Ukrainian refugees run up against limits of Georgian hospitality
Georgians want to help Ukrainians fleeing the war, but there are political and economic hurdles in the way.
Pavlo slouches when he enters his apartment. The ceiling hangs uncomfortably low for the lanky Ukrainian in the cramped flat on the outskirts of Tbilisi.
“Welcome to our grand chambers,” he says with an embarrassed smile and an ironic flourish of his hands.
The one-room apartment, where Pavlo lives together with his wife and two children, has seen better days. Patches of stucco yawn through the worn floral damask wallpaper. Chunks of wood in the parquet flooring are missing.
Pavlo ducks down again to avoid conflict with the kitschy chandelier in the center of the room, and steps into the corner by the windows. Effete and wiry, he does not match the stereotype of the fierce Ukrainian warrior.
A chronic apologetic grin, dancing eyes syndrome, and a lettered Russian – he was a teacher of Russian literature before the war – give him the air of a guilt-ridden Dostoyevsky character. He does bear guilt, he says: for running away instead of defending his homeland, even though a spinal injury made him unfit for military service. “There won’t be much use of me on the battlefield, at least that’s what I keep telling myself,” he says.
A quick peek into a bathroom and kitchen completes the tour. Pavlo pulls open the gauze white curtains and the window to reveal the “view” – warps and weaves of drab, copy-paste Soviet-era housing blocks. The one Georgian touch is the grapevines, heavy with fruit, that envelop the lower stories of the buildings.
“People don’t come to Georgia with this view in mind, but we have no reason to complain: The air is much cleaner here than downtown,” Pavlo says. “The neighbors are very nice here,” he continues, dwelling on the positive. “They are always sharing food with us and bringing toys for the boys.”
Like many others fleeing Ukraine, Pavlo and his family were initially placed in a hotel in Tbilisi. The Georgian government paid for over 5,000 refugees’ stay in hotels in Tbilisi and Batumi, while many other Ukrainians were taken in by ordinary citizens and private groups.
But keeping thousands of refugees in hotels was deemed untenable in the long run. In early August, the Georgian authorities stopped covering Ukrainian refugees’ accommodation and meals and began handing out cash instead. Pavlo and his family had to move to the outskirts of the city.
“This is the only thing that we could afford, but at least the metro station is not too far,” Pavlo said.
Moving Ukrainians out of the hotels provoked controversy in Georgia, where many believe that the government hung the refugees out to dry.
But the government strategy comports with international best practices according to the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “The current approach, to offer a few days of accommodation and then some cash assistance, is appropriate and generally in line with the approach taken by the receiving countries,” UNHCR Representative in Georgia Kemlin Furley told Eurasianet.
Generally, Furley said, the preferred international approach is to make sure that refugees have proper homes with cooking facilities and other attributes of normal life, and to focus on their integration in the receiving society.
Some of Georgia’s Ukrainians in fact moved out of their hotel rooms of their own volition. “I needed a place where I could cook and feel at home,” said Marta Drobina, a refugee from Kharkiv who lives with her special-needs son in a one-bedroom unit on the opposite end of the city from Pavlo’s place.
Drobina managed to get a job in a restaurant and also occasionally works as a caterer.
Finding a home has proved much harder for vulnerable families like Pavlo’s. He failed to find a job and his wife began doing odd cleaning jobs, taking on the full weight of providing for the family. Literally. Spinal issues keep Pavlo from lifting anything heavier than five kilograms. “She does everything: works, cooks, stands in a line for the humanitarian aid. She can fix the plumbing and make borscht out of nothing,” Pavlo said.
But this dependence on his wife also exacerbated the sense of haplessness that has dogged him since he left his hometown in Eastern Ukraine. He does not want to specify the name of his town or his real name as he might have violated martial law that forbids male citizens from leaving Ukraine. Even worse, he had to flee via enemy territory: Russia.
Arriving from the east
For many civilians left behind the occupation lines, the only way out of the warzone was to Russia. But to be allowed in, they had to go through filtration camps, which Pavlo describes as an emasculating experience. “They screamed at me there, insulted me and made me praise Russia,” he said. “You don’t feel much like a man when you are humiliated in front of your wife and kids. Then we finally made it here and I can’t do anything to provide for my family.”
In the early stages of the war, the few Ukrainians who made it to Georgia mainly traveled via circuitous routes across Europe and came to the Caucasus to stay with family or friends. Many of that wave, which was primarily from central and western Ukraine, eventually went back home. Of about 90,000 Ukrainians who came to Georgia from March through August, according to government data, about 80 percent are estimated to have left, either going back to Ukraine or moving to Europe.
In the past few months, however, a new wave of Ukrainians have been arriving from the war-battered eastern part of the country through Russia. “Many who come in via Russia from eastern Ukraine come with very little, and have very little idea or capacity to go further from Georgia,” Furley said. “Nor can they return to completely destroyed towns or occupied areas.”
The Georgian authorities still offer new arrivals a two-week stay in hotels, but after that refugees must find their own accommodation. The state allowance leaves them with few options.
The Georgian government gives each Ukrainian household 300 lari ($106) per month, plus an additional 45 lari ($16) per individual. (Ukrainians also get free access to public transportation, education and, with some limits, to healthcare in Georgia.)
With that money, it’s virtually impossible to find a place to live in bigger cities like Tbilisi and Batumi, even less so now with a spike in real estate prices as landlords seek to cash in on an influx of Russians fleeing their own country, who tend to have more money than the Ukrainian refugees.
On top of this, some homeowners are wary of renting out to Ukrainian refugees. “I feel bad about this, but I turned down a Ukrainian family the other day and took in Russians instead,” one homeowner told Eurasianet on condition of anonymity. “The Russians are tourists and they will leave in three weeks. Ukrainians wanted to stay for the rest of the year, but they are refugees and what if they run out of money? I won’t be able to just throw them out to the streets and I will be left with no income.”
The meager public assistance to Ukrainian refugees stems partly from financial limitations – Georgia is one of the poorest countries in its neighborhood – and partly from political considerations.
Georgia has more than 300,000 displaced citizens of its own, ethnic Georgians forced to flee their homes as a result of the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Those displaced Georgians get a monthly allowance of 45 lari per person, plus an additional 300 lari for those without permanent housing. The authorities appear wary of giving Ukrainian refugees more than their own displaced Georgians.
“It was important to cap the assistance packages at the same rate that corresponds with the maximum of what we are doing for our own citizens,” Health Minister Zurab Azarashvili said at a government meeting last month.
Many displaced Georgians have been actively helping Ukrainians, donating aid, sheltering and employing Ukrainians, but there have been some grumbles too. Drobina, the chef from Kharkiv, says that Georgians overall have been exceedingly kind, donating generously to her and her son, but says she did recently face one unpleasant incident.
While she was standing in line for humanitarian aid at a distribution point in the old town, one old lady, apparently a neighborhood scold, came out of her nearby house and complained loudly about foreigners receiving aid while nobody cares about her. “She said, ‘Look, Ukrainians came begging again,’ speaking Russian intentionally, and I felt a stab in my heart,” Drobina said.
Pavlo says he never goes to humanitarian distribution points as he is afraid of the judgement he might face from fellow Ukrainians. “It’s not easy for a man to stand in that line together with women whose husbands and sons are fighting back home,” he said. “I overheard unkind comments once and have not been there since. Now my wife goes there.”
He says he is thankful for whatever assistance he gets, adding that it would be ungrateful to ask for more in a country struggling with its own problems of poverty, unemployment and displacement from war. Furley also said the Georgian government is doing what it can. “The level of assistance is what is feasible in the Georgian context,” she said. Together with partner agencies, the UNHCR is supplementing the government aid with an additional 235 lari assistance per person, focusing on those in a particularly vulnerable situations. For now, the allowances provided by the government and international community cover a three-months period, but the assistance could be extended and modified later.
Many Georgians, however, criticize the authorities for leaving Ukrainians reliant on meager assistance. Several alternative refugee-housing initiatives have been launched, most prominent among them a fundraiser led by the Open Society Georgia Foundation. Together with several other non-profit groups, OSGF collected $92,000 – half from the organization and half from private donations. With that they managed to place 220 refugees in hotels and guesthouses in August alone.
But UNHCR’s Furley said that Georgia should come up with a more sustainable long-term plan.
“With complementary support from the international community, it would be good to have a longer term [government] plan that segments the Ukrainian refugee population, provides more practical assistance for those trying to work and be self-reliant, and cares for those who really can’t in the immediate future,” she said.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter. Support Eurasianet: Help keep our journalism open to all, and influenced by none.