Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (Focus : 1996 in review) - Managing refugees and migrants in the CIS: Nine million on the move

Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (Focus : 1996 in review) - Managing refugees and migrants in the CIS: Nine million on the move
Refugees (106, IV - 1996)

1 December 1996
Since the early 1990s, unprecedented population movements in the territory of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have led to a total of nine million uprooted people. The CIS Conference provided a multilateral forum to tackle population displacement issues. It was a "first" in many respects.

Since the early 1990s, unprecedented population movements in the territory of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have led to a total of nine million uprooted people. The CIS Conference provided a multilateral forum to tackle population displacement issues. It was a "first" in many respects.

By Claire Messina
Operations Officer at the International Organization for Migration. The views expressed in this article are her own and do not reflect IOM's official policy.

On 30 and 31 May 1996, delegates from 87 countries, 34 international organizations and 77 NGOs gathered in Geneva to attend the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Conference on Refugees and Migrants, which had been convened by UNHCR in close co-operation with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

In an age of conference fatigue, the hailing of the CIS Conference as the most important preventative exercise of recent years might be looked upon with scepticism. Yet, because it was a "first" in many respects, and a successful one, the CIS Conference deserves special mention among the many international events of 1996.

Since the early 1990s, unprecedented population movements have taken place on the territory of the CIS countries. These movements, the biggest, quickest and most complex that have occurred in the region since World War II, have led to a total of nine million uprooted people. They are part of what has been called "the human legacy of the Soviet Union" - the intricate mixing of people and ethnic groups resulting from seventy years of population movements, whether voluntary or coerced, planned or disorderly, or driven by economic, social or totalitarian concerns.

Victims of this chaotic and painful unmixing of populations include refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the various conflicts in the Caucasus, who are still unable to go back to their homes; Crimean Tatars, who along with many other groups were deported to Central Asia in the 1940s and now long to return to their historical homeland; ecological migrants from Chernobyl and Kazakstan, displaced from their communities by man-made environmental disasters; Russian-speakers leaving Central Asia en masse, because they do not feel at home there any longer; migrants transiting illegally through the region heading West, looking for a better life; and the latest unfortunate group comprising the IDPs from the bloody conflict in Chechnya.

These population movements have strained the limited resources of the newly independent countries, all of which lack the experience and institutions to manage the sudden large-scale displacement of people. These challenges also threaten to undermine their efforts to bring about political and economic transformation.

Outflows are resulting in brain-drains and the disruption of local economies, although in the short term they may alleviate current socio-economic difficulties. Inflows strain the social infrastructures, particularly in the education and health sectors, and distort the housing and labour markets. Illegal migration is often linked to trafficking, drugs and arms smuggling and organized crime. Relations between migrants, the local population and the authorities at the community level are increasingly tense.

The CIS countries were not in a position to cope with these rapidly unfolding developments. Because the nature and scale of the movements had changed, the administrative structures and legislative basis inherited from the Soviet period proved inappropriate and insufficient to manage migratory flows and alleviate the plight of the displaced. Policies and programmes, previously elaborated at the Union level, had to be designed without institutional experience or trained personnel. The CIS countries lacked efficient border control systems, emergency preparedness capabilities, reliable information systems, appropriate early warning structures and adequate financial resources. The lack of structures in turn aggravated population displacement problems.

While all the CIS countries agreed that these growing problems needed to be addressed, no one state would take the initiative on its own, as many of the issues surrounding population displacement in the post-Soviet context were - and remain - extremely sensitive. They touch upon fundamental questions relating to citizenship, state succession and the limits of state sovereignty; the right of peoples to self-determination, secession and the status of international borders; the responsibility of successor states in the face of their predecessor's wrongdoing, and the difficult balancing of old crimes and new misdeeds; the rights of minorities and the viability of multi-ethnic societies; and, more broadly, the geopolitical configuration of the CIS as a whole. Questions that no one wanted to broach.

It soon became clear that if population displacement issues were to be successfully tackled, or even tackled at all, they needed to be addressed at a regional level, since they concern all CIS states. Also, they needed to be dealt within a multilateral forum, where each state would have equal status; in a humanitarian and neutral setting, with mediation by international organizations acting as catalysts and facilitators, so as to de-politicize the debates; and with the active participation and backing of the wider international community.

The CIS Conference provided all these elements. For the first time ever, the twelve CIS countries got together in an international setting to discuss their migration and population displacement problems. During almost a two-year period, CIS representatives had the opportunity to meet regularly and to discuss at length their shared migration and displacement problems. In the corridors of the Palais des Nations, one could spot the Armenian and Azerbaijani delegates, whose countries are officially at war with each other, talking eagerly about ways and means of exchanging information on each other's refugees, and devising schemes for compensating those who had been deprived of all their possessions. Or one could watch the Kyrgyz delegation listening carefully to their Tajik colleagues' presentation of the repatriation of refugees from Afghanistan, and wondering whether a similar mechanism could apply to their own country.

But the CIS Conference was more than just a talking shop: it also helped shed some light - for the first time ever - on the nature, scope and scale of the population movements occurring throughout the region. In the course of the lengthy preparatory process, participants had the opportunity to analyze thoroughly the various flows taking place in the region, to identify the types of movements which were of particular concern and to classify them scrupulously.

In the process, they managed to de-politicize some of the categories used in the region, which had become sources of tension between various CIS countries.

Once the categories were clear, participants collectively assessed which ones could be examined within the framework of existing international standards, and which ones could not. In the first case, concepts used in the CIS region were standardized and brought into line with relevant international conventions and instruments, while in the second case existing concepts were clarified or new categories devised.

Categories are not only of concern to lawyers and entomologists. Words shape our thinking, and thoughts shape policies, which ultimately affect people's lives. Furthermore, in order to engage in dialogue and cooperate with each other, people (and, even more so, countries) need to have a common language. Hence the usefulness of such an elaborate terminological review of the movements taking place in the CIS countries.

This review also contributed to enhancing the international community's awareness and understanding of the displacement-related problems faced by the CIS countries. It allowed the CIS countries to put their problems in a regional perspective, and to realize the links between the population movements they are experiencing and those taking place in neighbouring countries. Last but not least, it helped the international organizations better understand existing needs.

Once the nature of the flows was clarified, participants were asked to analyze displacement-related problems and discuss possible solutions. The result of this exercise - once again a "first" in the region - was the elaboration of a Programme of Action that contained a strategy to address migration and displacement problems in the CIS countries agreed upon by all participants.

To make the strategy truly comprehensive, and ensure its effective implementation, the drafting process drew upon a wide spectrum of parties: the CIS countries themselves, which bear the primary responsibility for addressing the displacement problems taking place in their territories; neighbouring and other countries concerned with the impact of these problems on regional and international stability; and international organizations and NGOs active or interested in the region. Inter-agency cooperation was particularly enhanced by the joint organization of the process by UNHCR, IOM and OSCE, all three of which drew on their institutional expertise to address a range of issues that goes beyond any of their individual mandates.

For all the innovative features of the CIS Conference, its real success will be measured by its long-term achievements. The Programme of Action will have to be translated from words into reality. For this to happen, the continued commitment of all concerned will be crucial. IOM and UNHCR fully intend to meet this challenge, and have developed a Joint Operational Strategy to ensure greater coordination of their activities and achieve a pragmatic division of labour in the region. The CIS countries will now have to demonstrate their political will and operational capacity to tackle displacement problems, while the international community will need to show its continued support for this endeavour by providing tangible assistance to these countries. In other words, despite the two years of intensive effort that led up to the conference, the real work has only just begun.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (1996)