Growing numbers of displaced return to their homes in Georgia

News Stories, 26 August 2008

© UNHCR/I.Arabidze
Displaced people wait to register in Gori, where UNHCR opened a new office at the weekend.

GORI, Georgia, August 26 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has opened an office and a temporary warehouse in the Georgian town of Gori as more and more people return to their homes in the region following the withdrawal of Russian Federation forces after the recent conflict.

UNHCR, meanwhile, called Tuesday on all parties to the fighting in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, north of Gori, to contain outbreaks of lawlessness that could lead to renewed displacement. The agency expressed specific concern about reports of new forcible displacement caused by marauding militias north of Gori near the boundary with South Ossetia.

Up to 400 displaced people gathered on Gori's square earlier in the day after being forced to flee their villages by marauders operating in the so-called buffer zone established along the boundary with South Ossetia.

Several people had fled the fighting in the region earlier this month and had gone back to their farms and villages over the weekend, according to individual accounts heard by UNHCR. Others were elderly people who had remained in their homes throughout the conflict, but had been forced to flee by armed groups.

Those newly displaced claimed that some had been beaten, harassed and robbed, and said that three persons had reportedly been killed. UNHCR staff in Gori were helping set up a small tented camp where the displaced could stay on Tuesday.

The new UNHCR office in Gori was opened on Sunday, two days after UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres completed a four-day mission to Georgia, South Ossetia and the Russian Federation and amid an improving security situation in the region.

In addition to providing aid, UNHCR will assist local authorities in mapping and assessing the numbers of returnees to the town, which was largely abandoned during the brief conflict that began on August 8. "We are also coordinating assistance programmes providing shelter and non-food items as an increasing number of aid organizations arrive in Gori," a UNHCR spokesperson said.

Most of the returns since Friday have been spontaneous, with many of the displaced returned from areas in and around the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. According to the Georgian government, between 10,000 and 15,000 people have already gone back to Gori, out of an initial population estimated at some 70,000. Most of the returnees had been in contact with neighbours and relatives and were aware of the state of their homes. Many of the returnees were men who said they first wanted to see the situation for themselves before bringing their families back.

UNHCR field teams monitored departure points and shelters in Tbilisi to ascertain the voluntary nature of the returns. Many returnees carried UNHCR relief packages, including blankets, mattresses and kitchen sets as well as food supplies for five to 10 days. The UN refugee agency is advising the returnees through the local media to watch out for unexploded ordnance and to stay away from villages not yet cleared of mines and declared safe by the authorities.

In South Ossetia, the humanitarian and security situation is being stabilized and people have started returning to their homes there as well. According to Russian authorities some 23,000 people from South Ossetia had returned from the Russian Federation since August 12. Guterres, who visited South Ossetia and the Russian republic of North Ossetia, spoke to several displaced people, nearly all of whom said they intended to return to their homes as soon as possible.

In western Georgia, people displaced from the Kodori Valley in the north-east of the Abkhazia region, told UNHCR yesterday that practically all ethnic Georgians from that region have left. They said they had no information on conditions in the valley and no intention of returning.

"Our operation in Georgia is now shifting gears and we are entering a new, post-emergency phase," the UNHCR spokesperson said. Altogether, 122,000 people have been provided emergency relief, more than half of them by UNHCR teams. This was done in close cooperation with UNHCR's sister agency, WFP (World Food Programme), which provided the food while UNHCR delivered non-food items and shelter material.

While UNHCR continues to coordinate aid distribution in Georgia, the agency is also focusing on its traditional protection mandate. This is all the more complex as the situation on the ground is very dynamic with the continuing movement of people.

More than 158,000 people were displaced during the recent conflict 128,000 within Georgia and some 30,000 who fled to the Russian Federation. Prior to the latest crisis UNHCR has been working on behalf of some 220,000 previously displaced people in Georgia.

By Melita H. Sunjic in Gori, Georgia

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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

Panama's Hidden Refugees

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Panama's Hidden Refugees

Food cuts in Chad camps expose refugee women and children to exploitation, abuse

A funding shortfall has forced the World Food Programme (WFP) to cut food rations in refugee camps in eastern Chad by up to 60 per cent. As a result, Sudanese refugees in 13 camps in the east now receive about 850 calories per day, down from the minimum ration of 2,100 calories daily they used to get. The refugees are finding it difficult to cope. Clinics in the area report a significant spike in malnutrition cases, with rates as high as 19.5 per cent in Am Nabak camp.

WFP needs to raise US$ 186 million to maintain feeding programmes for refugees in Africa through the end of the year. Additionally, UNHCR is urgently seeking contributions towards the US$ 78 million it has budgeted this year for food security and nutrition programmes serving refugees in Africa.

In the meantime, the refugees experiencing ration cuts have few options. Poor soil quality, dry conditions and little access to water mean they can't plant supplemental crops as refugees in the less arid south of Chad are able to do. To try to cope, many refugee women in eastern Chad are leaving the camps in search of work in surrounding towns. They clean houses, do laundry, fetch water and firewood and work as construction labourers. Even so, they earn very little and often depend on each other for support. In the town of Iriba, for example, some 50 refugee women sleep rough each night under a tree and share their some of their meagre earnings to pay for a daily, communal meal.

They are also subject to exploitation. Sometimes, their temporary employers refuse to pay them at the end of the day. And some women and girls have resorted to prostitution to earn money to feed their families.

Ration cuts can have an impact far beyond health, reverberating through the entire community. It is not uncommon for children to be pulled out of school on market days in order to work. Many refugees use a portion of their food rations to barter for other essentials, or to get cash to pay school fees or buy supplies for their children. Small business owners like butchers, hairdressers and tailors - some of them refugees - also feel the pinch.

WFP supplies food to some 240,500 Sudanese refugees in the camps of eastern Chad. Many have been in exile for years and, because of their limited opportunities for self-sufficiency, remain almost totally dependent on outside help. The ration cuts have made an already difficult situation much worse for refugees who were already struggling.

Food cuts in Chad camps expose refugee women and children to exploitation, abuse

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