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U.N. Preparing Major Refugee Conference

Washington, May 2 (RFE/RL) - United Nations experts on refugees and migrants are meeting in Minsk next week to finalize preparations for a major international conference to be held in Geneva on population shifts in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The conference is planned for May 30th and 31st to review migration patterns in the east and adopt a program to manage mass population flows in the region.

Organizers say at least 50 countries are expected to participate, including the Central Europeans, the Baltic states and all the former Soviet republics, as well as China, Iran, Turkey and the leading western democracies.

United Nations studies show that a majority of the participating nations have been affected by a mass of refugees, migrants, displaced persons and people on the move in the wake of the collapse of the communist bloc and the former Soviet Union

The U.N. estimates that since 1989, around nine million people throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia were forced to leave their homes because of ethnic conflicts, civil wars, rising nationalism, ecological peril, and a host of other factors.

In a review prepared for the Geneva conference, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner warns the international community to come to grips with the problem and manage the flow of people or face "continuing instability, a dangerous potential for upheaval...and interethnic strife in the region."

The U.N. says the Newly Independent States lack the experience, resources and institutions to deal with the massive population displacement which could thus spill over and create refugee problems for other countries in Europe and Asia.

Some analysts warned of this possibility in the early 1990s, anticipating a massive westward movement of empoverished refugees. That did not materialize.

Instead they say, an astonishingly large and complex migration has occurred mostly within the territory of the former Soviet Union and is still continuing.

Russians from Central Asia, the Transcaucasus and the Baltic countries continue to return to their homeland.

According to the Russian government some three million people have returned since 1991 and at least two million more are expected to move back to the Russian Federation this decade - mostly from Kazakstan and other parts of Central Asia.

Ukraine has had to cope with the repatriation of half a million Ukrainians and a massive influx of Crimean Tatars, as well as continuing resettlement of people from areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The U.N. study says Ukrainian authorities fear renewed refugee flows from fighting in the Caucasus.

Many countries suffer from illegal immigration and transit migration of people trying to make their way to the West.

The Belarussian government reports the presence of some 200,000 illegal aliens from scores of countries, some from as far away as Africa, China, or Iraq.

Because of increasing restrictions on immigration in western countries, many migrants end up staying in Belarus and Central European countries illegally, surviving by smuggling and other criminal activities.

The Geneva conference will consider these problems and lay down a set of principles and guidelines to help nations deal with population dislocations that are expected to persist for the rest of the decade.