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Geneva conference to tackle massive displacements in CIS

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Geneva conference to tackle massive displacements in CIS

29 May 1996

Representatives from more than 60 nations are expected in Geneva this week for a major international conference focusing on one of the most destabilizing issues facing the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States - the displacement of some 9 million people in the region since 1989.

In addition to developing a plan to manage the huge movements already taking place, the two-day CIS Conference on Refugees and Migrants is also expected to endorse a set of wide-ranging proposals aimed at enhancing stability and preventing further uncontrolled and unnecessary mass movements. As the draft Programme of Action to be discussed at the conference warns: "Such massive and unmanaged population movements may undermine political and economic transformation in the CIS countries and could have far-reaching implications for international security and stability."

The conference, which starts Thursday, has been organized by an unusual consortium of international agencies, comprising the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and the human rights arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The 31-page draft Programme of Action incorporates fundamental human rights and humanitarian principles - which are vital for soothing tensions within the set of extraordinarily complex ethnic mosaics inherited by the CIS countries - as well as a detailed outline of the type of concrete actions necessary to translate those principles into reality on the ground.

A declaration in the draft programme describes three objectives of the conference:

  • to provide a reliable forum for the countries of the region to discuss population displacement and refugee problems in a humanitarian and non-political way;
  • to review the population movements taking place in the CIS countries, clarifying the categories of concern;
  • and to elaborate the Programme of Action for the CIS countries.

"This represents the first full-scale effort by international organizations, the CIS countries themselves and other interested states, to come up with a concerted and coherent plan to manage movements of astounding scale and complexity," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata said in advance of the meeting. "The draft Programme of Action marks a major breakthrough," she continued. "In recent years there has been a lot of talk about 'prevention.' We have a golden opportunity to do some real prevention in the CIS countries, as well as containment of existing problems. We must not let that opportunity slip from our grasp. The potential for spiralling conflict and displacement in this region is frightening."

Since 1989, seven major conflicts have between them forced over 3.6 million people to leave their homes. In addition to those displaced by conflicts, the strains brought on by the sudden disintegration of a single centralized state, the Soviet Union, into fifteen separate states, has triggered or encouraged other huge movements, some of them unique to the CIS countries.

In all, some 3.3 million people, including 600,000 from conflict zones, have felt compelled to leave their homes and return to their country of ethnic origin. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there were between 54 and 65 million such people living outside their "home" republics or autonomous region.

During the 1940s, the Stalin regime deported millions of people, including eight entire nations, from the Soviet Union's western rim to Central Asia or Siberia. Three of those nations - the Crimean Tatars, Meskhetians and the Soviet Germans - had still not managed to return to their historical homelands when the Soviet Union collapsed. Over 1.2 million of these so-called "formerly deported peoples" have been on the move since 1989.

Such return movements, which right a historical wrong, are particularly difficult to manage after half a century has passed. Already, at least two major conflicts, and one smaller one, have involved formerly deported peoples either back in the their historical homeland, or in the country where they have lived since their deportation.

The three biggest ecological disasters - Chernobyl, the Aral Sea and the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan - have forced more than 600,000 people from their homes. Dozens of other areas are also badly affected by the Soviet legacy of nuclear, industrial and agricultural installations and practices.