Georgia: UNHCR closely monitoring Chechen refugees' situation
UNHCR is closely monitoring the situation for Chechen refugees in the Pankisi valley area of north-eastern Georgia and welcomes recent statements from the authorities that the refugees will not be forced to return to Chechnya. Because of the ongoing conflict and security concerns in Chechnya, UNHCR cannot at this time promote repatriation of Chechen refugees. UNHCR has repeatedly stressed that any return of Chechens must be voluntary. During a meeting in Akhmeta Thursday between refugee representatives and UNHCR staff, we were told that refugees are not yet willing to return to Chechnya because they still fear for their security. Our offices in Moscow and Tbilisi are in regular contact with the governments involved to make sure that any return would be voluntary.
The already high tensions in the Pankisi valley have deteriorated in recent weeks, with residents of Akhmeta calling for increased law and order in the valley. However, the demonstrations that had lasted for several weeks are now over, and the local "mobile armed groups" hostile to the refugees have been disbanded. UNHCR was forced to delay distribution of humanitarian aid for several weeks due to the tensions, but deliveries to both refugees and host families resumed on January 30.
More than 7,000 Chechen refugees have been living in Georgia's Pankisi valley since fleeing the conflict in Chechnya in 1999. The vast majority of them are women, children and elderly. About 80 percent of the refugees live with Georgian host families from the Kist ethnic group.
Another 150,000 Chechens are displaced in the Russian Federation republic of Ingushetia, many for more than three years.