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What will become of the Tatars? [Commentary]

Russia annexed Ukraine's southern Crimea region, despite the fact that a significant minority of the Crimean population are not ethnically Russian nor interested in joining the Russian Federation.

Approximately 12 percent of the Crimean population — over 250,000 people — are ethnically "Tatar," a largely pro-Ukrainian, Sunni Muslim group. They have an embattled history with Russia. In 1944, Stalin exiled the Tatar population to Central Asia, and over half of the population died in the forced migration. The Tatars were only allowed to return to their ancestral homeland in Crimea in 1989 and have since been engaged in land disputes with the ethnic Russian majority.

It now looks like they're being pushed out again. Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev was reportedly banned from returning to "Russian territory" for five years last month as he entered Ukraine from Crimea.

"They are trying to deport all people who they considered unsuitable," Mr. Dzhemilev told the Financial Times. By "unsuitable," he largely means those who would resist becoming Russian citizens.

The Tatars in Crimea are politically organized and mobilized; they have their own parliament, the Qurulta, and executive body, the Mejilis, though their power has been significantly reduced in recent years. Given their past experience with Russia and more recent experience with a pro-Russian government, it is unlikely that many Tatars will quietly join the Russian Federation. Some will fight the annexation, but many will simply leave the region, choosing to become refugees before Russians.

According to a report released by the Underrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization earlier this year, around 5,000 ethnic Tatar women and children have already left Crimea for Western Ukraine. It is unlikely they will permanently resettle there, however, as Ukraine has been a net exporter of immigrants for the past two decades because the country lacks economic opportunities.

If a significant portion of the Crimean Tatar population were to leave the region, they would likely go one of two places: the European Union or Turkey.

Turkey is already home to the largest Tatar diaspora population, But it is also currently host to approximately 1 million Syrian refugees, according to the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees. Turkey has also seen a massive increase in the number of asylum applications from non-Syrians over the past two years, severely straining the protection environment set up by the Turkish government in 2011, in response to the beginning of the Syrian conflict.

The EU, especially the economically developed countries, has already attracted immigrants and refugees from all over the world due to the economic opportunities and humanitarian protections, particularly those from Syria and North Africa.

Countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece are the main points of entry into the EU, with many migrants and refugees moving northward into countries like Germany. Likely the Crimean Tatars first stop in the EU would be Romania or Bulgaria, two countries which are even less equipped than Spain or Italy to handle a substantial influx of people. The Tatars would likely move out of Romania and Bulgaria and head to Germany and other more economically developed EU countries just as immigrants/refugees from Syria and North Africa have moved from places like Italy to Germany.

If such a migration of Crimean Tatars were to begin, the crisis in Crimea would become a very immediate problem for the EU and/or Turkey, not just a disagreement on their borders. Ukraine and the Tatars specifically would become part of the larger conversation taking place about how to handle the widespread forced movement of peoples seeking asylum and protection outside of their home countries due to violence and conflict.

This would change how the crisis in Ukraine is viewed by the international community and could prompt more direct action against Russia in order to ensure that the Tatars could remain peacefully in their ancestral homelands.

Kathleen Smith is a legal assistant at a Washington, D.C. area immigration law firm and holds a Master of Arts degree in Political Science from Villanova University. Her email is kathleen.j.smith1453@gmail.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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