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Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - NGOs break new ground in former East Bloc

Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (NGOs and UNHCR) - NGOs break new ground in former East Bloc
Refugees (97, III - 1994)

1 September 1994
After decades of centralized control, independent NGOs are beginning to blossom in the former East Bloc.

After decades of centralized control, independent NGOs are beginning to blossom in the former East Bloc.

By Sylvie Daillot
Charles-Antoine Hofmann
Rebecca Stevens

After decades of state control over nearly every aspect of life, the emergence of non- governmental organizations in the former East Bloc has been a slow and sometimes painful process.

But dedicated citizens in several former communist countries are now accepting the challenge of building an independent network of local voluntary agencies to deal with a wide range of humanitarian and social issues that were formerly the sole responsibility of the welfare state.

And in many of these countries, governments are doing whatever they can to foster the growth of NGOs despite a natural inclination - developed over decades of centralized rule - to mistrust any grass roots movement.

Speaking at the regional Partnership in Action (PARinAC) Conference for Europe in Budapest in April, Hungarian President Arpad Goncz said governments are going to have to learn to live with independent NGOs.

"I must confess that the institution of NGOs is not very old in this eastern part of Europe," Goncz said. "After all, there was an idea that developed over 40 years of communism that every task, every duty, should be handled by the government. And governments will now have to learn to coexist with NGOs, to cooperate with them and to look at grass roots movements without suspicion ... "

Hungary provides an excellent example of this healthy new relationship between governments and NGOs. Goncz paid tribute to his country's new NGOs and acknowledged that their independence was a major asset.

"By taking an active part in running day-to-day affairs, [NGOs] are playing a bigger role than state or government bodies," he said. "They know the local circumstances, they are part of the recipient communities and their work is more human, more warm-hearted than that of any major organization or institution."

But despite some progress, UNHCR has found that the development of NGOs dealing specifically with refugee issues in the former East Bloc is hampered by the lack of any asylum tradition. Before 1989, the few refugees in the region were generally Communist Party members fearing persecution in their homelands - a very small number of people. Otherwise, borders were largely closed.

Today, however, Central and Eastern Europe - as well as the former Soviet Union - are unable to avoid the global refugee and migration crisis. Like much of the rest of Europe, they are confronted by an increasing number of asylum-seekers. As a result, UNHCR has increased its presence throughout the region and has been forced to go out and find and then nurture and train local NGO partners to help with the growing case load. This "institution-building" has not been easy.

"Because of the growing numbers of asylum-seekers, UNHCR can't afford to just sit back and wait for the spontaneous creation of NGOs here," said Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR's liaison officer in Bratislava, Slovakia. "We have had to go out and help the very few, very small NGOs that are already here, to provide them with the means to function.

"The other option would have been to bring in West European NGOs," Cochetel said. "But they are not familiar with the region, with the attitudes, with the languages, and so it was not a viable solution. So now we are working with local partners who are able to really help those people who need international protection."

In much of the region, the new NGOs have arisen from two main sources that existed - often precariously - under the former communist governments: semi-independent church groups and human rights organizations. In countries without these two sources of dedicated volunteers, the process of building NGOs has been much more difficult.

Moreover, the growth of capitalism and the search for individual wealth have made it difficult for many NGOs to attract qualified staff.

In Bulgaria, for example, UNHCR is trying to develop an NGO legal assistance project but has had difficulty attracting lawyers because they can find much better opportunities in the private sector. "It seems human rights are mainly a preoccupation for people in rich countries," one UNHCR staff member said.

To foster the introduction and growth of local NGOs in Eastern and Central Europe, UNHCR supports the activities of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), a non-governmental organization that promotes human rights and the protection of refugees and asylum-seekers throughout the continent. Established in 1973, ECRE links more than 60 West European NGOs involved in asylum work. One of ECRE's major objectives in 1994-95 is to strengthen participation of NGOs from the countries of Southern, Central and Eastern Europe.

Bill Seary, ECRE's development officer for Central and Eastern Europe, said his organization's activities in the region include:

  • Staff exchanges to enable NGO workers from the region to learn from their counterparts in the West;
  • Support for national and regional training programmes for NGO staff in Central and Eastern Europe involved in legal and other assistance for refugees and asylum-seekers;
  • And the exchange of information on the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers through the European Legal Network on Asylum (Elena) and ECRE resource specialists.

Seary says the rationale behind ECRE's programme stems from the rapidly changing asylum system throughout Europe, and the need to incorporate Central and East European countries in the pan-European human rights framework.

"The future will see an increase in the numbers of applicants for asylum in the region as a consequence of ... various bilateral and multilateral readmission agreements, and because of other measures taken by European governments, including the introduction of expeditious procedures to return asylum-seekers to so-called 'safe third countries,'" Seary said.

Among other recommendations, the April meeting of PARinAC in Budapest called on UNHCR and NGOs to exercise their advocacy roles with governments in Eastern and Central Europe and the Newly Independent States (NIS) of the former Soviet Union for the protection of civil, economic and cultural rights of minority groups in the region. PARinAC also declared that training is of "utmost importance" and requested UNHCR to expand its training programmes for refugee-related NGOs in the region.

It is a major challenge, but "institution-building" has already begun in many former East Bloc countries.


There are no official statistics on NGOs in Russia, but they are thought to number in the thousands. Relatively few of them, however, deal with refugees and asylum-seekers, an issue which most Russians know little about.

"Before the transition from the old system, there were few NGOs," said Vera Soboleva, UNHCR public information officer in Moscow. "The overwhelming majority of Russians were members of various trade unions, and through them they tried to solve their problems. There wasn't even any legislation on NGOs."

Currently, UNHCR's Moscow office works with a variety of local NGOs in both the protection and assistance fields. A major partner is the Coordination Council for Aid to Refugees and Forced Migrants (CCARFM), which coordinates the efforts of 26 local NGOs and 47 individuals. So far, CCARFM has been involved mainly in programmes for refugees and forced migrants from the NIS. However, it will soon expand to activities for non-NIS refugees as well.

Another local NGO, Lorien, provides medical care for asylum-seekers in four accommodation centres and a clinic in the Moscow region. The St. Petersburg Red Cross operates a soup kitchen and provides legal advice, medical care and social services to asylum-seekers. The Russian Foundation for Assistance to Refugees, which has 32 regional and territorial branches around the country, will soon cooperate with UNHCR on a project in the Pskov region of Russia. UNHCR also works closely with the Russian Red Cross and is developing ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, Caritas and the local office of the International Catholic Migration Commission.

UNHCR Moscow has organized a monthly coordination meeting for NGOs and government agencies responsible for refugees, including the Federal Migration Service.


There is no NGO tradition in Bulgaria, but a recent influx of people fleeing the fighting in former Yugoslavia has prompted the Bulgarian Red Cross - in cooperation with UNHCR - to strengthen its work among refugees and asylum-seekers. In addition, UNHCR has proposed an assistance programme to foster development of refugee protection programmes within the Bulgarian Lawyers for Human Rights (BLHR), an NGO formed in 1993 to provide legal defense in human rights cases. BLHR also provides training and human rights information to other NGOs and lawyers.


The lack of acceptable refugee registration and status determination procedures in Romania has prompted UNHCR to reinforce its cooperation with two national human rights NGOs which are involved in actual refugee protection activities. They are the Romanian Independent Society for Human Rights (SIRDO), and the Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Romania (APADOR).

From its refugee office in Bucharest, SIRDO works in the areas of supplementary feeding, shelter, health, community services and education. It also sends field teams to government accommodation centres for refugees. APADOR is involved in legal services and representation for refugees.


Hungary is the only former East Bloc country to have signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees before the collapse of communism. In addition, it had previous experience in the 1980s in dealing with asylum-seekers from Romania, which provided early experience for two local NGOs - the Hungarian Red Cross and Hungarian Inter-Church Aid. These NGOs work in both emergency and long-term assistance for refugees and asylum-seekers. Prospects are good for further strong development of local NGOs in Hungary.


The Czech Republic is another success story in building new NGOs. When UNHCR opened its office in Prague in 1992, there were very few NGOs apart from the local Helsinki Committee, which had been active in refugee matters since 1989. Unable to find enough implementing partners, UNHCR set to work organizing individuals who were already doing some volunteer work with refugees and asylum-seekers.

Today, several NGOs are working with UNHCR. The Czech Helsinki Committee and another NGO, Society of Citizens, provide legal services for refugees and asylum-seekers. The Organization for Aid to Refugees - OPU - focuses on local integration, including workshops, vocational training and assisting refugee children in gaining access to secondary education. It also produces a magazine by and for refugees. Another NGO, Man, Education and New Technologies, offers general training programmes in social issues and is conducting a survey on Czech attitudes toward immigrants and ethnic minorities, including refugees and asylum-seekers. UNHCR is helping to design the questionnaire that will be used in the survey.


Six local NGOs are currently working in Slovakia with UNHCR, which has provided material, technical, political and financial support for their development since 1993. The NGOs include Caritas Slovakia (social counselling); Freedom (legal services); OPU, Matica Slovenska, Helsinki Federation and Charta 77.

Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR's liaison officer in Bratislava, said the most difficult task has been getting local lawyers to work on behalf of refugees. Cochetel said few local lawyers are interested in helping NGOs because they can make more money in the private sector. In addition, some lawyers fear they could damage their reputations by representing "foreigners." So far, only one local lawyer has agreed to represent asylum-seekers on behalf of an NGO.

Even so, Cochetel is optimistic. "We have motivated and enthusiastic partners, and the quality of their work is rapidly improving," he said. "The role local NGOs can play on behalf of refugees is beginning to be recognized."


Before 1989, the Polish Red Cross Society was the only organization assisting the few refugees present in Poland. With the development of democratic institutions, a growing number of organizations were established to deal with social and humanitarian issues. Today, about 10 NGOs are working with refugees - three of them as UNHCR implementing partners. They are the Polish Red Cross, the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, and Polish EquiLibre Foundation.

"When we opened the office in January 1992, I soon realized that UNHCR did not have the capacity to provide legal counselling to refugees and asylum-seekers," said Daniel Endres, UNHCR liaison officer in Poland. "The Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights was already working successfully for the protection and monitoring of the rights of individuals, so I asked them to provide legal counselling and support to asylum-seekers and refugees. Today, two lawyers and a human rights expert are counselling refugees on a daily basis."

The Polish Red Cross has provided assistance to a large number of asylum-seekers from former Yugoslavia.

EquiLibre also provides assistance to refugees and asylum-seekers who do not receive government support, and has launched an education programme at more than 450 schools which includes a presentation of the problems faced by refugees.

Recently, Polish Caritas has begun counselling services for refugees and asylum-seekers in selected cities.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 97 (1994)