GNA Georgia: Q&A with UNHCR's representative in Georgia, Peter Nicolaus

Georgia was a pilot country for the Global Needs Assessment, GNA, in early 2008, then suddenly conflict broke out over South Ossetia creating a whole new situation of fresh displacement. Do you now have greater unmet needs than before?

UNHCR reacted swiftly to the August crisis. Initially for 2009, we had a proposed budget of 12.5 million US$ to address the unmet needs of people who had been displaced since the 1990s - the so-called 'old' IDPs. However, in September, after the August humanitarian crisis, we increased the GNA budget to US$ 28.8 million.

The needs of all the displaced people in Georgia are huge. After the latest crisis, the World Bank and the UN mission conducted a Joint Needs Assessment, looking into the long term unmet needs. The mission concluded that some US$ 500 million would be needed to address the needs of the entire displaced population in the country. This includes IDPs displaced during the August 2008 conflict as well as those 220,000 'old' IDPs, displaced during previous conflicts over Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the early 1990s.

Georgia already had a large, protracted situation with displaced people from previous conflicts in the early 1990s. What was their situation before the latest conflict and has this worsened with thousands of people newly displaced?

The situation stayed unchanged for the majority of those who had previously been internally displaced - the 'old' IDPs. But, for several thousand of them, the situation has deteriorated considerably as they had to go through yet another displacement, again losing their homes and all their belongings. Also, many of the 'old' IDPs were re-traumatised by the recent crisis.

Throughout the country collective centres for the 'old' IDPs were already in a deplorable condition. In addition, two such centres in Senaki, western Georgia, were damaged during the recent fighting. Three of the 'old' IDPs were killed and a dozen were injured.

One of the places that has suffered most is the town of Gori. Before the latest conflict it was already home to a large number of 'old' IDPs. They had to flee the city in August along with the rest of the population. Now, Gori hosts 6,000 new IDPs in addition to the 'old' IDPs who managed to return.

Is there a risk that because of all the international attention that there will be funding for the newly displaced but not those who have been uprooted from their homes and suffering over the last 15 years?

From the onset of the conflict, the UN and in particular UNHCR took a holistic approach towards the displacement problem. Whether people were forced to flee years ago or months ago, they have the same right to assistance and to a durable solution.

We are putting both groups in the limelight, channelling the attention of the international community and the Georgian government to both groups of displaced. We also feel that there is a firm commitment among donors and aid organizations to support the entire displaced population of the country.

Is there any tension between the newly displaced and the previously displaced? Are they living in the same collective centres?

Most of new IDPs have been placed in separate collective centres and were not mixed with those previously displaced. New and 'old' IDPs can relate to the same ordeal and suffering. All of them have gone through the same misfortune - unwanted displacement from their homes - and 'old' IDPs certainly sympathize with those freshly displaced. With more attention directed towards the newly displaced, the IDPs from earlier conflicts are hoping to get similar attention and aid.

UNHCR and the international community in general never distinguished between old and new IDPs during this recent crisis. The most vulnerable of both groups benefited from food and non-food items provided by the UN and its partners. Also, the planned winterization of collective centres does not envisage a distinction between new and old collective centres. The entire IDP population will benefit.

A UNHCR donor mission in April 2008 described the needs of Georgia's displaced as 'overwhelming'. What are the greatest needs of displaced people now and how can UNHCR help?

At the moment, IDPs need to be provided with adequate housing. In the coordinated approach that the UN Country Team has adopted, UNHCR was given the lead for shelter, which currently represents the biggest and most complex part of assistance to IDPs.

We have been prompt in addressing this problem. After analysing the existing situation, we identified three groups of beneficiaries: IDPs who are able to return to their homes before winter; IDPs who need short term, temporary shelter for one winter before they can go back home; and IDPs who will not be able to return in the foreseeable future and will need long-term housing.

After several weeks of negotiations with the government and partner organisations, UNHCR and the Ministry for Refugees and Accommodation issued a strategy paper that outlines a national shelter strategy and the actions required.

For the cities of Tbilisi and Gori which have the largest concentration of IDPs, the government has provided a list of public buildings ready for conversion into temporary shelters (collective centres). UNHCR has taken on the responsibility of rehabilitating these buildings and is coordinating all NGOs working in the shelter sector.

The most expensive part of the shelter strategy is durable housing for the long term displaced. The government provided an initial list of empty buildings that can be adapted as long-term residences for IDP families. We have examined the technical and financial feasibility of the rehabilitation of each building and will start along with partners on construction work as soon as property rights and the availability of communal services (water, sewage system, electricity and gas) have been guaranteed by the government.

Do the refugees from the Chechen Republic in the Russian Federation who have been living in the Pankisi valley for many years in poor conditions risk being forgotten with all the attention on the newly displaced?

No, not at all. Even during the peak of the emergency, UNHCR maintained its presence in the Pankisi valley and ensured protection and assistance to Chechen refugees residing in the area.

In addition, part of the GNA will in particular address the living conditions of Chechen refugees through income generation projects ensuring their socio-economic integration. At the same time, we are together with the government, exploring possibilities to provide Chechen refugees with a more secure residence status, such as a long-term residence permit or naturalization.