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Forced Migration: A New World Disorder

  • Lisa McAdams

Geneva, June 4 (RFE/RL) -- Migration remains a reality today in every region of the globe, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the former Soviet Union, where some nine million people have been -- or are -- on the move since the collapse of communism.

Late last week delegates from more than 60 nations and international organizations, meeting in Geneva, adopted a 27-page blueprint of action designed to stem further mass movement and to ease the trauma of existing migrants. The non-binding document is also meant to lead to the eventual establishment of new institutions in the former Soviet republics to allow authorities to assess the size of migration movements and to better deal with them.

Organizers of the CIS conference on refugees and migrants -- attended by delegations of all 12 CIS states, all three Baltic states, most European nations, the United States and China -- described the population movements as "the largest, most complex, and potentially de-stabilizing" to have taken place in any single region of the world since the end of World War Two.

Conference Co-Chair and Krygyz Foreign Minister, Rosa Otounbayeva, told RFE/RL she is confident the newly-adopted blueprint will serve as a roadmap for the dignity and stability of the former Soviet Union and the world. In her words, the plan sends a "clear message" on how to deal with the challenges facing the region, including the more difficult issues of nationality, language laws and human rights.

Otounbayeva's remarks were echoed by the delegates in brief regional statements made during the two-day conference. The only signs of discontent came from the Baltic nations. In separate objections, formally registered in the conference's final hours, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia took issue with the plan's wording.

In a list of principles to be followed by CIS governments, the document says new countries should fully ensure that people on its territory who were citizens of a predecessor state should be granted citizenship.

Latvia and Estonia, in particular, have large Russian populations for whom they have set stiff new conditions on citizenship. Their new laws are part of political efforts to rejuvenate Baltic cultures suppressed by years of war, deportation, emigration and planned population transfers during the Soviet era. Moscow has branded the laws as discrimination against Russians.

In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL, Estonian Foreign Ministry official Heinso Ainso said the conference failed to take into account the illegal transfer of people into Estonia, as well as others deported out. Ainso added that there are still a few thousand deported Estonians in the Russian Federation and that Tallinn is interested in having what he called "iron-clad" assurances that all who would like to return to Estonia are provided that opportunity.

Despite the objections, Ainso said the Baltic republics would stand behind the document, but hoped the issues would be discussed during the follow-up period.

Another dissenting voice came from Arthur Helton, the Director of the New York-based Forced Migration Projects of the Open Society Institute (OSI). The Institute was just one of 100 non-governmental organizations participating in the conference, which Helton said displayed a number of "lost opportunities."

He said the controversial issues of citizenship and statelessness, such as those addressed by the Baltics, were eliminated or marginalized in conference preparations because of what he called various "political sensitivities." Also lost in the conference process, according to Helton, were opportunities to design concrete enforcement mechanisms and to accept a broadened refugee definition to include those fleeing civil strife or public disorder.

Helton said Western European and other states signaled early resistance in the conference process to the inclusion of a broadened refugee definition, apparently fearing that such an arrangement might be cited as a precedent against them in future policy reviews or legal challenges concerning restrictive asylum practices. As a result, Helton said Western Europe will remain vulnerable to migration and refugee emergencies, like those recently seen emerging from the blood-shed in former Yugoslavia.

The UN High Commissioner For Refugees, Sadako Ogata, strongly rejected the various criticisms. During a news conference, Ogata said,"it is more important to mobilize the will of people and (representative) governments, than to argue whether the document has legal teeth." The U.N. Commissioner also said she did not forsee the immediate need to hold a donor's conference for what all agree will no-doubt be a costly prospect.

James Purcell, Director of the International Organization for migration (IOM), said donations of technical assistance and money are already coming in. As he put it, "the next most important step is follow-up."

Ambassador Margaret Glover of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said the international community stands ready to assist in the effort, but that the real work is up to the CIS states themselves. Initial estimates put the start-up phase at four years.

Human history has long been a history of migrations and experts say that with economic and environmental conditions worsening in many countries, the likelihood of even more migration is strong. UN High commissioner Ogata says that at least with last week's effort, officials will now have formal guidelines on how to preserve multi-ethnicity, without allowing tensions to lead to conflict, secession, mass displacements and ethnic cleansing.