Internal Displacement and Migration

The conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s resulted in the displacement within Georgia of about a quarter of a million people. Precise figures are unknown, but it is thought there are about 230,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Abkhazia and 12,200 from South Ossetia.

In December 2004, UNHCR and the Georgian Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation began to re-register IDPs in part to clear up the confusion over their numbers. Progress has been slow because people find it difficult to reach the officials who will register them, and have no obvious incentive for doing so.

Some IDPs wonder whether re-registration will make them eligible for various forms of compensation, or whether being re-registered might guarantee their right to property restitution once they are able to return. It is even thought that IDPs who have left Georgia might return in order to re-register and ensure they too receive compensation. However, none of these rumored incentives have been stated as official reasons for conducting the registration program.

In the immediate aftermath of the displacements in the early 1990s, the Georgian authorities provided IDPs with shelter in whatever buildings were available in those towns and cities they reached during their flight towards Tbilisi: hotels, unused schools, army barracks, and hospitals. Those who were severely wounded were put into working hospitals, along with their families. As of 2005, many are still in those hospitals.

Approximately 42 percent of IDPs still live in shelters. The living conditions of the majority of those IDPs who remain in collective shelters range from barely reasonable to quite appalling depending on the original purpose of the shelter and its location in the country. The better conditions are generally found in Tbilisi.

The idea that there might be compensation for IDPs linked to their registration was inspired by events in Tbilisi in late 2004. Those IDPs who were among the first to flee the fighting in Abkhazia had been given the best shelters — the Iveria and Adjara hotels in Tbilisi, which were luxurious by Soviet standards. In 2004, they got lucky again.

As part of the post-Rose Revolution government’s privatization program, these two properties were sold to private investors in 2004 for refurbishment as commercial tourist hotels. The privatization seems to have been an economic policy decision, with little if any involvement from the ministry that deals with refugee and IDP accommodation.

The IDP inhabitants were compensated US$7,000 per room — a significant amount in a country with a GDP per capita of just US$1,131 per year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). For IDPs accustomed to receiving a state allowance of US$6 a month per person, US$7,000 was like winning a lottery; it was also enough money to buy a small apartment in Tbilisi’s suburbs.

This compensation deal has led to many complaints and new problems for the government. In particular, other IDPs in Tbilisi expect to be compensated monetarily in the future. They believe their shelters also will be privatized, which in most cases is highly unlikely.

But some IDPs also believe the European Union will not allow Georgia to become a member with so many internally displaced persons, and thus will provide financial aid to “buy off” their status. This is nothing but a rumor, although the EU would likely want to see resolution of territorial disputes if membership becomes a possibility for Georgia.

Many of the IDPs in the collective shelters say that they have no work and cannot find work for various reasons, including injuries incurred in the fighting in the early 1990s or the need to care for relatives with such injuries. However, many do appear to receive income from the informal economy. The 58 percent who have left the shelters most often do work, whether in the formal or informal economy, and frequently own their house or apartment.

In addition, people who work with the IDPs suggest that at least one member of every IDP family emigrates, at least temporarily, and remits money to support those who stay behind. Many IDPs, therefore, while complaining of poverty and certainly living in very bad conditions, appear to have a range of relatively expensive possessions like mobile phones and leather jackets. Others use the remittances to pay for vital medical expenses.

International donors began a “New Approach to IDP Assistance,” together with the Georgian government, in 1999. Part of the “New Approach” is aimed at increasing self-sufficiency among the IDP community. Other recent efforts by the donor community include rehabilitation of the IDP collective shelters across the country.

Although the long-term goal is to return the IDPs to their homes, in the short-term that prospect is unlikely. The broader population of Georgia has generally supported these IDPs over the years, but the IDPs have not been integrated because return has always been their and the government’s goal.

The new government also suggests the IDPs can “temporarily integrate” before their eventual return, although it is not clear how that can happen, or what exactly it means. As the conflicts continue to simmer, the IDPs and others across Georgia are unable to feel completely secure about the future.

Tbilisi houses the second-largest concentration of IDPs in the country with 29.6 percent of IDPs (the largest group (46.4 percent) being in the Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region). It is also a magnet for internal migration, attracting not only IDPs from other parts of the country, but also those seeking better economic prospects in the capital. The vast majority of Tbilisi’s one million inhabitants were born elsewhere in the country.

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