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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Aid Displaced Millions

The haunting images of conflict in Eurasia are fading from view. The danger now is that the international community will forget that millions of people remain displaced and destitute, adrift in the void created by the implosion of the Soviet Union. The window of opportunity to help these people is open, but it is closing fast.

A crucial moment to regain the initiative came and went July 2 when representatives of governments, as well as international and nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, met in Geneva. They were to follow up on commitments made at a conference last year to address the most pressing migration-related problems in the Commonwealth of Independent States and relevant neighboring countries. However, the inability to make progress at this meeting further jeopardizes the international effort to help alleviate a potentially explosive problem.

More than 9 million people have been displaced in the former Soviet Union since 1989. This massive migration of humanity is the largest since World War II. The 15 countries that have emerged or re-emerged from the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union are hardening their borders in the face of these movements, causing undue hardship and homelessness.

The displacements have many causes: people returning to their ethnic homelands, refugees fleeing persecution and conflicts and migrants avoiding economic havoc. Population movements, in turn, have produced ethnic friction, human rights abuses, economic deprivation and, in the worst cases, threats to peace and security. The war in Chechnya graphically illustrates the plight of people in the former Soviet Union displaced within their homelands.

The international community has not responded adequately to this humanitarian catastrophe. The failure to assist in rehabilitation and reconstruction leaves in place the seeds for renewed conflict.

Security problems can be identified as a cause as well as a consequence of forced migration. Conflicts in the former Soviet Union have caused millions to flee across international borders, such as in Central Asia and the Transcaucasus and produced well over 1 million internally displaced persons, including the 500,000 Chechens escaping the first wave of fighting in the region.

Continued upheaval in Afghanistan has the potential to wreak havoc in Central Asia, sparking new refugee emergencies. The Afghan conflict menaces the tenuous peace process in Tajikistan. Ongoing fighting in northern Afghanistan between the Taliban movement and local factions could cause refugees to seek safety in bordering states, including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Even Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry has expressed concern that the instability in Afghanistan could spread throughout Central Asia.

In the CIS, those forced to leave their homelands have little to lose and are easily recruited into the various ongoing fights. These "refugee warriors" have been reported to be operating in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as in Tajikistan.

Although it is in the best interest of many governments to foster stability and avoid unnecessary hardship in the region, the response of the international community has been tepid at best. The reticence in addressing the issues is reflected by the modest outcome of last year's migration conference. The principal product of that meeting, attended by representatives of 87 governments, 29 international organizations, and 80 NGOs was a nonbinding Program of Action. However, the document comprised merely a rote recitation of principles and goals, void of concrete projects or specific legal obligations.

A joint appeal for donor government funding, issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration, IOM, has fallen short of its $89 million target for 1997. So far, contributions have reached $25 million, coming mainly from Finland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States. The United States, the largest contributor, allocated more than $14 million. Among the Nordic countries, Sweden has contributed the largest amount, about $4 million.

At the July 2 meeting in Geneva, CIS governments were criticized for not doing enough to uphold basic human rights. Countries in the region should assume more responsibility by showing greater commitment to fulfilling the goals of the CIS conference's Program of Action. One way that CIS governments could provide fresh impetus to the development of civil society is to energize the nongovernmental sector. NGOs remain underutilized in the effort to ease the hardships faced by refugees and displaced persons. A robust NGO sector in CIS states would promote civil society.

Immediate progress could be made with the adoption of a few concrete measures, such as simplifying tax and registration laws to enable NGOs to work more effectively, making government policy and enforcement bodies more professional and introducing programs to promote tolerance. Such initiatives could prevent some of the causes and consequences of forced migration.

The implementation of the Program of Action is at a crossroads. There is a danger of it becoming yet another opportunity lost by the international community to address the hardships occasioned by the implosion of the Soviet Union. Without significant enhancements in NGO engagement and donor backing, the CIS conference follow-up process will fail.

Arthur Helton is director of the Forced Migration Projects of the Open Society Institute. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.