U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Georgia
|Publisher||United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants|
|Publication Date||10 June 2002|
|Cite as||United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Georgia , 10 June 2002, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3d04c15130.html [accessed 24 October 2016]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
At the end of 2001, Georgia hosted about 7,900 refugees in need of protection, all of whom were from the neighboring embattled republic of Chechnya in the Russian Federation. According to the government, no asylum claims were pending at year's end.
In addition, more than 264,000 persons remained internally displaced in Georgia at year's end. The overwhelming majority (about 252,200) were ethnic Georgians displaced from Abkhazia, of whom 80,820 (32 percent) originated from Gali and about 52,000 (21 percent) from Sukhumi. Another 12,000 persons remained displaced from South Ossetia.
About 41 percent of Georgia's displaced population (107,629 persons) lived in the Samegrelo region adjacent to Abkhazia. Large numbers of displaced persons also settled in Tbilisi (89,629 persons, or 34 percent), and Imereti (32,433 persons, or 12 percent). About half of the displaced population lived in collective centers and half in private accommodations. The government reported no significant new displacement during the year.
At year's end, about 14,800 refugees from Georgia were registered in the Russian Federation, the majority of whom were ethnic Ossetian refugees displaced from areas under Georgian government control. The refugees lived in the neighboring Russian republic of North Ossetia.
In addition, nearly 6,300 Georgians sought asylum in other industrialized countries in 2001, a 62 percent increase from the 3,900 Georgians who applied for asylum in industrialized countries the previous year.
Despite increasing pressure from the Russian Federation to control what the Russian government termed a hotbed of Chechen terrorism in Georgia's Pankisi Valley, Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze declared in a November radio address that the Chechens there were "not bandits and criminals, but refugees," pledging to continue to support them "as long as they stay on Georgia's territory."
The bulk of Chechen refugees in Georgia fled between October 1999 and January 2000, negotiating treacherous paths through snow-covered mountain passes of the Argun Valley – regularly the target of Russian shelling – to reach the Georgian border.
Because of the difficulty of providing assistance to the remote Shatili border area, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Georgian border officials transferred the initial groups of Chechen refugees by helicopter to Zhinvali and by buses to the Pankisi Valley on the northeast border of Georgia, an area that historically has been home to ethnic Chechens, or "Kists." About 85 percent of the refugees found accommodation in the private homes of friends or relatives in five Pankisi Valley villages – Duisi, Jokolo, Omalo, Khomatsani, and Birkiani.
According to Georgia's Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation, about 4,900 of the 7,882 refugees registered from Chechnya were ethnic Chechens, 2,877 were Kists (i.e., they were ethnic Chechens who could trace their ancestry to the Georgian side of the border), 48 were Georgians, 30 Azeris, 11 Russians, and 13 others. At the end of 2001, about 7,500 of the Chechen refugees were living in the Pankisi Valley and about 400 elsewhere in Georgia.
Although Georgian border officials reportedly continued to allow Chechens to cross into Georgia in 2001, border guards reportedly demanded bribes from refugees attempting to enter. The Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation granted the Chechens refugee status on a prima facie basis, provided that they remained within the Pankisi Valley. The government issued them refugee identification documents. In 2001, about 80 percent of the refugees living in the Pankisi Valley resided with local families. The remainder either lived in collective centers or occupied the abandoned homes of ethnic Ossets. Most of the refugees living outside the Pankisi Valley rented private residences. Georgia conducted no individual refugee status determinations of Chechen asylum seekers in 2001.
Since the August 2000 kidnapping of three International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) aid workers delivering food in the Pankisi Valley, international humanitarian organizations have provided only sporadic aid to refugees in the Pankisi Valley and have curtailed international staff in the area, relying instead on local staff. Chechen sources claimed that an outbreak of viral hepatitis threatened refugees in the Pankisi Valley late in the year, but international humanitarian agencies were not able to provide medicines that might prevent an epidemic.
Tensions continued to grow between the Chechens/Kists in the Pankisi Valley and the non-Kist Georgians living in the vicinity. Georgians accused the Chechens and Kists of criminal activities, including drug smuggling, cattle rustling, and hostage taking. A series of abductions and counter-abductions in the Kakheti region near the Pankisi Valley escalated into near-open conflict between vigilante groups in July, but an all-out violent confrontation was averted through negotiations involving community elders and warlords. In his weekly radio address, President Shevardnadze called on Kists and ethnic Georgians in Kakheti to be patient, acknowledging that thousands of "refugees from Chechnya live in a small gorge and this, obviously, exacerbates the situation and changes the established traditions of coexistence." He appealed to Kists and ethnic Georgians for calm, saying, "We are seriously working on the plans for the social and economic development of the Pankisi gorge and adjacent villages."
In October, fighting reportedly broke out in the Kodori Gorge between Chechen guerrillas and troops of the secessionist Abkhaz region.
Abkhaz separatists won control of Abkhazia and expelled some 300,000 ethnic Georgians from the province in 1993. After a May 1994 cease-fire, up to 60,000 displaced ethnic Georgians returned to Abkhazia. About 53,000 returned to their homes in the Gali district, which had been populated almost exclusively by ethnic Georgians before the war. For many, the return to Gali was short-lived. In May 1998, tens of thousands were displaced again when fighting resumed in Gali.
Another return movement occurred in 2000, involving an estimated 60,000 persons, but their situation appeared to be tenuous, and this population remained registered as displaced persons. Some returned to the Gali area to plant and harvest their crops, but not to live. The lack of a political settlement and ongoing instability deterred the displaced from returning to their homes in 2001. On October 8, a UNOMIG (UN Observer Mission in Georgia) helicopter was shot down over the Kodori Gorge, killing nine. UNHCR suspended all activities in the Abkhazia region, and had not resumed its operations by year's end.
UNHCR had no staff in Gali for security reasons and was unable to monitor population movement to and from Abkhazia and Georgia-proper. The refugee agency reported, however, that movement appeared to continue between Gali and Zugdidi, mostly during planting and harvesting times.
In July, the ICRC reported that many in Abkhazia were totally dependent on humanitarian assistance. "Over a third of ICRC's 22,000 beneficiaries – sick, elderly and destitute people and children – would starve without this assistance," the agency reported. The ICRC also noted that "the spectre of a major public health catastrophe looms as water and sewage systems are nearing breakdown, especially in urban areas."
In January 2001, the UN secretary general's representative on internally displaced persons, Francis Deng, reported that "conditions of insecurity are the overriding obstacle to return" in Georgia. Among the factors he cited as deterring return to Abkhazia were high levels of criminal activity, "tit-for-tat abductions," ambush attacks, kidnappings for ransom, attempted robberies involving killings, and looting and harassment on ethnic grounds.
Deng observed that internally displaced persons in Georgia (both from Abkhazia and South Ossetia) suffer various forms of discrimination, including being prevented by law from voting in parliamentary or municipal elections in the districts in which they are living and from owning land (unless they register as permanent residents in their place of refuge, thereby losing their status as internally displaced persons, and, implicitly, the benefits attached to that status).
Ethnic conflict in South Ossetia during 1991 and 1992 also produced tens of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons. Although Georgians and South Ossetians have committed themselves to facilitating the return of refugees and displaced persons, in practice, both sides have created obstacles to return, which remained in place in 2001. While no new displacement occurred in 2001, few displaced persons returned home. Between 1997 and the end of 2001, fewer than 400 Ossetian refugee families (about 1,400 people) repatriated from Russia's North Ossetia to South Ossetia. Of these, 25 families returned during the year (down from 59 families in 2000, and 239 families in 1999).
During the year, South Ossetian separatists did little to support the return of internally displaced ethnic Georgians to South Ossetia, and no progress was made either toward resolving the underlying conflict or restoring the property rights of displaced persons. Consequently, not only did few ethnic Georgians return to South Ossetia during the year, but some displaced people who had previously returned to their homes fled again in 2001 to their previous places of temporary refuge.
The Georgian government, in turn, did not implement proactive measures to help ethnic Ossetians return to their homes in other areas of Georgia. Local officials generally did not evict illegal squatters who had taken over apartments of ethnic Ossetian refugees and displaced persons.
Assistance and Solutions for the Internally Displaced
While the report by the UN secretary general's representative on internally displaced persons called for addressing the root causes of internal displacement in Georgia and emphasized return, the report also noted the "politicization of the plight of internally displaced persons" in Georgia, and called for recognition of the right of the displaced "to pursue alternatives to return, that is, resettlement in another part of the country."
During the year, the Georgian government, with funding and technical assistance from UNHCR, the UN Development Program, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the World Bank, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, tried to implement a Georgia Self-Reliance Fund designed to integrate displaced people into mainstream Georgian society. By year's end, however, the $1.2 million program had not approved any projects (two were approved in early 2002).
Refugees and internally displaced persons were particularly dependent on international humanitarian assistance in 2001, with Georgia's depressed economy leaving more than half of Georgia's citizens living below the poverty level. Although the government has pledged – and is legally obligated – to provide stipends amounting to the equivalent of $6 (13 Georgian lari) per month to internally displaced persons, in practice, the stipends were only available intermittently. Deng's report noted that internally displaced persons had not received the monthly stipend at all during the five months preceding his mission.
Georgia signed the UN Refugee Convention in August 1999, after passing a national Law on Refugees in 1998. Under the law, the Refugee Department within Georgia's Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation is authorized to register asylum seekers and conduct status determinations. However, the Refugee Department has reportedly processed few asylum applications, recognizing only four asylum seekers from outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as refugees since 1998, and processing no applications during 2000 or 2001. UNHCR recognized one family (six persons) as refugees in 2001, and resettled them in Norway.
During 2001, no refugee claims were adjudicated. Three cases (two Iranians and one Afghan) were rejected as manifestly unfounded, and did not receive a merits adjudication.
The Law on Refugees replaced legislation that had enabled returning Meskhetian Turks – who were deported en masse to Central Asia during the Stalin era – to legalize their stay in Georgia. Of nearly 280,000 formerly deported Meskhetians from Georgia, thousands fled persecution or were expelled a second time from Central Asia at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union and were living as stateless persons in Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere in the CIS.
Although President Shevardnadze issued a decree in 1999 to begin the process of Meskhetian repatriation within three years, on February 5, 2001, he told a press conference that implementation of the plan would take ten years. He suggested that it would not be reasonable to repatriate the Meskhetian Turks to Georgia, given the current situation in the country. Although Georgian authorities had drafted a law for the rehabilitation of people deported during the 1940s, the law had not been enacted by the end of 2001. The vast majority of Meskhetians continued to face official and public opposition to their return. Of the 644 Meskhetians living in Georgia who lost their legal status in 1998, 32 remained without Georgian citizenship at year's end.