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UNHCR publication for CIS Conference (Displacement in the CIS) - Conflicts in the Caucasus

Refugees Magazine, 1 May 1996

When the long-smoldering problem of Nagorno-Karabakh flared up in 1988, it provided a first indication of the many ethnic conflicts to come. This mountain enclave, mostly inhabited by people of Armenian language and origin, had been placed under Azerbaijan's jurisdiction in the 1920s, and was entirely surrounded by villages populated by Azeris. The ethnic strife that erupted there as the Soviet Union broke apart phased quickly into open warfare. Over a million people were forced to flee from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia; from Armenia to Azerbaijan; and from Armenian-occupied sectors of Azerbaijan to other Azeri villages. The colossal scale, and wide-ranging implications, of the nationalities issues that had frozen into quiescence under Soviet rule were now made evident in the world's headlines, along with the suffering, loss and displacement they would cause.

Although the Soviet Union was populated with dozens of nationalities, it was in the Caucasus that the mosaic of intermingled ethnic groups has been most problematic. The first post-Soviet outbreak of ethnic violence to occur on the territory of the Russian Federation itself was in the North Caucasus. In late October 1992, tens of thousands of Ingush were driven out of the disputed Prigorodny district of North Ossetia by Ossetians. (Prior to their deportation by Stalin in 1944, the area had belonged to the Ingush.) The conflict in Chechnya that broke out in December 1994, and which continues to rage, has also placed great strain on neighbouring areas of the Russian Federation. In all, some 490,000 people have fled to Ingushetia, Daghestan, North Ossetia and Russia, as well as within Chechnya itself. Many returned during quieter periods, but may well have subsequently been displaced a second time.

But it is in the South Caucasus that the mosaic of peoples has shattered most decisively. In Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, up to 1.5 million people have fled from their homes as a result of ethnic fighting. In Georgia, conflict broke out in 1991 between South Ossetian secessionists and the central Georgian authorities. The following year more fighting erupted with Abkhaz secessionists. Overall, in a country that was once one of the most prosperous republics of the Soviet Union, some 300,000 people have by now been displaced. Another 120,000 people have left for the Russian Federation (though not all as a direct result of conflict).

The enormous scale of displacement, in a region reeling from war damage and the economic after-effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union, has hit the Caucasus hard. The region's slumping economies face declining output, rising unemployment, damaged infrastructure, currency depreciation, and the near-collapse of government social welfare programmes, along with a swelling population.

Armenia / Azerbaijan
Nagorno-Karabakh > Azerbaijan684,000
Armenia > Armenia72,000
Abkhazia > Georgia273,000
S. Ossetia > Georgia14,000
Russian Federation
Chechnya > Russian Federation487,000
N. Ossetia > Ingushetia25,000
Armenia > Azerbaijan185,000
Azerbaijan > Armenia299,000
Uzbekistan > Azerbaijan
Georgia > Armenia5,000
Georgia > Russian Fed.
(refugees / repatriants)
Russian Federation
Chechnya > Kazakstan6,000
Chechnya > Belarus5,000
Armenia > Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh)35,000
Azerbaijan > Azerbaijan (Fizuli)25,000

Problems of refugees and IDPs in the Caucasus are highly interconnected. The displacement of South Ossetian refugees from Georgia to North Ossetia has impacted on the Ingush-North Ossetian conflict, which drove people out to Ingushetia. Ingushetia has also been badly affected by the conflict in Chechnya (Russian Federation). Displacement from Chechnya also impacts on Daghestan, which has a border with Azerbaijan. One in eight people in Azerbaijan has been forcibly displaced, most as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. In addition, however, Azerbaijan shelters tens of thousands of Muslim Meskhetians, who were deported under Stalin from Georgia to Central Asia, and who have made their way to Azerbaijan, 46,000 of them as a result of ethnic fighting in Uzbekistan; many wish to return to Georgia, but have so far been unable to do so.

With the exception of Chechnya, the other Caucasian conflicts have recently been relatively quiet. However, solutions to the conflicts and displacement have been blocked on all fronts by a failure to make political progress. In the case of the 270,000 displaced people from Abkhazia, efforts to organize repatriation have stalled, after the first 311 returnees, who went back in October 1994, encountered extremely serious security problems, including murder. Despite UN-sponsored proximity talks, the Abkhaz situation remains tense, and there is no consensus on a meaningful timetable for repatriation. Discussions on a solution to the South Ossetia conflict, and a possible return of the refugees (who fled to North Ossetia) and IDPs (who fled elsewhere in Georgia) are also blocked. At the southern end of the Caucasus, some 25,000 Azeri IDPs have managed to return to their homes in the Fizuli area, and 35,000 inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh have returned there from Armenia. However, to date, there has been insufficient political progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute to allow a serious discussion of the question of refugees and return.




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Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

During Sri Lanka's 20-year civil war more than 1 million people were uprooted from their homes or forced to flee, often repeatedly. Many found shelter in UNHCR-supported Open Relief Centers, in government welfare centers or with relatives and friends.

In February 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a cease-fire accord and began a series of talks aimed at negotiating a lasting peace. By late 2003, more than 300,000 internally displaced persons had returned to their often destroyed towns and villages.

In the midst of these returns, UNHCR provided physical and legal protection to war affected civilians – along with financing a range of special projects to provide new temporary shelter, health and sanitation facilities, various community services, and quick and cheap income generation projects.

Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

Displacement in Georgia

Tens of thousands of civilians are living in precarious conditions, having been driven from their homes by the crisis in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia.

On the morning of August 12, the first UNHCR-chartered plane carrying emergency aid arrived in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the first UN assistance to arrive in the country since fighting broke out the previous week. The airlift brought in 34 tonnes of tents, jerry cans, blankets and kitchen sets from UNHCR's central emergency stockpile in Dubai. Items were then loaded onto trucks at the Tbilisi airport for transport and distribution.

A second UNHCR flight landed in Tbilisi on August 14, with a third one expected to arrive the following day. In addition, two UNHCR aid flights are scheduled to leave for Vladikavkaz in the Russian Federation the following week with mattresses, water tanks and other supplies for displaced South Ossetians.

Working with local partners, UNHCR is now providing assistance to the most vulnerable and needy. These include many young children and family members separated from one another. The situation is evolving rapidly and the refugee agency is monitoring the needs of the newly displaced population, which numbered some 115,000 on August 14.

Posted on 15 August 2008

Displacement in Georgia

Ingushetia: Internally Displaced Chechens

When fighting broke out between government troops and rebel forces in Chechnya in 1999, over 200,000 people fled the republic, most of them to the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia. Today, tens of thousands of Chechens remain displaced in Ingushetia, unwilling to go home because of continuing security concerns.

As of early December 2003, some 62,000 displaced Chechens were living in temporary settlements or in private accommodation. Those living in settlements face constant threats of eviction, often by owners who wish to use their buildings again.

Another 7,900 displaced Chechens live in tents in three remaining camps – Satsita, Sputnik, and Bart.

The authorities have repeatedly called for the closure of tent camps and the return of the displaced people to Chechnya. Three camps have been closed in the past year – Iman camp at Aki Yurt, "Bella" or B camp, and "Alina" or A camp. Chechens from the latter two camps who did not wish to go home were allowed to move to Satsita camp or other existing temporary settlements in Ingushetia.

Ingushetia: Internally Displaced Chechens

Vincent Cochetel interviewPlay video

Vincent Cochetel interview

On the occasion of World Humanitarian Day 2010, a senior UNHCR staff member reflects on his experience being kidnapped near Chechnya in 1998.
UN High Commissioner Visits Georgia and RussiaPlay video

UN High Commissioner Visits Georgia and Russia

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres spent four days in Georgia and the Russian Federation to assess UNHCR's humanitarian operations and to speak with those affected by the recent fighting in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.