated within and between the 15 successor states of the USSR. Some have been uprooted by armed conflict, while others have moved to look for new economic opportunities, to escape from discrimination or to go back to areas from which they or their ancestors had been displaced in the past. At the same time, the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have experienced a growing influx of people from other parts of the world, many of them migrants and asylum seekers who are in transit to Western Europe.

The Soviet Union was well acquainted with involuntary migrations. In the 70 years of its existence, millions of people were forcibly transferred or induced to move from one part of the country to another. Such relocations had a number of different objectives: to reinforce governmental control of the country; to eliminate perceived threats to the communist state; to punish dissident individuals and disloyal ethnic groups; and to promote economic development in inhospitable and sparsely populated areas of the USSR.

For most of its history the Soviet Union remained closed to outsiders, and so these massive population displacements (unlike the fate of some prominent individual dissidents) attracted relatively little international attention. The forced migrations of the past few years, however, have been widely publicized by the media and have aroused the concern of neighbouring and nearby states, which fear the consequences of continued instability and refugee movements in the region.

Armed conflict

The CIS states which have been most troubled by armed conflict and refugee movements are to be found in two principal areas: the Caucasus and Central Asia.

In the Caucasus, the government of Georgia has been confronted with two secessionist struggles, both of which have led to large-scale population movements. The war for the independence of South Ossetia, which began in 1989, has created some 36,000 internally displaced people and 120,000 refugees, the majority of whom have fled to Russia. The conflict in Abkhazia, which broke out in 1992, has led to the internal displacement of 270,000 people, while a further 80,000 have fled to Russia and other CIS states.

The Caucasus region is also the scene of a protracted war involving the newly independent states of Armenia and Azerbaijan. The focus of this conflict is Nagorno-Karabakh, an area populated primarily by ethnic Armenians, but which was placed under the control of Azerbaijan during the Stalinist period. Now in its seventh year, the struggle for control of Nagorno-Karabakh and the related war between Armenia and Azerbaijan have displaced an estimated 1.6 million people.

More recently, in the Russian Federation, armed conflict between the central authorities and the breakaway republic of Chechnya has led to the displacement of half a million people, many of them fleeing to the neighbouring autonomous republics of the Federation. UNHCR's relief operation in the area, which was launched at the beginning of 1995, is the first UN humanitarian operation to be carried out on Russian territory.

Of the five Central Asian republics, Tajikistan has been most seriously affected by armed conflict and population displacements. A civil war erupted in that country in 1992, with one side frequently characterized as Islamic and the other as neo-communist. As a result of the violence, 600,000 people were displaced within the country while another 250,000 took refuge in Afghanistan, Russia and other neighbouring states.

Operational problems

Providing protection and assistance to these and other displaced populations in the former Soviet Union has proved to be a challenging task. Very large numbers of people are involved, concentrated in numerous different locations. UNHCR staff and other humanitarian personnel have had to work in an entirely new political and operational environment, where the language, culture, legal and political systems are all unfamiliar.

The political and economic disruption which has created the refugee problem has at the same time made it very difficult to establish effective relief programmes. The region's physical infrastructure is unreliable and its institutions generally lack the capacity to respond to urgent humanitarian needs. Many of the region's displaced people have found shelter in private homes and public amenities, placing further pressure on local incomes and living standards.

In these circumstances, UNHCR's primary concern has been to resolve existing refugee problems and to avert further population displacements. These objectives have been achieved to some extent in Tajikistan, where most of the refugees and internally displaced people have now returned to their homes. Nevertheless, the country is still affected by political instability and sporadic fighting, leaving thousands of people in precarious circumstances.

In the Caucasus, the situation is even more disturbing. By mid-1995, little progress had been made in settling the Abkhazia conflict, leading to a suspension of plans for the large-scale repatriation of ethnic Georgians. In Armenia and Azerbaijan, a six-month UNHCR emergency programme launched in 1993 has had to be extended because of the continuation of the conflict and the absence of any immediate prospect for repatriation.

Returns and arrivals

An estimated two million people have moved to Russia from other CIS states since 1989, prompted by a number of different motivations: for economic motives, to escape from armed conflicts, or because they fear persecution and discrimination

in the countries where they live.

During the communist period, Russians were a privileged elite who wielded the most authority, held the best jobs, and enjoyed a cultural and linguistic dominance within the Soviet Union. Now, however, some of the newly independent states are abandoning Russian as the official language and have introduced discriminatory measures against the Russians in an attempt to redress historic grievances. Roughly a quarter of the people who have moved to Russia since 1989 have been recognized as refugees or forced migrants, the largest numbers coming from Tajikistan, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

In addition to the population movements which have taken place within and between the newly independent states, an estimated 700,000 people have found their way to the territory of the former Soviet Union from other parts of the world, including a substantial number of Chinese citizens. A large majority are believed to be economic migrants en route to the West. However, with the introduction of measures intended to limit the number of people who can enter Western Europe, many of these transit migrants have essentially become trapped in the CIS area.

The imprecision of these figures is indicative of the fact that the CIS states currently lack the procedures required to determine whether asylum seekers qualify for refugee status. Moreover, the process of drafting immigration and refugee regulations, training staff to administer these laws and establishing an effective working relationship with UNHCR and other international organizations is only just beginning.

In order to tackle the problem of displacement in the region, UNHCR is organizing a major international conference, which will bring together the governments of the CIS and relevant neighbouring states, as well as the International Organization for Migration, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other international organizations working in the area. Provisionally planned for the end of 1995, this initiative will also enable the refugee problem in the former Soviet states to be addressed from a regional perspective.

Map B: Cross-border population displacements in the Caucasus region