Last Updated: Friday, 26 May 2017, 12:39 GMT

U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Georgia

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 June 2003
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Georgia , 1 June 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3eddc4984.html [accessed 27 May 2017]
DisclaimerThis 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.

More than 262,000 persons remained internally displaced in Georgia at year's end. The overwhelming majority (about 249,000) were ethnic Georgians displaced from Abkhazia from 1991 to 1993, of whom about 80,000 originated from the Gali district and about 52,000 from Sukhumi. Since 1998, between 40,000 and 60,000 persons have returned to Gali, while an unknown number migrate between Gali and Zugdidi on a seasonal basis. About another 12,400 persons remained displaced from the South Ossetia region.

About 40 percent of Georgia's internally displaced population (104,000 persons) lived in the Samegrelo region adjacent to Abkhazia. About 92,000 displaced persons, 35 percent of the total, settled in Tbilisi, and 31,000 settled in Imereti. About half of the displaced population lived in collective centers and half in private homes. The government reported no significant new displacement during the year.

In addition, Georgia hosted at least 4,200 refugees in need of protection, all of whom were from the neighboring embattled republic of Chechnya in the Russian Federation. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), no asylum claims were pending at year's end.

During 2002, about 11,400 refugees from Georgia were registered in the Russian Federation, the majority of whom were ethnic Ossetians. They sought protection in the neighboring Russian republic of North Ossetia.

In addition, nearly 8,700 Georgians sought asylum in industrialized countries in 2002, a 38 percent increase from the 6,300 Georgians who applied for asylum the previous year.

Abkhazia

More than 249,000 persons remained internally displaced since Abkhaz separatists won control of Abkhazia and expelled approximately 300,000 ethnic Georgians from the province in 1993. Although a 1994 cease-fire initially enabled up to 60,000 displaced ethnic Georgians to return to their homes, tens of thousands were displaced again when fighting resumed in the Gali district in 1998.

Between 40,000 and 60,000 former residents of Gali have reportedly returned to their homes since 1998, while an unknown number travel there on a seasonal basis to plant and harvest their crops, but not to stay. UNHCR had little access to Gali because the Georgian government was unable to guarantee UNHCR's safety in the region. As such, UNHCR was unable to monitor population movement to and from Abkhazia and Georgia-proper.

Many of the displaced from Abkhazia remain dependent on humanitarian assistance. In January, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) worked with Georgia's Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation (MRA) and Ministry of Health, Labor, and Social Affairs to distribute 115,000 food rations to about 12,000 displaced persons in Zugdidi and neighboring districts.

In early spring, ICRC launched a program to provide food, health, and water-habitat assistance for about 20,000 of the neediest – most of whom were elderly, sick, destitute, or children. ICRC delegates taking part in the food distributions reported being "shocked by the miserable condition of the people requesting their aid." ICRC's relief coordinator in western Georgia said, "even if the national economy were to improve, people like these who are elderly and poor are unlikely to regain self-sufficiency. Today, when we see them line up for help, we are more convinced than ever that there is no other solution than to step in with this support."

Incidents along the demarcation line that separates Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia continued throughout the year and, according to media reports, increased after the United States disclosed plans in February to send military instructors to train the Georgian army as part of the U.S.-led global war on terror.

On March 18, unidentified gunmen abducted four Russian peacekeepers from a checkpoint and released them a few hours later. In an unrelated incident, Russian peacekeepers reportedly fired at civilians living near the demarcation line later in March, according to press reports. In April, Georgian officials reported that one Abkhaz fighter had been killed and two others arrested while attempting to cross the demarcation line into government-held territory.

In response to increased tension between Russia and Georgia, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze – who Russia charged with not doing enough to stem Georgian armed groups in the region – said Georgia would work with Russia to reduce tensions along the demarcation line. "I believe that we have had a more businesslike relationship with the Russian peacekeeping force over the recent past. I also believe that we must maintain such a relationship with Russian peacekeepers as long as they remain on the territory of Abkhazia, on our territory. Regarding incidents such as shootouts, kidnappings, and so on, we can avoid them by joining forces."

Russia's Foreign Ministry rebuffed the overture, however, calling the attacks part of a campaign aimed at "provoking a new armed confrontation in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone," and blaming Shevardnadze for condoning the perpetrators of these and other incidents.

South Ossetia

Conflict between ethnic Georgians and ethnic Ossetians in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia – bordering Russia's North Ossetia – during 1991 and 1992 also produced tens of thousands of refugees (who fled to Russia) and internally displaced persons. At the time, thousands of ethnic Georgians fled their homes in South Ossetia to other regions of Georgia, and thousands of Ossetians in Georgia fled to North Ossetia and South Ossetia. Although Georgians and South Ossetians had committed themselves to facilitating the return of refugees and displaced persons, in practice, both sides have created obstacles to return, which remained in place throughout 2002.

During the year, South Ossetian separatists did little to support the return of internally displaced ethnic Georgians to South Ossetia, and little progress was made either toward resolving the underlying conflict or restoring the property rights of displaced persons. Consequently, few ethnic Georgians return to South Ossetia during the year.

During the year, a Joint Control Commission (JCC, to which UNHCR is an observer) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe adopted a draft Russian-Georgian Interstate Program for "return, accommodation, integration, and reintegration of refugees, displaced persons, and other persons who suffered as a result of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict." The JCC will establish a Russian-Georgian advisory group with participation of representatives from the North Ossetian and South Ossetian interests to assess needs in the area and to seek funding for a return program expected to begin in 2003.

Assistance and Integration for the Displaced

Refugees and internally displaced persons were particularly dependent on international humanitarian assistance in 2002, with more than half of Georgia's citizens living below the poverty level.

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, began the Georgia Self-Reliance Fund to integrate displaced people into society without limiting their right to return when conditions permit.

Chechen Refugees

Georgia's MRA registered 3,900 Chechen refugees living in the Pankisi Valley in 2002. Most were living with local resident "Kists" (ethnic Chechens) whose ancestors came to Georgia during the 19th century and acquired Georgian citizenship. Another 180 Chechen refugees were living in Georgia's capital city, Tbilisi. Georgia has granted them all prima facie refugee status.

The majority of the Chechen refugees fled between October 1999 and January 2000 through treacherous snow-covered mountain passes to 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, UNHCR and Georgian border officials transferred the initial groups of Chechen refugees by helicopter to Zhinvali and by buses to the Pankisi Valley. About 85 percent of the refugees found shelter in the homes of friends or relatives in five Pankisi Valley villages – Duisi, Jokolo, Omalo, Khomatsani, and Birkiani.

Since the Chechens' arrival three years ago, Georgia has protected them, in part because the country's small military did not control the Pankisi Valley. This caused tension between Georgia and Russia, which asserts that Chechen terrorists are based in the Valley. Georgia disputes this, but began policing the Valley in 2002.

Shevardnadze accepted $64 million and military training from the United States to undertake counterterrorism efforts directed in part at rooting out potential Chechen terrorists. The United States stationed some 60 troops in the country to support Georgia's counterterrorism efforts.

Georgia arrested more than 25 Chechens on various criminal charges. In addition, Shevardnadze registered Chechen refugees and, in September, offered to allow unarmed Russian military observers to enter the valley to observe the operations. Russia sent observers to the valley, and continued to link the Russian conflict in Chechnya – and Chechens in Georgia – to the global war on terror.

In early October, Shevardnadze said the police sweep had ended, but government officials later said that the operation would continue for "a few more months."

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), some of the government's operations directed at Chechens during the year were "arbitrary and brutal." In late March, for example, Georgia's Security Ministry detained Islam Saidaev and Zurab Khangoshvili – two Georgian ethnic Chechens working with refugees in the Pankisi Valley – on suspicion of association with Al Qaeda based on evidence HRW said was inadequate. "The ministry secured their pre-trial detention for three months by falsifying the date of their arrest, to avoid their compulsory release under habeas corpus deadlines. They were released in June, but the investigation continued," HRW reported. HRW also questioned whether the authorities were responsible for the September 25 disappearance of Chechen refugee Hussein Yussupov while in Security Ministry detention. Yussupov's fate was unknown at year's end.

Because of insecurity and kidnappings in the Pankisi Valley, UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) work primarily through local partners to provide food and material assistance to host families in the Valley. In addition to food aid, UNHCR and NRC staff run a pre-school program for Chechen refugee children and a community center that provides English classes, computer training, cooking, sewing, and other vocational and recreational activities to Chechens in the Valley. UNHCR temporarily suspended its activities in August, citing heightened tensions between Russia and Georgia, but had resumed them by year's end.

Georgia did not conduct any individual status determinations for Chechens during the year. However, UNHCR referred one Chechen case for emergency resettlement, which was accepted by Sweden. UNHCR did not assist in the return of any Chechens to the Russian Federation during the year, nor were any reported to have been deported by the government.

Asylum

Georgia passed a national Law on Refugees in 1998 and signed the UN Refugee Convention in August 1999. Under the law, the Refugee Department within Georgia's MRA 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 between 2000 and the end of 2002.

Meskhetian Turks

Georgia continued to oppose the return of some 280,000 Meskhetian Turks – who were deported en masse from southern Georgia to Central Asia during the Stalin era. 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.

When Georgia joined the Council of Europe in 1999, the government agreed to pass a bill to repatriate the Meskhetian Turks over a period of several years. President Shevardnadze issued a decree in 1999 to begin a ten-year, phased Meskhetian repatriation beginning within three years, but it had not begun by the end of 2002.

In July, Georgian Foreign Minister Irakly Menagarishvili said that even though the parliament had drafted a bill on repatriation of Meskhetian Turks to Georgia, large-scale repatriation would not begin in the near future.

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