Durable Solutions for the Long-Term Displaced


From Georgia

The history of the South Caucasus region, home to Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, is long and bloody. As the Soviet Union fell apart in the early 1990s, nasty wars erupted in and around Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Today, all three conflicts remain frozen, with minimal progress at the negotiating table. As Georgia’s brief war with Russia over South Ossetia in August 2008 showed, frozen conflicts can turn hot very quickly.

The human cost of these wars was been high. Tens of thousands of people were killed; hundreds of thousands more fled their homes. But if their plight garnered much less attention than it deserved then, it attracts even less now.

Yet their problems have not disappeared over time. Georgia continues to host roughly 250,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs); Azerbaijan has 590,000 of them. (Armenia also received tens of thousands of refugees who fled Azerbaijan, but they have been integrated into Armenian society).

Does their fate matter? On a moral level, the waste of human potential is colossal. On a strategic level, large numbers of displaced people, unable to re-capture their past and without hope for the future, heighten the risk of future conflict.

The countless number of individuals, each with their own tales of bereavement, flight and loss, also have stories of resilience, determination and survival. These are the people whom DRC works to assist. Over the course of September/October 2011, we will be publishing three articles about our work in the South Caucasus to explain how.

Georgia: The long road towards local integration
The heat of summer is stifling, but that is the least of Nino’s worries. A bright-eyed lady in her forties with three teenage children, she lives on the fifth-floor of a former medical laboratory. On the outside, this Soviet relic suffers from broken windows and crumbling masonry. On the inside, nine small apartments share one tap. The lavatory—two toilets for 35 people— is down five flights of stairs in a decrepit wooden shack. The building’s pungent smell, Nino says, gives her regular nausea and headaches. Following exposure to old chemicals that lay abandoned in the basement, one of her sons got sick.

Nino and her family were among 250,000 ethnic Georgians who fled Georgia’s bloody but little noticed war in Abkhazia that ran from 1992-3. Formally, responsibility to help these internally displaced people (IDPs) lies with the government. But reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and grappling with the challenges of its new-found independence, Georgia struggled to cope with this wave of people in need. Disused schools, factories and hospitals sheltered some of them; friends and relatives took in others.
It was a chaotic time, but families like Nino’s drew on their own resilience to rebuild their lives. Yet they never knew how long they would stay. For many years, Georgian politicians argued that the displaced should return to their homes as soon as possible. Helping them settle permanently in the rest of Georgia, they said, would be to give up on their claim to Abkhazia.
In fact, roughly 47,000 people did return to the Gali area of Abkhazia, but with widespread poverty and occasional instability, life there is difficult. The government in Tbilisi recognizes them as temporary migrants who go back to work their land rather than returnees who have chosen to live in Gali permanently. With talks between Tbilisi, Moscow and Sukhumi at a standstill, return elsewhere in Abkhazia is highly unlikely. This left people like Nino in limbo: encouraged to think of returning home, but with no alternative to staying where they are.

DRC opened its first office in Georgia in 1998, repairing the buildings that the displaced people live in, and helping them advocate for their own plight. But those efforts did not cut to the cause of the problem. Real change, DRC, UNHCR and others soon realized, required a shift in government policy. Dreaming of return to Abkhazia while sitting in sub-standard temporary accommodation, people had little incentive to lay down roots. Government subsidies provided a bare minimum to live on, while high levels of unemployment stymied their desire to work. Dependence and passivity made them a burden on the state.

Far better, DRC and others argued, to let people like Nino integrate locally, by giving them a stake in Georgian society. Above all, that means providing better housing, which people can own, and helping them find work. Far from undermining the right of return, this would in fact strengthen it: active, self-reliant people would be better prepared to return to Abkhazia, should they choose to go. In the meantime, they could also contribute to the economy.

Fortunately, following the Rose Revolution of 2003, the government began to take this on board. In 2007, it adopted a State Strategy on Internally Displaced Persons in 2007 that stressed the importance of local integration, without giving up on the right of return.

Yet the road since then has not been smooth. Georgia’s brief war with Russia in August 2008 caused 128,000 more people to flee their homes. Most were able to return home, but roughly 18,000 people remain displaced in Georgia. At first, the government focused on building new settlements to accommodate them in central Georgia in late 2008. But the war also renewed international interest in the plight of those who fled Georgia’s earlier wars. Since then, the government, with substantial backing from foreign donors, has been rehabilitating collective centres and transferring ownership to the residents.

So is there still a need for DRC? Very much so. Persuading government officials to make the right policies is one thing; ensuring they are carried out is another. Suffering from limited resources, the government ministry in charge – the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Refugees and Accommodation – struggles to cater to the varied needs of a quarter of a million people. But rather than create a parallel system, DRC now works to strengthen the ministry’s ability to fulfill its obligations. That means anything from reviewing its human resource management to strengthening the ways it provides information to people like Nino. Add in legal aid to individual families and extensive income generation programs, and DRC has never been busier.

The challenges are many. Despite generous levels of donor funding, particularly from the European Union, the demand for permanent housing far outweighs the current supply. So far, the government has rehabilitated collective centers whose ownership is undisputed: an important start, but more complicated problems remain. What about families living in collective centers that are beyond repair? How should the government help the 55,000 families living in private accommodation? Who gets priority? DRC is helping the ministry resolve all these questions, and many more.

So far, Nino has relied on short-term fixes from foreign organizations to get by. The doors and windows in her flat, for instance, are in relatively good condition. But this is no home. Several times she has applied to the ministry to move elsewhere, but without success. Living in a building that is bad for her health, she clearly deserves new housing. It will take many years of hard work to integrate all of Georgia’s displaced people. But it is a fairer, faster and more effective process for DRC’s help.