December 11, 2000

On December 11, 2000, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace International Migration Policy Program hosted a lunch in conjuction with the Council on Foreign Relations to discuss the new book by Arthur Helton and Natalia Voronina, Forced Displacement and Human Security in the Former Soviet Union: Law and Policy (Ardsley, New York: Transnational Publishers, Inc., 2000). Moderators included Bob DeVecchi of Council on Foreign Relations, Kathleen Newland of the International Migration Policy Program, and Princeton Lyman of the Aspen Institute. Arthur Helton from the Council on Foreign Relations spoke about his book, and Marguerite Rivera Houze of the U.S. Department of State commented on it.

Kathleen Newland opened by saying that she is utterly convinced that the issue of migration affects many other domestic issues and is far from being dealt with adequately in the regions of the former Soviet Union. Helton and Voronina's book helps to bring attention to this key yet oft-forgotten issue. Princeton Lyman added that when the Soviet Union collapsed, many people feared a flood of migrants moving west out of the region. However, the imagined crisis never happened, and the subject lost the limelight.

Arthur Helton then spoke about his book. It deals mostly with regional and international law concerning refugees and other types of migrants. He estimated that there are about nine million displaced people in the region, although numbers vary. There are several conflicts which cause much of the displacement. The conflict in Chechnya, for example, has uprooted a vast number of people. According to a recent United Nations High Commission for Refugees report, the displaced from Chechnya lack health care and food, experience harassment from Russian soldiers, and suffer other hardships despite some recent improvements in camp facilities. Other conflicts are currently underway in Abkhazia, Moldova, South and North Ossetia, Tajikistan, and the Fergana Valley between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Several other areas in the north and south Caucasus, central Asia, and the western countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have the potential for conflict.

Forced migration is likely to increase due to ethnic conflict. Migration due to ecological disaster is also a potential problem. The movement of large numbers of people has religious, ethnic, and political implications and can have consequences outside the region. Helton expressed "guarded pessimism" about early warning of forced migration, but some type of protection system is required to assist forced migrants. The current international protection regime may not work in the region of the former Soviet Union. There are many different types of migration in the area; not all of the displaced qualify as refugees under international law, although many of them live in refugee-like circumstances. For example, there are many internally displaced persons who have fled conflict and persecution but never crossed an international border.

Helton discussed the attempts to create a regional legal framework. In 1996, several important organizations sponsored a Regional Conference to Address the Problems of Refugees, Displaced Persons, and other Forms of Involuntary Displacement and Returnees in the Countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States and Relevant Neighboring States. The 1996, the Conference produced a Program of Action, which guaranteed certain international principles, such as the right to seek asylum and human rights for internally displaced people. A very important part of the Program of Action was the development of definitions for categories of displaced people, other than refugees, relevant to the region, which included:

  • Externally displaced persons (who fled their country due to fear for their lives, safety, or freedom and live in refugee-like circumstances but may not fit the international refugee definition) · Repatriants (who have voluntarily resettled in their country of origin)
  • Involuntary relocating persons (who are forced to relocate to their country of citizenship)
  • Formerly deported persons (who were deported during the Soviet period)
  • Ecological migrants (who left their permanent residence to escape severe environmental degradation or ecological disaster)

Helton expressed concern that interest in migration issues is decreasing in the region despite its major consequences.

Rivera Houze's Comments

Princeton Lyman said he was struck by the complexity of the issues and noted that there is a tendency to see refugees as a humanitarian problem rather than as a political policy problem and a key to stability. He introduced Marguerite Rivera Houze, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration. Rivera Houze praised the book and said she wished such a book had existed when she began in her current position.

Rivera Houze said that from a donor's perspective, one reason why the Program of Action did not accomplish what people had hoped was because it focused on humanitarian issues, and you can only go so far with migration if you look at it through only a humanitarian lens. Also, donors have seen only minor incremental improvements in the region, which discourages continued commitment. The U.S. government focuses on emergencies and refugees who fit the international definition set out in the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees. The U.S. government fails to consider that conflicts today are often frozen in a nebulous area between a state of emergency and long-term stability. Another problem was that Russia dominated the Program of Action. Many independent states worried that Russia would use the Program to assert its power over them.

She agreed with a comment made by Helton that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are incredibly varied in the region. Their sophistication has also increased over the last few years. She felt that one thing missing from Helton's book was the sustainability of NGOs, many of which lack a strong support base. She also noted that recently, many NGOs have been worried about competition from quasi-NGOs which are really extensions of the government. International donors need to broaden their thinking about how to develop local capacity and help independent NGOs sustain themselves.

The Program of Action was ambitious but eventually devolved into the development of legal regimes on migration for independent countries, such as the development of asylum policy in Georgia. However, by its nature, migration is a cross-border issue and so there needs to be a discussion of it as a cross-border issue. There should be a focus on migration as a regional issue rather than as an issue for individual states.


Kathleen Newland commented on Rivera Houze's call for a regional perspective. She said there is a lack of political will by CIS countries to cooperate regionally on the issue. Newland was not sure that an international conference was the best tool.

Lyman asked if a subregional approach would work better than a regional approach, such as focusing on the Caucasus. Roberta Cohen from the Brookings Institution mentioned a project she implemented which took a subregional approach in the south Caucasus. The project brought Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians together to discuss internal displacement and the laws in their countries. They succeeded in developing a subregional program in which NGO lawyers in the three countries review their own laws and compare them with international guiding principles.

Andrei Popov, First Secretary of the Embassy of Moldova, discussed the case of Moldova. Under the Soviet system, Russians--who were often skilled workers--were encouraged to immigrate to Moldova. In the early 1990s, the nationalist forces encouraged the opposite, and thousands of Russian-speakers left. Armed conflict in the separatist Trans-Dniester region displaced thousands of others, but it is overshadowed by concerns about economic migration. Around 500,000 Moldovans have left to work outside Moldova, which is about one-fifth of the working population; about half of those work in Russia.

David Kramer of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy noted several other problems. There used to be 3.3 million people in Armenia, but now there are only two million because so many have left for economic reasons; this is a cause for concern about Armenia's future. Also, Russia's new visa regime has created problems for Georgians. People from Georgia's separatist regions do not need to get visas to go to Russia while the rest of Georgians do. The visas pose a financial hardship for many Georgians.

Newland observed that many of the Russian-speakers who fled Chechnya will never go back, which leaves a huge hole in Chechen society. Also, Russia has been reluctant to face its demographic crisis and allow immigration into Russia.

Dawn Calabria of UN High Commissioner for Refugees said it would be super-human to work on a regional basis. The smaller states fear Russian domination.

Newland said that Europe and other actors have pressured areas of the former Soviet region to relax their citizenship laws, which has had an impact in the Baltic states. However, central Asia has not been very receptive but must eventually realize the economic and social impact of strict laws. Already Kazakhstan relaxed some citizenship laws because it could not afford to lose so many people.

In response to the discussion, Helton made several points. First, he said that without external funding, most NGOs would not be sustainable. The U.S. should consider NGO models other than those common in affluent, Western countries. People who work in NGOs are human resources, and even if they must leave NGOs, they take the lessons they learned with them. Second, Helton noted that donors are tired of relief-oriented situations. In Georgia, they are trying to repackage the refugee situation as an issue of self-sustainability rather than crisis. Third, labels are key. For example, in Georgia, if you are an ethnic Georgian who fled to Georgia from outside the country, are you a refugee or an internally displaced person? Finally, anything that looks regional creates a fear of the return of the Soviet empire.