Georgia Urged to Ease School Rules for Meskhetians
The change of government in Georgia has not improved the situation for those children from the Meskhetian ethnic group who are denied access to free schooling.
The education bar affects children whose parents moved to Georgia by themselves rather than through the official repatriation scheme, which grants rights to enter state schools.
Around 100,000 Meskhetians, a Muslim, Turkish-speaking group from southwestern Georgia, were deported to Central Asia in 1944. They were among several ethnic groups including the Chechens, the Volga Germans and the Crimean Tatars whom Joseph Stalin ordered to be removed en masse because he suspected them of disloyalty.
Unlike most other groups, the Meskhetians were not allowed to go home after Stalin’s death in 1953. Ethnic clashes in Uzbekistan in 1989 prompted some who lived there to emigrate to Turkey, while others went to Russia, Kazakstan and Azerbaijan.
In 1999, the government of independent Georgia promised to allow the Meskhetians to settle there, but it did not enact a law to allow this until 2007. It was this delay that prompted some to move to Georgia under their own steam, but as a result many of them are yet to acquire legal status.
Hundreds of Meskhetians who joined the official return scheme now have “repatriate” status, which puts them on the fast track to acquiring citizenship and other rights, and more than 5,000 applications are pending.
Instructions issued in January 2012 by the then education minister, Dmitry Shashkin, say children who are not Georgian nationals cannot attend state schools unless they pay a fee. This excludes Meskhetians who have not yet acquired a passport.
“Families [which] for various reasons lack repatriate status are not citizens of Georgia,” said Tsira Meskhishvili, who deals with Meskhetian issues at the Tolerant charity. “They live in difficult economic circumstances and for them [the fee] is an incredibly large sum, which they just can’t pay.”
Gulsara Nazirova’s parents, for example, cannot afford to pay, but she still goes to school in the southwestern town of Akhaltsikhe thanks to the kindness of the headmaster there.
A parliamentary election in October brought a radical change of government in Georgia, but hopes that the new administration would change the law have not materialised, and Shashkin’s instructions remain in force.
Meskhishvili has raised the matter with the new government just as she did repeatedly with the old one’s education ministry, but has yet to hear back.
In a statement to IWPR, the education ministry said it was aware of the problem and planned to resolve it soon.
“There are legal problems around the funding of education for Meskhetians who do not have repatriate status or Georgian citizenship,” the statement said. “The education ministry is planning to hold working meetings with various ministries in order to find a way to solve these problems jointly.”
Gocha Natenadze, a lawyer who represents many Meskhetians, argues that the 2012 rule change was unlawful under Georgia’s constitution and was also in breach of a number of international conventions to which the authorities have signed up.
“Children’s right to a basic education is protected by the Georgian constitution. In addition, Georgia has signed the European Convention [on Human Rights] under which everyone has the right to a basic education. By a ministerial decree, children have been denied this right,” he said.
Natenadze would like the regulation to annulled, or else a special exception made for Meskhetian children.
Meskhishvili said that without a rapid solution, the Meskhetians affected might leave Georgia.
“This could have international reverberations, so it would be worth the government’s while taking action,” she said.
Salome Achba is a freelance journalist in Georgia.