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Refugees From East Unsettle West

Western countries that take fewer asylum-seekers are said to restrict freedom of movement

MASS migrations of people from the former East bloc to Western borders are severely testing East-West cooperation in building a new Europe. Within one week earlier this month, at least 20,000 Albanians hijacked ships and sailed to the Italian port of Brindisi, in an attempt to defect to the West. The Italian government initially declared that most would be forced to return, but has now agreed to resettle many in Italy or elsewhere in the West. Italy also offered Albania emergency relief, in part to help stem the flow.

Between 1983 and 1989, the number of asylum-seekers in the West rose fivefold. In 1990, a total of 1.3 million emigres from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were settled in the West, but thousands more remain suspended within a political asylum process overwhelmed by numbers of applicants. The social and political pressures prompting mass movements threaten prospects not only for pan-European integration but also for new security arrangements.

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European multilateral institutions have only begun to assess the regional implications of mass migration. However, the debate in these forums tends to reflect only partial responses to a problem of overwhelming dimensions. The Council of Europe, for example, sponsored a conference in Vienna earlier this year on East-West migration. East European representatives there criticized recurrent West European emphasis on "solving" mass movements merely by raising barriers to immigration. Yet Eastern states are imposing similar measures, including reinforced border patrols, to curtail movement within their own region. Czechoslovakia and Poland, for example, are restricting entry of travelers from Romania and the Soviet Union.

Although the European Community's Single European Act mandates the free movement of labor, goods, services, and capital, there is no common EC immigration policy. The 1985 Schengen Agreement was signed by six of the 12 EC member states to devise a model for further EC border control coordination. Refugee interest groups have criticized the agreement, however, for promoting common policing mechanisms against terrorists and drug traffickers that could deter legitimate asylum-seekers. In an effort to addre ss growing racism within the European Community, the European Parliament recently proposed that all EC member-states consider granting immigrants the right to vote and run for political office in local elections. Although the Netherlands enfranchised immigrants in 1985, many national parliaments are unlikely to adopt such a proposal. Too many far-right political parties in Western Europe have prospered on anti-immigrant platforms.

The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) convenes regular meetings on human rights and minority issues to address potential nationalist unrest on the continent. A CSCE Conflict Prevention Center in Vienna will facilitate political-military openness and information exchange as a hedge against conflict.

West-West cooperation remains centered on processing thousands of political asylum-seekers from the East through Vienna and Rome, where they await decisions on their status. The United States still accepts a large proportion of these asylum-seekers, especially Soviet emigres. In October 1989, however, US rules covering refugee expenditures were changed to place more of the financial burden of caring for asylum-seekers on their temporary West European hosts.

The present refugee system is eroding not only because current levels of funding are inadequate but because Western strategic priorities are changing, forcing traditional definitions of migrants to change as well. Western policymakers are beginning to recognize that diminishing East-West ideological concerns may often make it politically difficult to justify giving preference to political asylum-seekers over "economic refugees." The Italian government failed to resolve this dilemma during the latest Alb anian refugee crisis.

A major tenet of Western foreign policy throughout the postwar period has been the promotion of freer East bloc emigration. In the past, cold-war politics compelled Western acceptance of virtually all East bloc defectors. The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the 1975 Helsinki Final Act - signed by all Eastern states except Albania - assert the right of the individual to leave and return to his or her country at will. Amid the frenzy of East bloc liberation Western states re duced percentages of political asylum acceptances. This has led to the irony in which Eastern leaders - including Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev - are accusing Western governments of impeding free movement.

International migration, however, is a two-way street imposing responsibility on those who send as well as those who receive migrants. As the former East bloc is discovering, socioeconomic change is a highly destabilizing process. On the one hand, governments often cynically promote emigration to alleviate internal unrest caused by deleterious political and economic policies. On the other hand, emigration from reforming states could also spawn a brain-drain, leading to future skilled labor shortages. Th e Albanian government has followed a stop-go reactionary approach, alternately lifting travel restrictions and declaring the port of Durres a military zone to check the current exodus. Soviet reformers are hoping to pass a new "Law on Exit and Entry of USSR Citizens" by summer, which will allow Soviet citizens freedom of travel on a five-year passport. To the alarm of their neighbors, Soviet officials are predicting that anywhere from 1.5 to 7 million people will take advantage of the new law during its fir st year.

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If future efforts to control migration are to be successful, emphasis must be placed on trade, aid, and investment. The member-states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have granted billions of dollars to aid Eastern Europe in creating conditions and incentives for people to stay there. Although the EC has led this multilateral aid effort, it should also consider structural improvements to trade, such as opening its vast market to East European agricultural exports. Half of Poland's debt to its "Paris Club" creditors has been forgiven, which will help mitigate the social consequences of its austerity program. Similar debt-relief arrangements could assist other heavily burdened states in the region.

An East-West migration policy requires much more than setting levels of emigration, immigration, and refugee resettlement. Without further multidimensional responses to migratory forces, the new Europe will be anything but "whole and free."

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