Housing Hopes Dim for Georgia's Refugees

New government postpones deadline for providing proper housing to people displaced by past conflicts.

By Nino Gertsmava - Caucasus

The Georgian government has once again put back the deadline for providing housing for everyone displaced by conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Most of the internally displaced persons or IDPs are ethnic Georgians who fled from Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the conflicts of the early 1990s. The Russian-Georgian war of August 2008 added to the numbers.

Under a plan announced in 2009, all 300,000 IDPs were to be housed by the end of 2012. Last year, the government said it would need another year to complete the job.

After the parliamentary election in October, many IDPs welcomed the change of government, hoping that their lives might improve as a result.

The new government headed by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishivili now says the goal has been pushed back once more.

“The state will need about four years to provide the refugees with decent living conditions,” David Darakhvelidze, minister for refugee affairs, said.

President Mikhail Saakashvili, who remains in office but has been marginalised by the Ivanishvili administration, accused the new leadership of backtracking on the progress made by the previous government run by his United National Movement allies.

“The government always paid particular attention to the social and economic rehabilitation of refugees. The current government has no right to shift from this,” he said.

IDP rights activists point out that the Saakashvili-era government had little to congratulate itself about.

“The process of resettling refugees began four years ago, but in spite of this, tens of thousands of people remain homeless and are still awaiting help from the government,” Ramaz Gerliani of the Coalition for Civil Society for Forced Migrants said. “The last government prolonged the plan by a year, and the current one by four years. The strategy will be delayed indefinitely in this manner.”

About 45 per cent of IDPs have been given homes in 1,600 purpose-built developments. The rest continue to rent accommodation, squat, or stay with friends and relatives.

Gerliani said the resettlement programme had been less than successful, with no provision for people to earn a living in the new rural settlements.

“Some 85 per cent of the refugees assigned housing in [various] regions have returned to the capital since there was nothing for them to live on there,” he said. “When people have managed to find occupations in Tbilisi over the last 18 years, they can’t then live on benefits of 22 lari [13 US dollars a month] in a regional settlement, when the minimum subsistence amount is 160 laris.”

Gerliani said the IDPs deserved to be consulted about what they wanted, rather than just having solutions imposed on them.

Many disillusioned IDPs have returned to the buildings they previously occupied.

One of these is a former military headquarters in Tbilisi, from which 700 families were evicted in 2010. Tamar Uchava, originally from Abkhazia, is among the IDPs who have moved back in.

“The minister said it would take four years to solve our problems,” she said. “But where should I go, and what should I live on, during these four years?”

Lala Tsindeliani, a mother of six whose husband died in the Abkhazian conflict, is a resident of the same military building.

“I’ve writing many times to the presidential administration and the refugees ministry asking for help,” she said. “Our family earns 170 laris [100 dollars montly], which isn’t enough to rent a flat.”

The building’s owner, TBC bank, plans to redevelop it soon.

Minister Darakhvelidze said IDPs squatting in premises of this kind would not be allowed to stay there.

“Refugees will not be granted properties that are illegally occupied, nor will the government pay them compensation to leave. If property owners go to the police, we will have to enforce evictions”.

Sofo Benashvili of the official ombudsman’s office argues that the IDPs have had a raw deal.

“These are people who have never lived off the state. In their 18-year exile, they have constantly had to move home, sometimes renting, sometimes moving from relative to relative, and from town to town,” Benashvili said. “The fact that refugees in this category aren’t visible and don’t make a lot of noise does not mean they have fewer problems than others – it’s rather the contrary.”

Nino Gertsmava is an IWPR-trained journalist in Georgia.