Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (Regional solutions) - Starting from scratch
Refugees (99, I - 1995)
If ever a comprehensive regional approach was desperately needed, it is in the countries directly affected by the aftershocks of the crash of the Soviet Union.
(Editor's note: This issue of Refugees focuses on the growing international trend toward comprehensive or regional solutions to refugee problems. This topic is also examined in UNHCR's biennial report, The State of the World's Refugees: The Search for Solutions, published by Oxford University Press in November 1995.)
By Rupert Colville
In mid-January, when a UNHCR assessment mission and two planeloads of relief items touched down in North Ossetia (one of the autonomous republics bordering Chechnya), the Russian Federation became the fifth former Soviet republic since December 1992 to invite and receive UNHCR assistance during a major conflict. The others were Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia - all of which, like Chechnya, are in the Caucasus - and Tajikistan, in Central Asia.
All of these conflicts have resulted in massive destruction and displacement. Taking into account the 400,000 people displaced by the fighting in Chechnya by the end of January, more than 2.6 million people in total have been driven from their homes since the first of these conflicts - the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan - broke out in 1988.
And that is not the whole story: smaller violent displacements from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, the Trans-Dniestr region of Moldova, and North Ossetia itself take the total close to the 3 million mark.
Add in the millions of people who, since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, have either left the region altogether, transited it (usually heading west), or moved from one republic to another, and you have a regional movement of peoples that in terms of size, speed and complexity is unmatched in recent history.
If ever a comprehensive regional approach has been desperately needed, it is in the CIS countries, the Baltic States and neighbouring nations directly affected by the aftershocks of the crash of the Soviet empire. At the beginning of 1994, the Russian Federation signaled the growing concern in the region by proposing in the U.N. General Assembly that there should be a global conference dedicated to refugees, displacement and migration issues.
UNHCR, in line with its general policy of promoting regional solutions to complicated refugee problems, also began taking soundings about a major regional conference in early 1994. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), a non-U.N. inter-governmental body, was an obvious choice as partner to help lobby for and organize the conference process, as was the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which is also now on board.
The organizers are determined that the conference process will not lead to a paper mountain inscribed with empty words. Instead, they are aiming for a set of agreed principles, and - more important still - a firm plan of action based on those principles.
Director of Policy Planning and Operation Sergio Vieira de Mello has overall responsibility within UNHCR for the regional conference. He stresses that the conference - assuming it happens - is part of a much wider process: "The conference is not an end in itself, though it will be an important landmark," he says. "If all goes well, it will also be the start of a new process that will involve the active implementation of the plan of action."
The first preliminary gathering of 16 interested governments took place in Geneva in December 1994. By the time a second meeting took place on 20 January, the number of governments in attendance had swelled to 32, and a strong sense of momentum had already been created. At that meeting it was agreed that the third step should involve a series of regional consultations to be held in February or early March. These consultations would concentrate on helping governments to gather more detailed and precise data about refugees, displaced people and other migrants who have moved to and from their territory, as well as information about the causes and effects of such movements. The results of this data-gathering exercise will then be consolidated and built upon during an "experts meeting" provisionally scheduled to take place at the end of March. If the momentum is maintained, the main conference could take place in late 1995.
Thus already, after the first two meetings, the fundamental nature of the process had altered: instead of remaining a UNHCR-driven initiative it is well on the way to becoming a fully-fledged participatory process involving governments and, hopefully, other international agencies - including financial and development institutions - and NGOs.
The objectives are both wide-ranging and ambitious: as well as concentrating on refugees, forcibly displaced people and other categories of migrant, the conference is likely to focus on other major issues related to displacement, including the crucial questions of institution building, and the advancement and harmonization of national asylum and immigration laws. The conference will also probably not be confined to the CIS and the Baltic States. Some Central European countries, for example, have expressed a strong interest in the question of transit migrants (including refugees) who cross their territories, and West European countries have an obvious interest in taking an active part in a process designed to prevent, or at least find coherent solutions to, refugee and other migratory flows.
The outcome of the consultations and meetings tentatively scheduled for the first few months of 1995 will be crucial. Not only will they determine the shape and ultimate effectiveness of the conference process itself, they will also - potentially - form the basis for a wider and ongoing dialogue between governments and international agencies (as happened during the CIREFCA process in Latin America,which is widely credited with playing a key role in helping to bring stability to Central America).
Jean-Marie Fakhouri, director of the UNHCR regional bureau covering the Central Asian states, underlines the significance of the proposed conference: "It is extremely important for Central Asia: a number of the issues are already very active in the region, and are linked to a very precarious geopolitical situation - particularly with regard to the southern borders with Afghanistan."
Nobody is under any illusions about the extent of the challenge. Successful regional responses, such as CIREFCA and the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention, were built on an extensive body of existing laws, conventions and agreements, and lengthy experience in the international arena. As director of UNHCR's Europe bureau, John Horekens, points out, the same conditions do not apply to most of the countries that were hidden behind the Iron Curtain. "It's very ambitious," he says of the conference's wide-ranging objectives. "Whereas African countries have dealt with the United Nations for the last 30, 40 or 50 years, many of the countries we are trying to involve in this process have very little experience of dealing with organizations like UNHCR. Similarly we have no experience in that part of the world. The system is full of gaping holes. It is imperative that we succeed in plugging them as soon as possible."
Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 99 (1995)