Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgian Refugees in Limbo

Georgian refugees find themselves cold-shouldered and marooned in a demoralising exile.
By Yuli Kharashvili

Most have no permanent work, live in shabby accommodation and have become national scapegoats.

The lives of nearly 300,000 Georgian refugees have improved little since they were forced to flee the south Ossetian and Abkhazian conflicts in the early nineties.

Initial sympathy for the waves of refugees has given way to indifference and hostility. Georgians regard them as alien people with special privileges who 'steal' jobs and homes. Refugees are blamed for everything from the filthy state of towns to the lack of work and Georgia's defeat in Abkhazia.

At the same time, the displaced have jealously guarded their own identity, married amongst themselves and discouraged their children from mixing with local people.

The refugees' ghettoised existence has led to the establishment of parallel systems of administration, education and health. Their communal centres have become little islands, isolated from each other, where people try to preserve elements of their former way of life and value systems.

The idea of 'integration' is unpopular today and government refugee policy, geared towards unconditional return, has made it harder to fully absorb the refugees.

Legislation was introduced in 1996 granting them special privileges. These included a 12-lari ($6) monthly stipend for those living outside communal centres and 11 lari for residents of such centres. In addition, free medical care is given to pensioners and war veterans as well as children and young teenagers.

But these privileges have not done much to improve the refugees' dismal prospects. They were unable to vote in local elections in 1998, despite protests from international organisations and elections observers. Most have no permanent employment. They survive on casual work, mainly as poorly paid petty traders. Their accommodation is poor - I personally saw a family of three living in a tiny street kiosk - and communal centres are inadequately resourced.

Conditions are particularly bad in western Georgia where refugees expelled from Abkhazia in 1998 have swollen towns and villages in the Zugdidi district. Displaced people now outnumber locals in many places. In villages such as Orsantia, Shamgona, Akhali, there has been a sharp deterioration in social and economic conditions. Abkhaz fighters have launched raids into the areas more than once heightening smouldering tensions.

Women have born the brunt of the refugee burden - and are amongst the most traumatized group of displaced people. They worry about how their families will survive and try to help them adapt to their new circumstances. Most rehabilitation programmes focus on women, leaving men on the sidelines and reducing still further their chances of integrating into society.

Prospects for the younger people are better. Many have gone to college, made new friends and want to break out of the limited social circle they live in at present. But they struggle to settle, as parents and teachers pressure them into viewing Abkhazia as their home. Such is the desire to go back that refugees were not upset by their exclusion from the 1998 poll because they saw the move as a sign that they would soon be returning to their homeland.

But prospects of the refugees realising their dream are slim. Numerous UN Security Council resolutions and decisions have done little to facilitate repatriation. Many of those who have tried to go back of their own accord have been disappointed. Refugees who returned to their villages in the Gali district of Abkhazia were driven out again when fighting erupted in 1998.

The lack of progress in repatriating the refugees has left them disorientated and demoralized.

Such is their desperation that displaced people in western Georgia have acquired a reputation for turning up at any protest that might somehow improve their living conditions. They've also sought to exert influence over attempts to resolve the Abkhaz conflict. But refugee congresses charged with the task have come up with few constructive proposals - only rhetoric.

Yulia Kharashvili is the President of the Association of Refugee and Forced Migrant Women in Tbilisi