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RI focus: Internally displaced people in the Caucasus need assistance, peace

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Nearly 1.4 million people have been displaced by civil conflict in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and many of them live in substandard, refugee-like conditions. The international community is reducing support for displaced people in the Caucasus, and host governments are not doing enough to help their displaced populations. But the fundamental precondition for reducing the agonies of displacement in the Caucasus is the settlement of the ethnic disputes that have driven so many people from their homes. RI examined displacement in the Caucasus last year, and the Winter 2002/03 issue of World Policy Journal (www.worldpolicy.org) summarizes some of RI's findings.
"Lost in Purgatory: The Plight of Displaced People in the Caucaus."

Kenneth H. Bacon and Maureen Lynch

All people forcibly uprooted by political violence are losers, but some are bigger losers than others. We refer to a growing category of refugees known in the chill jargon of humanitarian relief as "IDPs," or internally displaced persons. These are people driven from their homes and farms within their own homeland, unlike those forced to flee their country under threat of persecution. The difference is critical, since under the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, those qualifying as refugees receive greater recognition, rights, assistance, and protection than the internally displaced, even though both groups face similar hardships.

Moreover, there is a political as well as a legal catch. IDPs are frequently pawns in a slow-moving, inconclusive diplomatic chess game. Not only do adversaries in civil conflicts tend to prefer protracted deadlock to necessary compromise, but combatants often exploit displaced populations as visual reminders of victimization, even at the cost of prolonging their hardship. "Politics is keeping them victims to attract donors," we were informed by a relief worker in Azerbaijan, where many displaced communities rely on international aid.

Nowhere are the anomalies of this new purgatory more evident than in the South Caucasus, the rugged isthmus that separates the Black and Caspian Seas. Nearly 1.4 million people have been displaced by civil conflict in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, amounting to 8.7 percent of the population of the three countries. Most were displaced by ethnically based independence movements shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union - in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, and by Abkhazia's attempt to break away from Georgia.1 Many IDPs have lived in squalor for upward of a decade, their plight either forgotten or known only to interested parties, notwithstanding the new media attention on the Caucasus as a seedbed of terrorism and instability. Our purpose is to describe the problem, and to put forward some reasonable proposals for salvaging the people trapped in this purgatory.

Footnote

1 All estimates of the size of displaced populations in this article are from the U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 2002, available at www.refugees.org.

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