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A New Breed: The Post-Soviet Ecological Migrant

Geneva, June 7 (RFE/RL) - There is a new breed of migrant in the former Soviet Union. One fleeing pollution rather than politics and environmental degradation rather than economic decline.

These so-called "ecological migrants" are a relatively new phenomenom in the former Soviet Union, where a total of some four million square kilometers have been badly affected by nuclear, industrial, and agricultural installations and practices adopted during the Soviet era.

In all, some 300 areas have been identified across the CIS in which environmental pollution is thought to cause acute dangers to human life.

Initially, only the Chernobyl and Aral Sea regions were classified as "very critical." But another 18 regions have recently been added to the list, including the Black Sea shore, the area around Lake Baikal, areas of Moldova and parts of the North Caucasus.

Exact numbers are still being determined but official statistics show that more than 700,000 people have migrated away from the three worst hit areas -- Chernobyl, the Aral Sea and the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. Those who remain behind face very serious health concerns and experts warn new threats loom on the horizon.

For example, the huge canal system built in the 1960's to irrigate cottonfields of Central Asia has diverted as much as three-quarters of the water destined for the Aral Sea. And some 35,000 square kilometers of what was once sea is now highly saline and polluted land, threatening the health of about three million people in Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Major fishing towns now find themselves as much as 100 kilometers from the coast and there has been a steep increase in the reported instances of infant mortality. In addition to the social strains created by population movements from ecological disaster areas, and the serious health risks, there is also concern that in polluted regions, where different ethnic groups live in close proximity, competition for increasingly limited clean water supplies could lead to conflict.

Last week's CIS conference on refugees and migrants, held in Geneva, estimated the number of displaced people in the Aral Sea region alone at above 100,000. In Kazakstan alone, at least 42,000 people have moved either further inside Kazakstan or to other CIS countries.

But perhaps the most visible group of ecological migrants are those who fled in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in April of 1986. Ten years later, the full cost of the world's worst nuclear accident is still far from clear.

The Ukrainian government and G-7 countries are still discussing the cost of closing down the plant, parts of which are still functioning. They are also looking into repairing the cracked concrete sarcophagus covering the destroyed reactor.

A recent UN report says that as many as nine million people living in Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation may have been directly or indirectly affected by Chernobyl. At least 375,000 people had to leave their homes immediately after the accident.

Many from the outlying affected areas, where the contamination levels have dropped, have since gone back. But those who lived within a 30 kilometer radius of Chernobyl will never be able to return home.

The third area producing large numbers of ecological migrants is Semipalatinsk in Northern Kazakhstan -- the former Soviet Union's largest nuclear missile-testing site. Close to 200,000 people are believed to have been directly exposed to radiation at Semipalatinsk, before testing was halted in 1963.

More than 45,000 people have already moved from the Semipalatinsk region to safer areas of Kazakhstan since Independence. Another 116,000 people have left for other CIS countries. The neighboring Altaiskii region in the Russian Federation has also been badly affected.

Experts fear continued deterioration of the social, economic and environmental conditions in this ethnically complex region will likely force further internal and external migration. And this will take place in a region already experiencing some of the largest, most complex and potentially de-stabilizing involuntary mass population movements since the end of World War Two.