Internally Displaced and Isolated: the failings of IDP integration in Georgia5 min read
Content Warning: this article contains references to suicide.
In the outskirts of Tbilisi, a community has been rocked by the death of 52-year-old Zurab Chichoshvili, an internally displaced person (IDP) from Abkhazia, living in the former Kartli sanatorium. In the days leading up to Zurab’s death, a group of IDPs residing at the building held demonstrations in protest of the squalid living conditions they found themselves in. A few days into their protests, on January 16, Zurab died by suspected suicide. Several family members and witnesses have alleged that Zurab’s suicide was a means of drawing attention to the dilapidated conditions in which he had found himself living for almost three decades. However, this tragedy has highlighted a much broader set of issues facing IDPs in Georgia.
Shortly after gaining independence, secessionist conflicts erupted across Georgia. The early 1990s saw conflicts in South Ossetia (also known as Tskhinvali region) and Abkhazia lead to the displacement of around 220,000 to 240,000 people—roughly 6 percent of Georgia’s total population at the time. Less than two decades later, a further 20,000 people were displaced due to the 2008 Russo-Georgia war and secessionist authorities consolidated de facto state institutions in both territories. Although fighting ceased fairly quickly, the Georgian government and a considerable portion of the population still view both territories as Russian-occupied Georgian regions. As of February 2020, the total number of registered IDPs came to 282,848, although this figure remains an approximation of the actual total of displaced persons living in Georgia.
Many IDPs fled to the capital, with a considerable portion also residing in the Samegrelo-Zemo-Svaneti region bordering Abkhazia. With no land ownership, many of these people suffered from limited access to livelihoods, finding themselves particularly vulnerable to unemployment. Furthermore, poor mental health continues to be a pervasive factor among displaced persons, who have had to deal with the traumatic memories of conflict with little, if any, support. For many, this trauma has been reawakened due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic: social distancing restrictions, poor living conditions and remote housing locations have all contributed to a growing sense of isolation among many IDPs. However, by far the most pervasive issue is that of living standards.
Unfortunately, the situation at the former Kartli sanatorium is far from a unique case. Given the sudden influx in internal migration in parallel with Georgia’s crippling economic crisis, the 1990s saw the government place IDPs in temporary shelters. These shelters were often in the form of repurposed schools, student dormitories, hospitals, and collective centres, where facilities were basic at best and abysmal at worst. What’s more, many displaced persons found themselves geographically isolated from one another, having to suddenly adapt to a new way of life in the face of widespread stigma among Georgian society. This treatment of IDPs is symptomatic of the fact that for more than 15 years, Georgia’s national policy on IDPs was barely existent. Although the 1996 “Law of Georgia on Internally Displaced Persons” entitled IDPs to certain state benefits, such as a monthly financial allowance and assistance in finding employment, the focus of Georgia’s policy was primarily placed on the return of displaced persons and not on their integration into Georgia proper. This was a conscious decision, as successful integration was feared to imply some sort of resolution over the complex topic of territorial integrity in Georgia. As such, the government hampered any chance for IDPs to integrate by denying their full rights as citizens and arguably prioritising its own political agenda over the livelihoods of those in need.
Although steps in the right direction have certainly been made, overall progress remains slow. From a more positive outlook, the government has taken on a stronger pro-integration stance and continually demonstrates solidarity with IDPs on both a national and international level. That is not to say the government has abandoned its position regarding IDPs’ “right to return”: the primacy of territorial integrity remains a central feature of its awareness campaigns. Nevertheless, there have been considerable efforts to develop a legal framework that better protects IDPs’ rights. Last year also saw a promise to provide new flats to 5,000 internally displaced families within two years.
However, it is hard to remain too optimistic. As is clear from those residing at the former Kartli sanatorium, thousands of IDPs have been waiting for long-term housing solutions for several decades. The government’s solidarity was also put into question recently when Georgian Health Minister, Zurab Azarashvili, was seen to imply Zurab Chichoshvili’s death was an accident unrelated to his housing conditions. The unfortunate reality is many still live in housing that fails to meet minimum shelter protection standards, putting their health — and ultimately, their lives — in danger. This points to the fact that durable solutions are yet to be found, leaving many thousands of displaced people in a liminal state of protracted displacement.
What can be done to ensure the improvement of living standards and quality of life for IDPs living in Georgia? Several organisations have been working hard towards positive solutions to the ongoing difficulties faced by IDPs over the past two decades. Both the Danish and Norwegian Refugee Councils serve as examples of international organisations that have helped provide durable housing solutions over the years. However, international donations come with a possible negative consequence; heavy dependence on international donors can equally stunt the growth of autonomous locally-led initiatives. As such, international donors must be wary of contributing to this overreliance and instead support local actors in building capacities for sustainable progress.
Above all, the overriding sentiment shared among researchers in internal displacement is the need for political will from state institutions. Limited state resources can only address part of the ongoing mistreatment that many thousands of IDPs are currently facing. Therefore, the government must focus its attention on strengthening its commitment towards integration processes by investing in long-term housing, as well as helping to build local networks that can support IDP communities. The simple fact is that overly ambitious housing projects with no clear timeline are leaving thousands of people in desperate situations no human should have to face. Solidarity campaigns are not enough, and comprehensive approaches to project implementation are vital to ensure the livelihoods and safety of IDPs. With an approach grounded in greater compassion and resolve, the government can help fight the current sense of hopelessness and despair felt by the many displaced through no fault of their own.