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Georgia: Shelter From the Storm

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Yet again in the Caucasus, the internally displaced are being treated as pawns in a game without rules.

by TOL 4 February 2011

Historically, the Caucasus has been a place of displaced people, but that is no reason to pass off the recent protests by internal refugees in Georgia as just another mini-crisis.

On the other hand, neither should the affair over Georgian authorities' decision to move refugees out of Tbilisi into more permanent housing in villages be overblown. The people evicted on 20 January - some of them made homeless in the 2008 war with Russia, others much earlier, in the early 1990s when Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke away from Tbilisi - were squatters who moved into a number of buildings in Tbilisi after the 2008 conflict. Out of about 1,500 people that were told to leave, only a few dozen families chose to accept the distant housing offered by the government, with most going instead to stay with relatives or friends, EurasiaNet reported. They are completely in their rights to demand that the state house or compensate them, but as the UNHCR pointed out, the housing rights of internal refugees do not extend to choice of location.

The UN refugee agency broadly backed the authorities on this, saying in a statement that the relocations were conducted in a more proper manner than those that took place last summer, when UNHCR joined the Georgian ombudsman and others in raising concerns about the authorities' handling of those evictions. In a statement released on 3 February the agency admitted that displaced people may experience serious hardships as a result of relocations or evictions but said it had noted no major violations of international law or standards relating to the latest round of evictions.

A group of Georgian NGOs differed, though. In a counter-statement they backed last week's Amnesty International denunciation of the evictions. AI said, "the authorities failed to give adequate prior notice to those evicted, to ensure that all those eligible were provided with financial assistance prior to their removal, and to give full and unhindered access to monitors. Not all the alternative housing offered to those evicted by the government fully meets the adequate housing standards."

Sometimes overlooked in these absolutely necessary debates involving a few hundred people is the stark reality that many thousands of displaced people are living in Georgia and neighboring territories - victims of the wars in the early 1990s and in 2008 who may well never again see their old homes. They are Georgian-speakers once resident in Abkhazia (where they used to constitute the majority) and South Ossetia; and Abkhaz and Ossetians forced out of Georgia proper, many of whom tried to rebuild their lives in Russia.

And Georgia is saddled with another, old refugee issue, not of its making: the return of the Meskhetian Turks deported to Central Asia by Stalin during World War II. Tbilisi, with U.S. backing, says it is willing to accept tens of thousands of Meskhetian Turks, a hugely expensive undertaking for which no funding has yet been found.

Georgia, of course, is not the only state in the Caucasus with hugely difficult, expensive, and potentially disruptive refugee problems. Streams of Chechens flee that republic every month headed for Russia or Europe. Questions of refugee return and compensation for lost property make up one of the biggest obstacles to solving the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict; in both countries, displaced people from Karabakh and nearby number in the hundreds of thousands. Not only is it hard to find the wherewithal in strapped budgets to house and care adequately for those numbers of people, there is a giant reluctance to do so because that would be, in effect, to admit that such people are really permanent residents who lack the basics for a normal life.

Several thousand Georgians displaced from South Ossetia in 2008 now live in small, spare, but adequate houses built with German aid. Several families last year told visitors that isolation was their biggest concern. One of the housing tracts sits in a field near Gori, another more appealing one is on the outskirts of town. Residents of the larger tract, in the field, are dependent on minibus transport for all but basic shopping or to look for work in Gori or Tbilisi. The children go to school in the compound but there is nothing else to do, nowhere to go on foot or by bike.

Before the refugee wounds become incurable cancers, the Georgian government can take several steps to at least improve the refugees' odds of earning money and putting down new roots. A one-time payment for those who choose not to live in state centers can be offered (this is supposed to be a choice for the IDPs from the 2008 conflict). Efforts should be made to allow families now living in Tbilisi and other cities to remain there, because that is where the work is. The Georgians should talk to South Ossetia and Abkhazia on easing travel restrictions and compensating those whose properties were stolen. That may be the hardest thing all, and the most necessary.

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