Hundreds of Georgians displaced by the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia could face a fresh upheaval this week as evictions of Internally Displaced Persons from illegal temporary shelters in Tbilisi get underway. While government officials claim the evictions are unavoidable, critics argue that the policy will sacrifice what progress these individuals have made in rebuilding their lives.
The evictions, expected to start on January 20, will affect nearly 1,500 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, who, during the chaotic days that followed Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia, took up residence in empty Tbilisi buildings not classified as official shelters.
Residents of the 22 buildings affected by the decision are a living mosaic of Georgia’s turbulent past: displaced individuals from the 1992-94 conflict in Abkhazia share makeshift kitchens and bathrooms with families who fled fighting in South Ossetia two years ago. Over the years, both generations of IDPs have gotten married, given birth, gone to university and attempted to integrate into Tbilisi life.
Now faced with eviction, the IDPs say they are confused, scared and angry by the government’s decision to relocate them to new settlements outside of the capital.
“Where are we supposed to live?” asked one IDP woman displaced from the Upper Kodori Gorge, a swath of territory in breakaway Abkhazia that was controlled by Georgia until the 2008 war. Like other IDPs interviewed by EurasiaNet.org, the woman declined to give her name from fear of alleged government reprisals.
“Children are supposed to start school on Thursday [January 20] …what is the government thinking?” she fumed.
Valeri Kopaleishvili, administrative department chief at the Ministry of Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodations and Refugees (MRA), responded that the government is not forcing IDPs to go anywhere.
The ministry has profiled the families living in the buildings and offered them a variety of substitute accommodations, including recently upgraded buildings in western Georgia, Kopaleishvili said. The substitute accommodations were upgraded or built with post-war funds provided by international organizations and foreign governments.
“We are not moving these people from Tbilisi. They can continue living here. If they are so vulnerable that they do not have anything -- they have no job, no income, nothing and they get everything from the government -- we give them what we have at this moment,” he said.
“These buildings were not designed for a durable housing solution. And because someone enters [a building] illegally and acquires it -- that could not be the way of a solution.”
An estimated 1,020 IDP families were affected by evictions last summer before the government halted the process amidst a public outcry. Many were relocated to villages in western Georgia, including to a remote settlement not far from the Abkhaz-Georgia conflict zone.
Lawyer Malkhaz Pataraia, who specializes in IDP cases, counters that the evictions were illegal because, over the past two years, the IDPs have established a de facto claim to ownership by living in – and sometimes restoring – the buildings, even though they officially belong to the government or private companies.
“Ownership is not an absolute right,” Pataraia said. “I cannot always sell my house. I cannot always use my house how I want. I cannot always even enter my own house.”
But Kopaleishvili dismissed Pataraia’s argument, stating the government cannot set a precedent by allowing IDPs to claim property ownership based solely on occupation. Working together with international donors and embassies, the ministry created a “standardized operating procedure” for informing IDPs about the evictions and their options.
“There is a way it should be done: there is a procedure, there is a strategic plan. How can I -- just because you entered somewhere illegally -- provide you with a solution where you would like to get it?” he said.
In comments to EurasiaNet.org, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Thomas Hammarberg agreed that there is “no legal obligation to offer accommodation to displaced individuals in their preferred location.”
He noted, however, that both Georgian and international law “hold the State primarily responsible for taking care of the needs of IDPs.” While commending the government for its “serious efforts to render the eviction process more transparent,” Hammarberg cited “the reported lack of livelihood opportunities in many of the housing options offered to the IDPs” as his “biggest concern.”
“This will make life in their new homes very difficult for them,” he said.
Local IDP-rights advocates like Eka Gvalia, an IDP from Abkhazia and the executive director of Charity Humanitarian Centre Abkhazeti (CHCA), share that concern.
“[T]his will be, for them, definitely a second displacement, a second psychological shock how to get integrated into those communities because integration is not just a word,” Gvalia said. “It includes social welfare, it includes employment, it includes education. It includes everything.”
Employment opportunities and social welfare services “will be limited” in IDP settlements or residences outside of Tbilisi, she asserted.
International donors and organizations monitoring the eviction process tell EurasiaNet.org that conditions at the new settlements vary.
“There has certainly been a lot of discussion and some strong recommendations on the part of the donor community and UNHCR and the US Embassy as well to ensure that the social [welfare] opportunities, the economic opportunities of IDPs in their new settlements are given enough attention,” a Western diplomat involved in monitoring the process told EurasiaNet.org.
Two days before the scheduled evictions, however, there were few signs that IDPs were preparing to leave. A middle-aged woman displaced by the Abkhaz conflict said that she and her family are not prepared to move back to western Georgia or closer to Abkhazia.
“What the government is doing is no different than what happened to us before: we were driven from our homes and told to live somewhere else,” she said. “There will be a war [when the evictions start]. No one is ready to leave.”
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.