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Meskhetians Struggle to Find Place in Georgia
The Khurashvili family live in an abandoned bus as they have never found proper accommodation since moving to Georgia in the 1980s. (Photo: Salome Achba)
The Khurashvilis are Meskhetians, members of a minority which Stalin deported wholesale in the 1940s. (Photo: Salome Achba)
The government is now helping other Meskhetians to move to Georgia, but it does not support them financially. (Photo: Salome Achba)
While the Georgian government is fulfilling a pledge to allow the Meskhetians, descendants of an ethnic group deported by Stalin, to settle in the country, rights activists say little effort is being made to help them integrate into society.
Georgia agreed to facilitate the Meskhetians’ return when it joined the Council of Europe in 1999, but the legislation to make it happen was not enacted until 2007.
Some 500 Meskhetians have already received repatriate status, which puts them on the fast track to acquiring citizenship and other rights, and more than 5,000 other applications are pending.
Around 100,000 members of this Muslim, Turkish-speaking group from what is now the Samtse-Javakheti region of southwestern Georgia were summarily packed off to Central Asia in 1944. This was part of a wider wave of deportations targeting entire ethnic groups which Stalin suspected of disloyalty – among them the Chechens and other North Caucasian groups, the Volga Germans and the Crimean Tatars.
Unlike most groups deported from the Caucasus, the Meskhetians were not allowed to return home after Stalin’s death in 1953. Ethnic clashes in Uzbekistan in 1989 led to further displacement. Some emigrated to Turkey, and the rest live scattered across the former Soviet Union, many in Russia, Kazakstan and – closest to home – Azerbaijan. (See Stalin's Last Victims Trickle Home to Georgia on the latter.)
Those who arrived in the country under the current repatriation regulations, or who made it back on their own in previous years, have not been able to reclaim their family homes, since those areas have since been settled by others.
In Georgia, the repatriation law does not oblige the government to give returning Meskhetians many kind of financial assistance, meaning many families struggle to survive.
“The Meskhetians who returned to their homeland have been given practically nothing,” said Tsira Meskhishvili, head of the Tolerant group, which campaigns on behalf of the group. “Repatriates have been obliged to fend for themselves and to pay for accommodation and other items out of their own money. Since the state is under no obligation to set up a social programme for the repatriates, these people can rely only on a few non-government organisations.”
The Khurashvili family arrived in Georgia as long ago as the 1980s, but are still finding life hard. Seven members of the Khurashvili family live in an old bus that sits in the courtyard of a film studio in the capital Tbilisi.
“I was among the first repatriates to acquire Georgian nationality,” Bairam Khurashvili, said. “The first few years after I returned were very tough. We almost starved – we ate animal feed. Later on, I started repairing cars at the film studio. We didn’t have refugee status, and our family moved into this old bus.”
“The only help we get from the state is 174 laris [105 US dollars a month] in welfare support.”
Meskhishvili said people like the Khurashvilis who moved to Georgia before the repatriation programme came into force are worse off than others. Most live in the Akhaltsikhe and Adigeni areas of southern Georgia, and around 80 of them are stateless.
“These ‘independent repatriates’ face very difficult social and economic circumstances. Since they don’t have Georgian citizenship, nor do they have any other legal status, they are unable to benefit from welfare or healthcare programmes. Without documents, they also find it hard to get jobs.”
Roza Hamdieva and her family, living in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, typify these problems. They have been in Georgia for the last nine years, but still lack any formal status despite repeated appeals to the authorities. Since they do not have passports, they cannot even emigrate.
“My son got a construction job, with help from a NGO, but he soon got sacked because he doesn’t have any documents,” Hamdieva said. “We are a family of five, but I’m the only one in work. Tolerant [NGO] got me a job as a translator, and my [monthly] salary of 150 laris is our sole income. It isn’t even enough for food.”
Meskhishvili said that even those Meskhetians who had acquired passports still found it hard to get jobs, as they did not speak Georgian.
“Ninety per cent of the men from these families have gone to Turkey, where they do manual jobs to support them. There’s no language barrier there,” she said. “There have been cases where because of the problems they face, repatriates have left Georgia and gone back to whichever [former Soviet] country they lived in as deportees.”
The Office of the Public Defender, the official human rights ombudsman in Georgia, says the government should be doing more to help the Meskhetians become part of society.
“To achieve full integration of the repatriates, there need to be effective long- and short-term programmes of welfare support, resettlement and integration. Unfortunately, the Georgian law on repatriation… does not include any social support for repatriates,” the ombudsman’s annual report for 2011 said.
Irakli Kokaia, the head of the refugee and repatriate affairs department at the ministry for refugees, said the government had no financial liabilities towards returning Meskhetians. They were deported not by Georgia but by the Soviet state, whose legal successor is Russia. That meant Moscow should bear any costs, he argued.
Some analysts share this view, although Paata Zakareishvili, head of the Institute for Nationalism and Conflict Studies, said it was too late to be raising the matter now. Georgia should have addressed the issue of Russia’s obligations back in 1999 when it undertook to repatriate the Meskhetians.
“Of course it would be good if Georgia assumed this financial commitment to the deported Meskhetians, but that doesn’t mean we should forget it was the Soviet Union that deported them. I think all the post-Soviet states should bear collective responsibility, above all Russia as successor to the USSR.”
Salome Achba works for the Hot Chocolate radio station in Tbilisi.
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