High Commissioner's mission to Georgia and the Russian Federation

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 22 August 2008, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres today concludes a four-day mission to Georgia and the Russian Federation that included visits with people uprooted by the crisis in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia.

Following discussions with high-ranking Georgian authorities on Tuesday, Guterres met in Moscow on Wednesday with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. They focused on humanitarian cooperation between UNHCR and the Russian Federation in a number of areas, including strengthening joint emergency response mechanisms. Much of the discussion focused on humanitarian concerns linked to the South Ossetia situation as well as broader protection-related issues for affected civilian populations.

Guterres and Lavrov discussed humanitarian access, both in relation to areas of Georgia proper where military movements are still taking place and to South Ossetia itself. They also examined humanitarian assistance and protection in North Ossetia, which has received thousands of people who fled South Ossetia. They discussed the process of, and prospects for, voluntary return. They also agreed on the principle of the non-discriminatory nature of the right of return for all civilians forced to flee.

Russian authorities estimate more than 30,000 people from South Ossetia fled to North Ossetia. Another 128,000 were estimated to have been displaced in Georgia.

While in Moscow, the High Commissioner also visited the new emergency coordination centre operated by EMERCOM, the Russian emergency relief agency with which UNHCR has a longstanding cooperation agreement. On Thursday evening in Vladikavkaz, he met with Sergey Shoigu, minister for civil defense, emergencies and disaster response.

Guterres also held talks with the head of Russia's Federal Migration Service (FMS), Konstantin Romodanovsky, who accompanied him in his visits to refugee sites in North Ossetia. Their talks included a thorough analysis of recent substantial progress in the development of Russia's asylum system.

After arriving in Vladikavkaz, the High Commissioner visited refugees and displaced people from South Ossetia and praised the rapid and effective response to their needs by Russia's humanitarian agencies, including EMERCOM and FMS. Uprooted people in two church-sponsored accommodation centres were unanimous in their desire to return to South Ossetia as soon as they felt it was safe.

Guterres noted that UNHCR always prefers voluntary repatriation and said he hopes this will be possible very soon.

Today, Guterres is visiting South Ossetia on a mission aimed at evaluating the humanitarian situation as well as the possibilities for humanitarian access and seeing first-hand the conditions for the return of those uprooted by the crisis. He is the first senior international official to travel to South Ossetia since the conflict erupted in early August. Noting that under the current circumstances the only way to enter South Ossetia was from North Ossetia, Guterres expressed his appreciation to Foreign Minister Lavrov and Russian authorities for facilitating his humanitarian mission.

UNHCR will continue its humanitarian assistance based on a strictly non-political approach while stressing the non-discriminatory nature of humanitarian action for all of the people affected by the conflict and emphasising the right of return for all of the displaced regardless of ethnicity, religion or political affiliation.

Meanwhile in Georgia, the large scale distributions of aid are in full swing. Our teams completed yesterday the distribution of assistance in Tbilisi, handing out more than 7,000 blankets and 3,200 jerry-cans. We have now exhausted our stocks in the Georgian capital with a total of more than 42,000 blankets, 9,900 kitchen sets and 17,900 jerry-cans distributed to some 40,000 people in nearly 200 locations since the crisis began on 08 August.

In Western and Central Georgia, UNHCR estimates that there are up to 25,000 people in need of assistance. Yesterday, our teams distributed assistance to some 500 displaced in the city of Senaki. These IDPs have been in the region already since 1992 and are now facing a new hardship as collective centres accommodating them have been damaged by the bombings. The UNHCR team assessing the damages concluded that immediate reparations are needed to provide proper shelter before the winter sets in.

Also yesterday morning, the first UNHCR convoy to the Gori region left Tbilisi carrying 1,000 blankets, 110 tents and 300 jerry-cans. Our staff reported the town still to be mostly deserted. According to mainly elderly people who remain in Gori, the main obstacles for return are the prevailing insecurity and lack of food and other basic goods. Many of the IDP population identified in the Ateni Valley are also short of food, non-food items, medicine and sanitary materials.