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Why People Are On The Move In Former USSR

  • Sonia Winter



Washington, May 6 (RFE/RL) - A United Nations study finds that one in every 30 inhabitants of the former Soviet Union has been forced to leave home and find a new place to live and says the population upheaval is still continuing.

It says "this is perhaps the largest, most complex and potentially most destabilizing (movement) to have taken place in any single region of the world since the end of the Second World War."

The U.N. report says that since 1989, a total of about nine million people have moved within or between the countries of the former Soviet Union and that the busiest people traffic is in Central Asia and the Russian Federation.

The report estimates that one in 12 Central Asians is relocating and that alltogether during this period, more than four million people have been on the move in the region.

Within the Russian Federation, some 3.4 million people are either moving to, or within the country.

The comprehensive, 230-page report looks at the problem of displaced persons in the region and why they are on the move.

It took two years to prepare and was compiled for a major U.N. conference on refugees and population movements in the former communist countries which convenes in Geneva at the end of this month.

According to the report, the nine-million-figure does not include troops returning from dismantled Soviet bases in Germany and other countries of the former Warsaw Pact, or voluntary migration and emigration for economic and other reasons.

It says some people were forced to abandon their homes because of ecological disasters and ethnic tensions but the most common reasons were war and repatriation.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, as many as 60 million people suddenly found themselves living in foreign countries. The U.N. says 34 million were Slavs -- Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. It calls them "orphans of the USSR."

The report says about half a million of these "Slav orphans" went back to Ukraine and more than three million, mostly Russians, have returned to the Russian Federation.

But there is disagreement over the definition of the Russian exodus, which is mainly from Central Asia, the Transcaucasus and the Baltic states.

The Russian government says the returnees are "forced migrants (vynuzhdenny pereselenec)."

The U.N. report says "this broad definition" poses problems for international organizations and some of the non-Russian Commonwealth republics because it implies political judgement.

"It also touches on...crucial questions of citizenship, nationality and language laws closely connected...with the causes of involuntary movements," the report says.

The U.N. study lists another type of returnee it calls "punished peoples" -- victims of the mass deportations ordered by Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s when more than three million people were rounded up and forcibly transferred to Siberia and Central Asia.

Half a century later, many want to return to their ancestral land. But with the exception of the Volga Germans, the report says they are still trying.

It says the Soviet Germans were not permitted to return to the Volga area but since 1992, at least 850,000 have emigrated to Germany.

The Crimean Tatars, deported to Uzbekistan, have returned in huge numbers to Crimea in Ukraine. The U.N. report estimates that half of them -- about a quarter million people -- have now arrived back there. But it says the half remaining in central Asia -- another 250,000 Crimean Tatars -- "may also try to return in the near future." Of the other groups, only 300 Meshketians managed to leave Uzbekistan and return to Georgia, their original home republic. Between 70,000 and 100,000 others live as refugees elsewhere in the former Soviet Union after fleeing violence in the Ferghana Valley.

The U.N. says wars and ethnic conflicts created millions of homeless refugees, hitting hardest in the Caucasus.

The report lists seven major conflicts in the Newly Independent States, five of them in the Caucasus and most still lacking a lasting solution.

It says the long-smouldering problem of Nagorno-Karabakh over which Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war created more than a million refugees.

In addition, hundreds of thousands were displaced by the fighting in Georgia -- in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and in Russia -- in North Ossetia and Chechnya.

The U.N. report says that since the beginning of the war in Chechnya in December 1994, close to half a million people became refugees, fleeing to neighboring Ingushetia, Daghestan. North Ossetia and Russia, as well as other parts of the Chechen republic.

Fighting in Moldova in 1992 displaced about 100,000 people but almost all have now returned to the Transdniester region, the report says.

Similarly in Tajikistan, international relief organizations have helped most of the 600,000 refugees from the 1992 civil war there to return home.

However, the report lists another type of refugee who will never be able to return home -- people displaced by lethal environments, or what the report calls "ecological migrants."

It says at least 700,000 people have had to leave their homes because of pollution and the figure is far from complete.

The report says 300 areas throughout the former Soviet Union, covering a total of four million square kilometers, have been identified as causing acute danger to human life, including 20 regions classified as "very critical."

This category includes the Black Sea shore, the area around Lake Baikal, and parts of Moldova, the North Caucasus and northern Siberia, as well as the Chernobyl and Aral Sea regions and the Semipalatinsk region in northern kazakhstan.

The report says there are serious health concerns for those who remain in the polluted places and more "ecological migrants" are expected.

Finally, there is a new and growing category of people on the road in search of a new place to live.

The report says weakened border controls have attracted transit migrants both within the former Soviet Union and from as far away as Africa, China and Iraq.

People, making their way across the Commonwealth countries, hope to start a new life in western Europe or America. But tightened immigration laws and restricted access in the West leave many transit migrants stranded in Central and Eastern Europe.

The U.N. report says at least 450,000 transit migrants and illegal immigrants are in Russia alone, and that their presence is "potentially destabilizing."

The Geneva conference at the end of this month will review all these problems and adopt strategies to deal with them.

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