United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 1998 - Georgia, 1 January 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8be34.html [accessed 19 February 2018]
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An estimated 275,000 people remained internally displaced in Georgia at the end of 1997. The overwhelming majority were ethnic Georgians displaced from Abkhazia. Some 10,000 ethnic Georgians displaced from South Ossetia remained in government-controlled areas, and about 5,000 people remained displaced within South Ossetia, living in collective centers in Tskhinvali. In addition, some 136 refugees in need of protection were registered with UNHCR at year's end. Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, torn by civil war, were controlled by separatist forces during the year. More than 100,000 refugees from the two upheavals reportedly lived in the Russian Federation. Of this figure, an estimated 35,000 ethnic Ossetian refugees, most displaced from areas under Georgian government control, lived in the neighboring Russian republic of North Ossetia. The largest number of internally displaced lived in the Samegrelo and Imerti regions of western Georgia, adjacent to Abkhazia, followed by Tbilisi. IOM reported in 1997 that more than half of the displaced had found accommodation with relatives. The rest were living in hotels, camps, and other temporary shelters. With few opportunities for regular employment, many of the displaced engage in petty trade or unskilled manual labor. Many children do not attend school. UNHCR reported that living conditions for displaced persons generally improved during 1997, however. Abkhazia Although negotiations in a variety of fora produced no tangible settlement to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict in 1997, the cease fire agreed to in May 1994 generally held, and the pace of return of people displaced from Abkhazia picked up during the year. By the end of 1997, an estimated 53,000 displaced persons had returned to Gali, a region in southern Abkhazia that had been populated almost exclusively by ethnic Georgians before the war. During the spring and summer, according to UNHCR reports, an average of 1,500 people were returning each month. Despite the heightened pace of return to Gali, returnees continued to face security threats from Abkhaz separatist militia and various Abkhaz and Georgian armed groups. In March, member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States expanded the mandate of Russian peace-keeping troops to provide security within the Gali district for returning displaced persons in addition to patrolling the cease-fire line between Abkhazia and Georgia proper. In October, however, the Georgian government accused Russian peace-keeping troops of doing little to enhance security in Gali itself and threatened to demand their withdrawal. Landmines in Gali posed a serious risk to returnees and peace-keeping troops alike and hindered return. Nevertheless, UNHCR shifted the focus of its work during 1997 from providing care and maintenance assistance in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to rehabilitation, citing generally improved conditions for the internally displaced and its desire to support returns. In Abkhazia, UNHCR helped reconstruct houses and public infrastructure, provided agricultural assistance, and distributed household items to vulnerable individuals. However, delays in funding rehabilitation work during the spring and summer, when returns reached their peak, hindered assistance efforts well into the winter months. South Ossetia Although representatives of Georgia and South Ossetia committed themselves to resolving the Georgian-South Ossetian conflict peacefully and agreed to give priority to the return of refugees and displaced persons during 1997, the increasingly positive diplomatic discussions between the two sides yielded few actual refugee and displaced-person returns. South Ossetian separatists reportedly stymied attempts to return ethnic Georgians to South Ossetia during the year and pressed for the return of Ossetian refugees (in neighboring North Ossetia) to South Ossetia rather than to their pre-war homes in areas controlled by the Georgian government. Because squatters had often moved into the houses and apartments that refugees and displaced persons left behind, the unresolved issue of property restitution also impeded returns. During 1997, 68 families repatriated from North Ossetia with UNHCR assistance. An additional 150 families returned spontaneously. Some 380 families also returned to their homes in South Ossetia from collective centers in Tskhinvali. 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 the Soviet authorities during the Stalin era. In December 1996, Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze issued a decree providing for the return of 1,000 Meskhetians annually for a period of five years. However, no Meskhetians repatriated as a result of the decree. Only 40 Meskhetian Turks returned to Georgia in 1997.