United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1997 - Georgia, 1 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8bc16.html [accessed 28 July 2016]
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An estimated 285,000 people remained internally displaced in Georgia at the end of the year. In December 1996, the Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation reported that there were 272,359 internally displaced persons in territory held by the Georgian government. Of these, 261,052 were from the Abkhazia region, and another 10,897 were from South Ossetia. The South Ossetian Committee on Migration and Nationalities reported that another 12,951 displaced persons lived in areas outside government control in South Ossetia (UNHCR has not verified this number). No figures were available for displaced persons within Abkhazia. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been torn by civil war, remained under the control of separatist forces during the year. More than 105,000 refugees from the two upheavals reportedly lived in the Russian Federation. According to UNHCR, the largest concentration of displaced persons in Georgia in 1996 was in Samegrelo, which hosted 123,538 persons. The second largest was in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, with 74,692. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in May that most displaced persons in Georgia were living in hotels, camps, and other temporary shelters, and that many lacked regular heat, electricity, and running water. HRW further reported that some aid workers believed that widespread starvation would have occurred among displaced persons had it not been for large-scale humanitarian assistance from the international community. Abkhazia Displaced persons returned to Abkhazia slowly, when at all, in 1996. Abkhazia's pre-war population was mostly composed of ethnic Georgians, with only about 17 percent of the population ethnic Abkhaz. During the fighting, both Georgian and Abkhaz forces engaged in "ethnic cleansing." Since the conflict, most ethnic Abkhaz have returned, but most ethnic Georgians have not. The Abkhaz authorities have stifled return with arbitrary restrictions and documentation requirements, according to HRW. Continued violence at the hands of the Abkhaz separatist militia and various Abkhaz and Georgian armed groups some of it officially condoned has also deterred potential returnees. In the Gali region, where an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 people have spontaneously returned, returnees have encountered abuses ranging from intimidation to murder, torture, and the burning of their homes. HRW described the human rights monitoring and nonpartisan policing in the area as "woefully inadequate," although UNHCR reported that CIS peacekeeping forces stepped up their presence in Gali in 1996. As many as 700,000 landmines scattered through the Gali and Zugdidi regions and in the Gumista Valley have exacerbated the danger to returnees. The mines have also hampered UNHCR's assistance efforts. On November 23, Abkhaz officials held parliamentary elections despite UN warnings that the polls could spark renewed violence and that the nearly half of Abkhazia's pre-war population displaced from the region could not vote. In response to the planned Abkhaz election, Georgia organized a plebiscite of Abkhaz refugees and internally displaced persons concerning their support for elections in Abkhazia while large numbers of people remained displaced outside the region and before Georgia's territorial integrity had been restored. According to Georgia's Central Election Commission, 99 percent of refugees and displaced persons polled at stations set up in Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Belarus, and in the Turkish city of Trabzon opposed the Abkhaz elections. Out of 238,000 refugees and displaced persons eligible to vote, 224,800 participated, according to press reports. Although the Abkhaz authorities continued to refuse to allow the return of displaced persons, conditions that might make return possible improved somewhat. In addition to a strengthened CIS peacekeeping presence, in December 1996, the United Nations opened a human rights office in Abkhazia with the goal of protecting the human rights of the population of Abkhazia as well as ensuring the safe return of refugees and displaced persons. An unprecedented communique issued in December by Georgian and Abkhaz officials confirmed both sides' intention to resolve the dispute peacefully. The December talks included the issue of the return of displaced persons to Abkhazia, and the possibility that the return might begin as early as January 1997. However, on December 25, the Abkhaz foreign minister linked the return of displaced persons to economic conditions, saying that no return would be possible until Russian sanctions against Abkhazia were lifted. South Ossetia Despite the presence of a joint Georgian-Russian-Ossetian peacekeeping force, sporadic violence and lawlessness continued to deter the return of South Ossetian refugees in the Russian Federation as well as approximately 20,000 displaced people, overwhelmingly ethnic Georgian, to the breakaway region of South Ossetia. In December 1996, Georgia's foreign minister said that Russia's renunciation of a cooperation agreement between South Ossetia and the Russian Federation republic of North Ossetia had cleared the way for a resumption of Georgian-Ossetian talks. The minister said he expected the talks to begin in January 1997. Meskhetian Turks Although Georgia's 1993 migration law provides for the right of repatriation, public opposition deterred the return of Meskhetian Turks, who were deported en masse to Central Asia by Soviet authorities during the Stalin era. Despite the Georgian government's public support for the Meskhetian Turks to return, it had not developed repatriation plans or identified any communities willing to accept returnees. A parliamentary committee established to deal with the issue had not acted by year's end.