Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Dr. Maureen Lynch
Director of Research - Refugees International

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Co-Chairman Smith and Members of the Commission, thank you for the invitation to address you today. In October 2002, I traveled on behalf of Refugees International to Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ingushetia to evaluate the conditions faced by refugees and internally displaced people. In the south, ceasefires have for the most part stopped the fighting, but have failed to bring peace. In the north, war rages on. All told over a million people remain displaced, and many remain locked in hopeless circumstances.

The majority of people of concern in the South Caucasus, which I've been asked to talk about today, were displaced by ethnically based independence movements shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union-in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, and by Abkhazia's attempt to break away from Georgia. They have been unable either to return to their homes in safety or to integrate satisfactorily in the places to which they fled. The deadlocked peace processes have created additional anguish and uncertainty. The affected population of concern to RI includes 572,000 IDPs in Azerbaijan who fled the autonomous republic of Nagorno-Karabakh; 4,000-10,000 Chechen refugees currently residing in the Azerbaijan capital city of Baku; over 250,000, primarily in the cities of Georgia, that were displaced during the 1992-1993 civil war in Abkhazia; a relatively small number of Chechens in the Pankisi Gorge and Tblisi areas of Georgia, and an estimated 100,000 Chechen refugees in Ingushetia.

I'll speak first about conditions in Azerbaijan, followed by Georgia.

AZERBAIJAN

The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, the contested ethnic Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan, is the biggest longstanding source of displacement in the South Caucasus. The dispute began shortly after the Soviet Union incorporated the Caucasus in 1920-21. Moscow placed the Armenian enclave under the governance of Azerbaijan. In 1988, Armenians began to demonstrate against Azeri control. Demonstrations turned into riots. Russian troops supported Baku's efforts to retain control of the enclave until 1991, when the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was 75 percent Armenian, approved a referendum calling for independence. Some 30,000 people died in the fighting that began after the Russians withdrew, and hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees fled the region. All told the conflict uprooted some 844,000 Azeris, 600,000 IDPs and 200,000 refugees (ethnic Azeris who had lived in Armenia). Large numbers of ethnic Armenians fled Azerbaijan, and today nearly 265,000 continue to live in refugee-like conditions in Armenia.

A 1994 cease-fire ended the fighting but not the dispute and subsequent efforts by outside mediators (Russia, France, and the United States) have failed to yield a settlement. One displaced Azeri expressed a widely held sentiment: "Our situation does not attract attention because we wait for a peaceful solution and do not engage in violent acts. It just doesn't seem right." It is a view echoed by Brenda Shaffer of the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Because Nagorno-Karabakh is no longer the focus of a "hot" war and displaced Azeris have not turned to terrorism to highlight their plight, she says, the conflict has simply slipped off the screen, its victims forgotten.

While IDPs primarily emphasize the need for a political solution and their strong desire to return home, they also continue to face many hardships: lack of economic opportunity, inadequate shelter and placement on non-arable land, and the insufficient responses of both the Government of Azerbaijan and the international community.

Temporary, or poorly thought out, solutions to long-term problems are a recurring theme. The Azeri government's unwillingness to consider all possible outcomes of the Nagorno-Karabakh (N-K) dispute has made the IDPs political pawns. "Politics is keeping them victims to attract donors," one NGO worker told RI. The government has used the IDPs as a visual reminder of the war and to keep the hope of regaining N-K alive. This need outweighs any incentive to address Azerbaijan's protracted and chronic IDP problem. In addition, many NGOs have shifted from emergency assistance to development-related activities. "The gap has been ignored - maybe because it is too difficult," suggested one aid worker. While there is generally reported to be effective coordination among NGOs at the field level, it was repeatedly brought to RI's attention that the United Nations development programs are isolated from the rest of the aid community and are performing less than efficiently.

Shelter conditions of the displaced are inadequate, with irregular access to water and energy. About ten percent of the Azeri IDPs live in camps, the rest live in an array of situations - abandoned railroad boxcars, dugouts in the ground, old apartment complexes, makeshift shanties, new homes provided by the government, and in newly constructed dwellings in liberated areas.

Old boxcars are used as protection from only the most extreme elements. The metal structures are like an oven in the summer and a refrigerator in the winter. Some families make a living space underneath the boxcars as a summer resting place. Inside the boxcars there is electricity and a single burner to cook on. However, the cooking in the hot months is mostly done outside between cars. Water is often scarce, and the clinics and schools are barely adequate.

In the Agebedi region, an area where the nomadic herders from N-K historically spent winter, and thus also called winterground, became a year-round settlement and the herders are now IDPs. Their homes are built as holes in the ground covered, in most cases with dirt, but also with sticks, plastic and cardboard. In warmer weather and after heavy rains, many of the dwellings suffer severe water damage. If the occupants are fortunate enough to have a sheet of plastic to insulate their ceiling, water and mold often collect and make for chronically damp conditions and cause allergies and respiratory infections, particularly in children.

In the urban setting of Sumqayit, one of the largest industrial areas in the whole of the former Soviet Union, IDPs reside in crowded, nearly suffocating living conditions, surrounded by a sad symphony of smoke stacks, abandoned factories and aboveground gas pipes. At one dark and damp IDP flat RI visited, 72 families share one shower and a few "kitchens" (a single gas burner and an occasional faucet). "Ninety percent of the IDP families here are unemployed," one resident said. "This is a community where Soviets used to supply raw material, so factories don't work now."

In one shanty community, RI spoke to a bed-ridden resident whose leg was crushed when a rain-weakened shelter collapsed on him. In rural areas, IDPs reside on poor quality land and must rely on the government and foreign aid to sustain their families. Lack of access to water has prevented communities from agricultural self-sustainability. "We need irrigation systems," reported many of the IDPs.

The Azeri government has relocated some Bilesuvar IDPs from tent camps to newly constructed homes built by a government IDP fund from the oil revenues. The new homes are an improvement, but they are located where there are no viable agricultural or economic opportunities. NGOs are implementing training programs. "We have many trainings, but what we need is jobs", said one Fizuli IDP. This issue, along with large numbers of IDPs moving to cities and even other countries, suggests that the new communities are only a partial and temporary solution to a much more complex housing situation.

As an oil rich nation with a ninety-eight percent literacy rate, there is a lot of potential for Azerbaijan. The answer to Azerbaijan's trouble is not only found in a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict - Azerbaijan must protect itself from corruption and use all of its resources to look into the future. Issues related to permanent resettlement must be addressed so that Azerbaijan can fully develop its potential and becoming a civil, self-supporting society. Refugees International has recommended that:

The Government of Azerbaijan


  • Seek a permanent and peaceful solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, with a view to return for all those displaced wanting to do so.

  • Provide durable solutions, including integration, for those who choose that alternative.

  • Provide new settlements in regions with viable economic opportunity.

  • Develop and implement long-term development strategies including diversification of the economy to include sectors other than oil.

  • Provide irrigation programs in IDP/refugee settlements.

  • Ensure transparency in all transactions.



The International Community


  • Expedite efforts to negotiate a permanent political solution.

  • Continue providing humanitarian aid and ensure no phase-out before replacement by development assistance.



The United Nations Development Program


  • Assertively fulfill leadership and co-ordination roles.



CHECHENS IN AZERBAIJAN

With over 800,000 war-displaced Azeris depending upon the government for assistance, little aid is made available to the Chechen community of about 5,000-10,000. Security and protection are their most important concerns. The Government does not presently accord Chechens refugee status for political reasons. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has acknowledged their need for protection, identified more than six thousand individuals as "persons of concern", and provided identification cards for them to prevent police harassment and deportation. Healthcare, education, and food are also big concerns. Only a few hundred of the most vulnerable Chechens in Baku are getting sporadic monthly cash assistance from the UNHCR. When asked the reason for limited assistance, one former cash recipient explained, "They say it is lack of donors."

GEORGIA

In Georgia, though the numbers are smaller, the IDP crisis is as acute and even more complex since no less than three conflicts have convulsed this poor country. Georgia has experienced two secessionist conflicts of its own, which have displaced about 5 percent of its population. South Ossetia began a campaign in 1990 to form a political alliance with North Ossetia, leading to an unsuccessful plebiscite in 1992 on the question of seceding from Georgia and uniting with Russia. The conflict displaced more than 60,000 people, most of who fled to Russia; some 12,000 of them remain displaced within Georgia. Georgia's northwest province of Abkhazia also rebelled in 1991, displacing an estimated 250,000 Georgians, who had been the dominant ethnic group in the province, making the ethnic Abkhazi a minority in their own region. In 1994, Georgian and Abkhazi negotiators agreed to a separation of forces, which is monitored by peacekeepers from former Soviet states and a U.N. military observer mission (we here note with concern the recent kidnapping of two of them).

Most of Georgia's 300,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Georgia face unemployment, horrible living conditions, a full range of relief and development needs, and a lack of healthcare. Most have settled in urban areas, in available buildings in the Samegrelo (bordering Abkhazia) and Imereti regions in the west and in Georgia's capital city, Tbilisi. Originally the host populations accepted the IDPs and Chechen refugees with open arms, but, over time, the large IDP influx has put a strain on the host community. In one location several resort hotels once used by vacationers are now used to house IDPs. Thus, the host population's livelihood has been taken away and there are not enough resources to accommodate everyone. The economic collapse of Georgia following the dissolution of the USSR left many people in a bad situation - not just the IDPs. The majority of IDPs are dependent on State assistance - often distributed with a delay.

Their plight is illustrated by Zuhra, eighteen, who escorted a Refugees International (RI) team into the dilapidated and windowless room he shares with his twelve-year-old brother. When Zuhra was eight, and his brother was two, the orphans left war-torn Abkhazia. At the hotel all they have is a small bed, a space heater, and each other. They use a neighbor's stove to cook. The bathroom, shared by half of the buildings' residents, is on the second floor. Occasionally Zuhra finds work as a day laborer, but making ends meet is impossible in Georgia's shattered economy. When RI asked if Zuhra had anything else to add to his story, with a depressed expression Zuhra simply looked around his hopeless surroundings and said, "Isn't it enough...what I've already said?"

The Georgian government officially sanctioned some of the housing, while at other locations IDPs squat in deserted buildings. In either case, the housing is crowded and in disrepair. One aid worker told RI, "You can't rehabilitate something that needs to be rebuilt." In some buildings, exposed wiring has started fires and burned holes in the walls. Larger families, facing overcrowding, had their children play, and often sleep, in neighbors' rooms. One building RI visited had lost a piece of its ceiling, fatally injuring someone passing underneath. These conditions, coupled with a lack of water and expensive heating costs, make their accommodations nearly uninhabitable.

In addition to inadequate shelter, there is a diverse array of needs among the displaced population. Many IDPs are still in need of relief aid rather than development. The poor payback of micro-credit initiatives, a usual sign of economic development, indicates that people have few viable financial opportunities. This is especially apparent in Samegrelo. As one aid worker put it, "The further west in Georgia, the worse the conditions, because everyone who could afford to leave has moved to Tbilisi." When asked about food, the IDPs replied that there was no pattern to the sporadic food distributions. One elderly displaced woman said, "It is impossible to live like that. What can we eat?" Another IDP asked, "Are two kilos of macaroni supposed to feed me the rest of my life?"

Another problem is lack of transparency. "It's too hard to find anyone honest in government," RI was told repeatedly. For fear of companies importing products duty free under the guise of humanitarian aid, the Georgian government has imposed an import tax. One NGO requested RI, "Tell the world to wake up and push the Georgian government to allow NGOs to work freely."

There is a great need for affordable and accessible healthcare. In virtually every settlement RI visited, there was a healthcare gap. This is particularly disturbing since IDPs are dying from curable ailments, in particular tuberculosis. And, with no insurance, even if healthcare is available, it is not affordable. People bypass doctors entirely or use pharmacies as one-stop shopping. One young IDP who couldn't buy medicine for his earache could not even put a shirt over his head. A pensioner had the option of having her leg amputated, or dying. With no money, she lies in bed, waiting for an unknown fate.

Another major concern for Georgia's IDPs is the availability of psychosocial assistance. Few international organizations have addressed the psychosocial needs of Georgian IDPs. With their displacement having lasted ten years, the IDPs' psyche has been adversely affected. "Everyone is concerned about going to Abkhasia, to their native home. They have no real hope. They are depressed. What they want is just to return," an aid worker reported. "In Georgia, we have a saying, hope dies last," one IDP woman told RI. Refugees International recommended that:

The Government of Georgia


  • Actively seek permanent and peaceful solutions to the Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts.

  • Take responsibility for the welfare of displaced people, including timely stipend distributions.

  • Lift duties imposed upon the import of humanitarian aid.



The Government of Georgia, the United Nations, international aid agencies, and local NGOs


  • Identify and match needs of IDPs with the relief and development programs being implemented.

  • Implement permanent and sustainable solutions for shelter and long-term settlement.

  • Make non-emergency healthcare available to all IDPs.

  • Expand psychosocial programs for IDPs.



CHECHENS IN GEORGIA

As in the case in Azerbaijan, the fact that Georgia is already struggling to support more than 250,000 displaced individuals from its own conflicts has affected others who seeking safety there. Georgia has provided weak protection and material support for Chechen refugees. About 4,000, took refuge in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge area. An additional 250-300 individuals stay in Georgia's capital city of Tbilisi. Their small numbers have also failed to gain the attention of most international aid agencies, while some of the few that had provided assistance have now pulled out due to insecurity and reduced funding.