Q&A: A big mandate for UNHCR office in Georgia, including peace role
GENEVA, March 23 (UNHCR) - Naveed Hussain has been the UN refugee agency's Representative in Georgia for the past three years. UNHCR's operations in the country not only help uprooted people in areas controlled by the government, but also in two breakaway regions. This makes for a complicated mission, which Hussain recently discussed with Senior Public Information Officer William Spindler in Geneva. Excerpts from the interview:
Please tell us something about your operations in Georgia
UNHCR has been involved in Georgia since the early 1990s, when the UN Secretary-General [Boutros Boutros-Ghali] asked UNHCR to take a lead in assisting people displaced by the conflict in Georgia.... Georgia is a country which has two breakaway regions - Abkhazia and South Ossetia ... and internally displaced people [IDPs] are in all parts of Georgia.
Over the years, UNHCR has had multi-sectoral programmes to assist the IDPs. In Georgia, UNHCR is - unusually - an integral part of the peace processes for both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We play a lead role on issues which are related to refugees, IDPs and returnees. In Georgia proper - the territory controlled by the government - recently we have been heavily engaged in advocating with the government to develop a national IDP strategy, which needs to take a longer-term view of the IDP situation.
UNHCR believes in the principle of right of return. At the same time, we believe that until people are able to exercise the right of return, they have the right to a normal life. So far, for political reasons, the government of Georgia has been focusing only on returns. That resulted ... in some neglect of the situation of the IDPs - there are almost a quarter-of-a-million IDPs in Georgia.
The new government [of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who assumed office in January 2004] ... has made a number of policy changes and that gave us room to persuade the government to have a longer-term IDP strategy. That strategy has now been adopted by the government. What UNHCR intends to do is to persuade the government and the development actors to integrate the IDPs into longer-term development programmes so that they get all the rights which they should as citizens of Georgia. The second part of our policy on IDPs is to raise additional funds to provide targeted assistance to vulnerable IDPs. This is about the IDPs in Georgia proper.
UNHCR also plays a key role in helping the government develop legal frameworks to ensure that the rights of the refugees and IDPs are fully respected. We have been helping the government to develop a refugee law. We have recently spent a lot of time and provided technical support for developing a law on restitution of property for IDPs and refugees. And we have provided technical support in developing the national IDP strategy.
Please tell us a bit more about Abkhazia and South Ossetia
In Abkhazia, there have been some returns - 40,000 to 45,000. These are ethnic Georgians who are living in Abkhazia under the control of the de facto Abkhaz authorities. Our work is focused on protecting these people and working towards improving their well-being.
Our current programme is guided by a two-year strategy, which aims at building trust and confidence between the two communities, Abkhaz and Georgians, at the grassroots level. We believe that even if there is no political breakthrough in the negotiation process, it is very important that the well-being of these people who have returned is not neglected. At the same time, it is very important to make efforts to bring the two communities, Abkhaz and Georgian, together and that will help in building peace from the bottom up.
UNHCR has been working since the mid-1990s in South Ossetia, where we have been carrying out a programme which has largely focused on returns of Ossetians from their places of refuge in North Ossetia [in the Russian Federation] to their homes in South Ossetia or Georgia and returns of Georgians displaced from South Ossetia. Our programme has focused on helping people who voluntarily returned. The largest component of this programme has been repairing and building new houses and providing people with returnee integration packages.
In South Ossetia there is a mechanism - called the joint control commission - between the South Ossetians, Georgians, North Ossetians and the Russians. UNHCR has an observer role in this mechanism. So there also, we try to contribute to the peace process by helping the returnee population ... and, to the extent possible, those internally displaced persons who are currently living in South Ossetia and are unable to go back to their homes.
Can you give us some examples of what you do to build confidence?
We are helping to repair schools for Abkhaz and Georgian children. We are also giving small-scale loans so that people can become more self-reliant. We also have a shelter programme.... This, together with the advocacy work that we carry out on a day-to-day basis with the Abkhaz authorities and the Georgian government about the rights of IDPs and returnees, helps us contribute to the peace process.
UNHCR is a signatory to a 1994 quadripartite agreement between the Georgian side, the Abkhaz side, the Russian Federation and UNHCR.
This agreement is designed to work towards creating conditions conducive for the return of IDPs and refugees to Abkhazia. In addition, there are different mechanisms set up by the parties and international community.... We work at the grassroots level, but at the same time we try to raise the concerns of these populations at these high-level fora and so contribute to the peace process.
You've told us a bit about IDPs, what about refugees in your area?
In 1999, we had an influx of Chechen refugees. When the refugees came, UNHCR was naturally asked to perform its traditional role. These refugees live in the Pankisi Valley in Georgia, close to the Russian border.... The valley is around 50-60 miles from the border and there is thick forest and mountains between the two.
In that programme, we provide multi-sectoral assistance ... non-food items, support for education, health, legal assistance. And UNHCR, as part of its mandate, on a regular basis intervenes with the authorities to protect refugees. There have been certain perceptions about this valley, political perceptions, but we have found those perceptions to be grossly exaggerated. Our refugee programme has three components, first is to protect and assist refugees, second is to ... work towards local integration of those refugees who have traditional, historical and ethnic ties with Georgia. So for that, we are persuading the government of Georgia to help us locally integrate them.
At the same time, we have had a resettlement programme to take those refugees who can't be locally integrated and who cannot return home. That progamme has been affected by the overall political climate on migratory controls, especially since the events of September 11 . There's a strong demand from refugees to go for resettlement and it's a challenge for us to find slots for resettlement.
How big is the refugee population in Georgia?
Originally, there were around 8,000 refugees. But a number of people have moved on, some people have returned. The current estimate is around 1,500 Chechen refugees - in terms of numbers, it's a small caseload, however because of its proximity with the Russian Federation and the political perception attached to this caseload it becomes a very important group of people for UNHCR to support.
What resources does UNHCR have in Georgia?
We have over 40 staff in Georgia and we have five offices. We have one branch office in Tbilisi and then four field offices. Soon we will be opening another satellite office in South Ossetia. We have an office in Sukhumi, which is the capital of Abkhazia. We have an office in Gali [in Abkhazia], where we have been present for well over a decade despite the difficult security situation.... We have an office in Zugdidi, which is in western Georgia, where there is a large concentration of IDPs. And we have an office in Akhmeta, which is just outside the Pankisi Valley and which is there to support the Chechen refugees.
What have been the most difficult issues you have had to deal with?
The most difficult issues have been the conflict regions and the protection of people in those areas, where the authorities are not internationally recognised. And I would say a degree of frustration that the peace processes have not been advanced ... [I also at first found] a degree of unclarity about the extent of our involvement with IDPs. Whether to get involved, or not to get involved, I found a bit frustrating as a representative. The IDPs need UNHCR; UNHCR is the only agency with the experience of dealing with this displaced population and we are working in a region where displacement can make or break peace. The issue of displacement is too important to be neglected.