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Human Rights Group Criticizes Migration Meeting

Washington, May 30 (RFE/RL) - A leading human rights group has expressed concern about the treatment of refugees in Russia, the Caucasus and Tajikistan and criticizes an international conference opening in Geneva today for its approach to the problem.

The Human Rights Watch, an independent international organization based in New York, makes the criticism in a report made public today on the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons in Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as Georgia and Tajikistan.

The report says the Geneva conference, co-sponsored by the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), squanders a valuable opportunity to tackle the refugee problem in the former Soviet Union with a specific course of action.

It expresses "profound distress" that policy recommendations presented in original draft documents for the conference were cut from the final version of the Program of Action that is to be adopted in the closing session.

The report says this version is "infinitely less meaningful" and protests what Human Rights Watch sees as "a serious abdication of responsibility and commitment to effecting solutions."

Some 50 countries, including representatives from all the newly independent states, are expected to participate in the Geneva conference, reviewing over two days population shifts of millions of people in the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The U.S. delegation is headed by Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Phyllis Oakley, who spoke with our correspondent before leaving Washington.

She said the pursuing three goals at the conference: to encourage respect for the human rights of migrants regardless of their legal status, strengthen the capacity of the CIS countries to, as she put it, "protect refugees and persons in refugee-like situations," and "to encourage development throughout the region of humane and efficient migration management systems."

But Oakley said western countries are not expected to make large donations at the conference, although it is recognized that local governments often lack the resouces to adequately care for refugees.

She said what may come out of the Geneva proceedings will be technical assistance with the writing of laws, developing departments of citizenship and migration and border controls.

She said the humanitarian needs are there to help people start new lives in new locations. But there are also many legal questions about citizenship.

And Oakley said "there is an even greater need -- to accept or recognize that people have rights, whether they are migrants, refugees or people who choose to stay at home." She said the conference will help establish guidelines on how to meet these often competing demands and reconcile them within a legal system.

Oakley said the conference is intended to "increase people's awareness that in the protection of their own rights, they don't trample on the rights of others."

However, Human Rights Watch, in the report, says it is "distressed by a gap between the admirable goals for protection outlined in the Conference Program of Action document and the likely ability of any of the CIS states to realize these goals in the forseeable future."

One of the issues to be clarified at the conference is who is considered to be a refugee.

Oakley said in the RFE/RL interview that the U.S. supports the 1951 U.N. Convention which defines a refugee as a person fleeing his country because of "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular political social group or political opinion."

She said: "people have tried to improve on that but found it difficult."

Human Rights Watch argues that the definition of a refugee and displaced person should follow the international law resting on fear of persecution and not specify additional categories that could lead to discrimination.

"We are concerned from a legal standpoint by the five additional categories of CIS migrants proposed in the conference's Program of Action...because they might be used to give unwarranted preferential treatment to one category of migrants over another," the report said.

It lists the proposed categories as "repatriants, involuntarily relocated persons, formerly deported peoples, ecological migrants and illegal migrants in transit."

In a series of its own policy recommendations to the governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, the Russian Federation and Tajikistan, the report urges them to treat all asylum-seekers equally.

It says all should be allowed to have their claims of persecution reviewed and adjudicated according to international legal standards.

Human Rights Watch also calls on these governments to return illegally-occupied property, investigate and prosecute attacks on refugees, repeal existing residence requirements and strengthen protection of human rights for ethnic minorities.

It makes additional recommendations addressed separately to international organizations and the governments of Russia and Tajikistan.

The recommendations to the Russian government include an exhortation to immediately stop forcibly returning refugees, publicly denounce racial discrimination and cease arbitrary police raids, as well as to stop attacks on civilians in Chechnya and permit the return of some ethnic Ingush to their homes in North Ossetia.

The report makes similar requests to the government of Tajikistan, asking for strengthened protection of returning refugees and public condemnation of acts of violence and discrimination against them.

Human Rights Watch also calls on the Tajik opposition to stop threatening violence against returning refugees and to lift a ban against repatriation from camps in Afghanistan.