EASTERN EUROPE • Internally displaced people in Georgia, between integration and longing for return

On the 1st of June 2017, Georgia eventually succeeded in making the United Nations General Assembly adopt a resolution that it had presented every year for the last ten years. Resolution 71/290 states that Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Georgia should be allowed to come back to their region of origin, it be Abkhazia or South Ossetia. It condemns the closing of the exit and entrance points at the borders of the secessionist regions, which are guarded by Russian military forces. This closing prevents the international community from helping displaced people who wish to resettle there.

The resolution is based on the right to freedom of movement, but its implications are deeply political. Affirming the freedom of movement of IDPs is to refuse the settling of borders and of separatist institutions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia; it equals to a refusal of their independence and an affirmation of the territorial unity of Georgia. It is also a way for Georgia to gain support from the international community against Russia’s imperialism. Indeed, Russia’s support of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence is part of its regional strategy: occupy these regions and gain power over the south of the Caucasus.

In this complex regional situation, internally displaced people from secessionist regions are facing more and more problems in Georgia. Uncertainty about the secessionist territories’ future, which has now lasted for more than twenty years, is uncertainty about the future of a population of 250,000. The political status quo lets displaced people in a difficult in-between integration and longing for return.

Georgian policies towards IDPs

IDPs represent 6.5% of the 4 million inhabitants of Georgia. Broadly speaking, they are issued from two generations of exile. The first wave of displacement was caused by the conflict of the post-sovietic era, when the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, backed by the Russians, fought for independence in 1993-95. Abkhazians, Ossetians and Georgians leaving in those regions and opposed to a secession were forced to flee to Tbilisi, the capital, and to other parts of Georgia.

The 164 000 exiled people were never called refugees nor given this status by the government, for it would have meant recognizing the international border with the secessionist regions. On the contrary, the Georgian government assumed it would regain control over these territories, so IDPs were not supposed to be displaced for long. As a result, they were settled in collective centres or in informal camps such as the famous Radisson Hotel, in centre Tbilisi. No specific policy of integration has been led since, except housing of certain families in buildings that are today far from being decent places to live.

The so-called “second generation” of IDPs in Georgia is issued from the 2008 war, when Russia occupied South Ossetia to support the independence of the region, under Prime Minister Medvedev. The Russian army came into Georgia until a distance of 15 km from Tbilisi, south of Ossetia. The war didn’t last long but caused the human displacement of 128 000 people, 42 000 of them who didn’t go back to their homes.

There, the government gave up the rhetoric of return of IDPs. It called newly displaced people “homeless people”, and not displaced; and it gathered a quick and rather efficient humanitarian aid. Specifically, it hasted the building of 4095 houses along the road from Tbilisi to Gori. This new rhetoric was part of another strategy. As the conflict settled, the Georgian government preferred to show that the secessionist territories are no longer places worth living in, and tried to attract Abkhazians and Ossetians in Georgia. Georgia has lost a fifth of its population since its independence and it tries to foster a demographic increase to sustain its economic growth. Another reason for this state-led humanitarian aid was to make the situation of IDPs visible to the international community, show that the Georgian government could handle the situation, and finally to gain political support. As a result, it effectively attracted global funds. But in its will to react in a cheap and fast manner, it neglected the quality of housing which has proven to be not long-lasting. It also hasted so much the resettling that some people had to go back from Tbilisi to Gori in a place that was not yet liveable, an informal camp on the main square of the town without sanitation.

Social marginalization of IDPs

Today, one of the most important problem faced by IDPs is housing. A good part of IDPs of the first generation still live in collective centres which are more than 25 years old and are not decent anymore. Privatization policies result in the expelling of families from old buildings, without new possibilities of housing. In the suburbs of Tbilisi, those centres have a scarce access to electricity. In February 2017, a protest broke in Zougdigi, a city close to Abkhazia. People sew their mouths in protest because the homes where they live are still precarious and threaten to fall apart. The government states that the most affected people should be given a house first, but this leads to a strong feeling of injustice. This feeling is also caused by the difference of treatment between IDPs of the first and second generation, the latter having had access to housing far more easily.

Along with the inadequacy of housing, the lack of specific employment policies for IDPs increase their social marginalization. In a country where the unemployment rate is around 16%, IDPs face more trouble than others to find a job. As a result, “IDPs have the same rights than Georgians but live in far more miserable conditions”, says the responsible for a NGO providing humanitarian support to displaced people , head of the NGO “Consent” which acts with IDP communities.

Longing for an impossible return

A 2017 UNHCR-led survey found that 88% of IDPs of this generation are still longing for return, be it youngsters as well as older people. The narrative of return is indeed very present in communities living in those conditions. Unfortunately, concrete possibilities seem very low.

More than 20 years after the first conflict, the line between the secessionist territories is still closed. In South Ossetia, Russia regularly pushes the front line further into the Georgian territory – it again gained a hundred meters of territory just three weeks ago. IDPs are people who have fled from secessionist regions and in this situation of tension, they are clearly not welcome back.  The resolution adopted in June 2017 is supposed to facilitate the resettlement of IDPs to the secessionist regions, but the impact of the international community’s support to Georgia is still to be proved.

Article written by Cloé CHASTEL


UNGA Resolution 71/290 – General Assembly Adopts Resolution Recognizing Right of Return for Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons in Georgia, No Matter Their Ethnicity https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/ga11919.doc.htm

Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, « Réfugié ou déplacé ? Les enjeux d’une requalification : l’exemple de la Géorgie après la guerre de 2008 », Revue européenne des migrations internationales [En ligne], vol. 26 – n°3 | 2010, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2013, consulté le 17 juillet 2017. URL : http://remi.revues.org/5240 ; DOI : 10.4000/remi.5240

Amnesty International Report, In the Waiting Room: Internally Displaced People in Georgia, EUR 56/002/2010.

UNHCR News, “After 23 years, still hoping for a better future”, 30/06/2015 http://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2015/6/559166596/23-years-still-hoping-better-future.html

Joyce, Stephanie, “Stuck in Limbo, Yearning for a place to call home”, NPR, 29/05/2017. http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/05/29/529164167/uprooted-by-conflict-stuck-in-limbo-yearning-for-a-place-to-call-home

BORDZIKASHVILI, Sulkhan, “Newborn hospitalised due to living conditions in Tbilisi IDP settlement », OC Media, 01/03/2017 http://oc-media.org/newborn-hospitalised-due-to-living-conditions-in-tbilisi-idp-settlement/

“IDPs in Georgia: still waiting for a better life”, Caucasus edition, 01/11/2013. http://caucasusedition.net/analysis/idps-in-georgia-still-waiting-for-better-life/


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