Chechen Refugee Number Decreases

Registration Shows Interesting Trend

Georgia has posted preliminary results of the new refugee registration in the Pankisi area. The data shows that the number of Chechen refugees registered in Georgia halved.

The Georgian Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation (MRA) launched the registration of Chechen refugees in a town of Akhmeta on April 15 with support of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “Registration is an essential tool for effective protection, planning, timely delivery of adequate assistance, as well as the pursuit of appropriate durable solutions”, says Patrick Tezier, Deputy Representative of the UNHCR in Georgia, says.

The initial registration of Chechen refugees that fled hostilities in Russia’s southern province and found shelter in Georgia was carried out in 2000. According to this data 7600 Chechen refugees lived in villages of Pankisi gorge, where most of them were settled. According to the preliminary results of the current survey, only 3700 refugees registered this year.

Officials and analysts say there are many reasons for this substantial decrease. First of all, the registration was voluntary, so some Chechens may have chosen not to participate.

However, the MRA officials say many Chechens have already left Georgia and returned to their homeland. Scale of migration of the refugees within Georgia is also significant. Many of them change places of residence frequently.

But the Georgian officials say a failure to register may also have some legal consequences. “We can not prosecute these persons, but in fact they are living in Georgia illicitly” – Levan Tatishvili, Deputy Spokesman of the State Security Ministry, told Civil Georgia on April 29.

The registration was not yet carried out in Tbilisi and other regions of the country were approximately 500 Chechens are expected to be residing.

The issue of Chechen refugees is politically charged and has often become a reason of Russia’s pressure on Georgia. Russia blames Georgia for sheltering Chechen combatants. Georgian officials admit that fighters might indeed be among the Chechens.

Alongside with extradition of the persons charged with crimes, Russia also lobbies repatriation of the refugees. Georgian government seems supportive. President Eduard Shevardnadze stated after the meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on March 1 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, that sides agreed “Russia [to] speed up measures aiming at Chechen refugee’s return from Pankisi to their homes.”

Talks on refugees’ repatriation between Georgian and Russian sides started in the beginning of this year. On February 15 the Russian and Georgian sides signed a protocol, relating to voluntary repatriation of Chechen refugees from Georgia to Russia.

Georgian NGOs working on refugee issues say the word “voluntary” is a key here. Erekle Glurjidze officer of the Refugee Council of Georgia, a project of the UN Association of Georgia told that for the repatriation not to violate the rights of refugees, international organizations and non-governmental institutions should be assured that the process of repatriation is voluntary, their security in places of return is assured and human rights guaranteed.

Irakli Pirtskhalava, Head of the Department of Refugees and Asylum Seekers at MRA told Civil Georgia that registration process is not linked to the Russo-Georgian protocol on repatriation. However, he added, “repatriation can only start after the registration is completed and refugee status assigned.”

“Registration can be organized again for those who want to return to the homeland. But this will only happen if they express their wish to return there” – Pirtskhalava says.

According to his words, many refugees want to return back to Chechnya, but majority of them is against repatriation as they think the threat to their lives and security is still real.

Pirtskhalava believes that it is still early to talk about the repatriation. “We do not stress this issue yet. First we must find a way to register those people, who could not undergo this process,” he says.

While Georgian and international agencies grapple with technical problems of registration, the fate of Chechen refugees still hinges on political decisions. Only with international assistance and civil attention the rights of these people can be adequately guaranteed.