At the end of 1999, Georgia hosted about 5,200 refugees in need of protection. These included 5,168 from neighboring Chechnya who arrived during the second half of the year, and about 20 refugees of other nationalities registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
There were also about 280,000 internally displaced persons in Georgia at year's end. The overwhelming majority (266,000) were ethnic Georgians displaced from Abkhazia, about one third from the Gali district. The rest about 14,000 persons were displaced from South Ossetia. Of these, about 10,000 ethnic Georgians displaced from South Ossetia lived in government-controlled areas and about 4,000 persons remained displaced within South Ossetia. About two percent of Abkhazia's displaced were ethnic Jews, Ukrainians, Greeks, Abkhaz, Armenians, or Russians.
Some 42 percent of Georgia's displaced population lived in the Samegrelo region adjacent to Abkhazia, followed by Tbilisi (31 percent), and the Imereti region (13 percent). No significant new displacement or returns took place during the year.
The Russian Federation registered 27,993 refugees from Georgia in 1999, the overwhelming majority ethnic Ossetian refugees most displaced from areas under Georgian government control living in the neighboring Russian republic of North Ossetia. According to UNHCR, another 10,000 unregistered refugees from Georgia were living in Russia during the year.
Although most of those driven from their homes by the Russian army's renewed offensive in Chechnya became internally displaced within the Russian Federation, almost 5,200 Chechens fled to neighboring Georgia during the last months of the year, becoming refugees.
Fleeing Chechens had to negotiate treacherous paths through snow-covered mountain passes, regularly the target of Russian shelling, to reach the Georgian border. Although Georgian border police permitted Chechen women, children, and elderly men to enter Georgia, they regularly turned back younger Chechen men, reportedly to dispel the Russian perception that Georgia was offering safe haven to Chechen guerrillas.
Local media reported that Georgian authorities refused to admit a group of 139 Chechen asylum seekers on December 22, saying that Georgia was unable to admit any more refugees. On December 24, Russian troops reportedly deployed to a section of the Chechen-Georgian border, stanching the flow of fleeing Chechens to Georgia.
By year's end, the Georgian Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation had registered 5,168 refugees from Chechnya. Most were staying in the Pankisi Valley in northeastern Georgia, where a community of assimilated ethnic Chechens has lived since the 18th century. Some 88 percent of the refugees found accommodation in the private homes of friends or relatives, while the remaining 12 percent resided in communal centers refurbished by UNHCR. UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were providing the refugees basic assistance at year's end.
Negotiations in several forums failed to settle the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict in 1999.
Abkhaz separatists won control of Abkhazia and expelled some 300,000 ethnic Georgians from the province in 1993. A tenuous cease-fire signed in May 1994, backed by Russian peacekeeping forces representing the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), had helped some 50,000 to 70,000 displaced ethnic Georgians to return to Abkhazia by the beginning of 1998. Of these, about 53,000 displaced persons had returned to their homes in the Gali district, which had been populated almost exclusively by ethnic Georgians before the war.
However, in May 1998, instability in Gali deteriorated into open warfare between Abkhaz separatist militia and Georgian armed groups, and at one point, between Abkhaz fighters and Georgian units sent to help returning displaced persons cross the Inguri River. Abkhaz militia swept through southern Gali, burning homes, killing livestock, destroying refurbished infrastructure, and displacing once more almost all of the ethnic Georgian returnees.
Despite the lack of security, an estimated 17,000 of those expelled in May returned again to Gali soon after the fighting abated. Although some internally displaced persons from Gali reportedly traveled back and forth between their property in Gali and Georgia proper during 1999, no significant returns took place.
Ethnic conflict in South Ossetia during 1991 also created tens of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons. Although Georgians and South Ossetians have committed themselves to facilitate the return of refugees and displaced persons, in practice both sides have created obstacles to return, which remained in place in 1999.
South Ossetian separatists blocked attempts to return ethnic Georgians to South Ossetia and pressed for the return of Ossetian refugees (from neighboring North Ossetia) to South Ossetia rather than to their pre-war homes in areas controlled by the Georgian government.
The Georgian government, in turn, did little to help ethnic Ossetians return to their homes in other areas of Georgia. Local officials reportedly failed to evict illegal squatters who had taken over apartments of ethnic Ossetian refugees and displaced persons. Returning Ossetian refugees and internally displaced persons seeking judicial support to reclaim their homes were usually denied by Georgian courts. Those who did manage to obtain judicial eviction orders often found that local officials were unwilling or unable to enforce them.
Between 1997 and the end of 1999, 360 Ossetian refugee families (1,239 people) had repatriated from Russia's North Ossetia, most to South Ossetia. Only 138 Ossetian refugees repatriated from Russia to South Ossetia in 1999. During the year, an additional 101 ethnic Ossetian refugees repatriated from Russia to Georgia proper.
Few internally displaced ethnic Georgians returned to South Ossetia in 1999. By year's end, only 170 displaced ethnic Georgian families had returned to South Ossetia.
Although Georgia has not acceded to the UN Refugee Convention or Protocol, it adopted a national refugee law in February 1998. The Law on Refugees replaced provisions in Georgia's constitution for granting asylum and stripped more than 300 previously recognized refugees and 400 formerly deported Meskhetian Turks of their legal status.
Under the law, the Refugee Department within Georgia's Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation registers asylum seekers and conducts status determinations. The Refugee Department reportedly processed only two asylum applications during the year, although 20 refugees were registered with UNHCR in 1999.
The 1998 Law on Refugees also removed 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, thousands fled persecution or were expelled a second time from Central Asia and were living as stateless persons in Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere in the CIS. Because Georgia's Law on Refugees provided the Meskhetians no legal status or state assistance, returning Meskhetians, and some former refugees, were at risk of becoming stateless and destitute.
On March 14, however, Georgian president Shevardnadze issued a decree establishing a special commission on Meskhetian repatriation. In connection with its accession to the Council of Europe on April 27, Georgia agreed to begin the process of Meskhetian repatriation within three years.