29 Oct 2010
A woman was hospitalized with severe burns on October 27 after setting fire to herself outside the Georgian Ministry for Displaced Persons in Tbilisi. Nana Pipia, 46, is one of several dozen internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Abkhazia who set up camp outside the ministry building on October 25 to demand that minister Koba Subeliani either step down or re-house them in Tbilisi. She had reportedly met earlier on October 27 with a senior ministry official who responded to her protest that the housing in western Georgia the displaced persons have been offered is in a remote region with no employment prospects, no provision for growing food, and nothing in the vicinity but grass, by saying, “Then you can live on grass.”
Pipia’s desperate action serves to highlight not simply the magnitude of the problem the displaced persons constitute, but the ineffective, ad hoc, and at times discriminatory approach the Georgian authorities have adopted in attempting to reduce it to manageable proportions.
Georgia’s IDPs fall into two categories.
The larger group (of whom Pipia is one) encompasses those who fled the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia during fighting in the early 1990s. The remainder are primarily from South Ossetia and fled during the five day war in August 2008. According to a report published in August 2010 by Amnesty International, there are currently some 246,000 displaced persons in Georgia, the overwhelming majority of whom (220,000) belong to the first category.
The first wave of displaced persons were accommodated in mostly sub-standard ramshackle housing in Tbilisi or Zugdidi, the regional center in western Georgia closest to the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia. According to Amnesty International, most such accommodation consists of privately or state-owned buildings such as former schools, hospitals, or barracks that “are not designed for long-term human habitation and do not meet the minimum standards of adequate housing.”
“The Economist” estimated in August 2009 that just under half of the early wave of IDPs still live in such conditions. Others live with family or friends or in rented accommodation.
By contrast, the second wave — those who fled during the August 2008 war — have benefitted from generous amounts of international aid. A donors conference in Brussels in the fall of 2008 raised $4.5 billion, of which 74.5 million euros ($102.7 million) was earmarked for housing for the displaced persons. Some 18,000 of them have been housed in 38 specially constructed villages. But questions have already been raised with regard both to the selection of construction companies entrusted with building the new homes and to the quality of the finished buildings.
Tina Khidasheli of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association has alleged that two construction companies selected (without a tender) had both given generous donations to the ruling United National Movement’s election campaign earlier in 2008.
In April, it was reported that displaced persons were already leaving their new homes in the settlement of Khurvaleti, near Gori, because of “unbearable” conditions.
Georgian human rights ombudsman Giorgi Tughushi claimed in a report to the Georgian parliament on October 4 that the standard of construction of some accommodation was mediocre.
On the plus side, the new wave of displaced persons during the August 2008 war served to remind the international community of the plight of those who had fled earlier. The European Commission allocated 51 million euros ($70.3 million) in the summer of 2009 for permanent housing for both waves of displaced persons.
Amnesty International notes that it was only in February 2007 that the Georgian government adopted a state strategy to alleviate the plight of the first wave of IDPs. That strategy was revised in May 2009 and a new Action Plan adopted intended to help both categories. Its implementation has, however, been haphazard and on occasion shockingly callous, fueling the pent-up anger and frustration of the long-term displaced.
Over the past four months, “first-wave” IDPs have staged a series of protests in Tbilisi against their summary eviction from temporary accommodation and plans to re-house them in remote rural areas of western Georgia where their chances of finding employment are minimal. Some have threatened to renounce their Georgian citizenship. More recently, some displaced persons have demanded Subeliani’s resignation and even accused him of misappropriating funds allocated by international bodies for the IDPs, according to the daily “Versiya” as cited on October 20 by Caucasus Press.
The Georgian government has responded to the protests with token gestures, such as offering special medical checkups to selected IDPs and creating a new commission to study ways of creating jobs for them. At the same time, government officials have hit out at the opposition Conservative and People’s parties that openly support the IDPs’ demands.
Human rights ombudsman Tughushi met at his own request in early September with minister Subeliani to discuss the IDP problem. Tughushi reportedly criticized the authorities’ lackadaisical approach, pointing specifically to instances where IDPs were forcibly evicted from their homes without prior warning. Tughushi stressed the need to keep IDPs informed of plans to rehouse them and to abide strictly by the law.
Tughushi raised the same issues at a session in early October of the parliament committee on human rights and the temporary commission on territorial integrity, Caucasus Press reported on October 4. He noted the authorities are unlikely to meet their pledge, enshrined in the 2009 Action Plan, of rehousing all IDPS by the end of 2010, and have pushed back the target date to 2011-2012. Equally importantly, Tughushi backed the right of displaced persons to reject accommodation they consider unacceptable.
Subeliani’s ministry, however, continues to argue that it is impossible to re-house in Tbilisi displaced persons currently facing eviction from state-owned buildings in the city.