There’s no place like the EU, some say, as thousands of refugees flood to its borders. But there’s much more to the refugee crisis than meets the eye. E&M takes a look at the other corner of the European continent – Georgia.
As the refugee crisis continues to stay on top of European agenda, people from Iraq and Syria, and more recently Ukraine, continue to apply for asylum in the small Caucasian country of Georgia, sporting a population of only 4.5 million. They are most often granted refugee status. This means they enjoy protection from the state guaranteed under that status and can also benefit from the education and healthcare equally to Georgian citizens, as well as have right to work legally and own property besides agricultural land. While the number of asylum applicants is not comparable to the current influx facing the European Union, considering Georgia’s small size, the statistics are still impressive: 2676 applications only in 2014 and 2015, with 1375 coming from Iraq.
In the Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation and Refugees of Georgia there is a special centre where every day between 11 am and 3 pm, ten to twenty people on average are waiting for the decision on their refugee or humanitarian status. According to Georgian law a refugee is a person who was forced to leave his/her country of citizenship or permanent residence due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country. Meanwhile humanitarian status is granted to a person who doesn’t meet the requirements needed for granting a refugee status according to the Convention, nevertheless he is unable to return to the place of his/her permanent residence.
Quite often there are families with children among people waiting in the center. Many of them hope to move on to another country after receiving humanitarian or refugee status in Georgia. What many of them do not know is that the United Nations’ Refugee Agency has acknowledged Georgia to be a safe country, meaning that once a person is granted the refugee status here, they cannot request it elsewhere, in Europe or USA. This is the reason why approximately two-thirds of asylum seekers from Iraq have changed their minds about becoming refugee in Georgia last year, and have perhaps set on to other European countries.
“Otherwise there is a very low rate of rejection if they meet the minimal requirements: in case of humanitarian status they have to prove they are from a certain country where there are hostilities; while applying for refugee status, they have to show they feared of being persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality in their home country,” the Minister of Accommodation and Refugees of Georgia, Sozar Subari told E&M.
“Because there is war,” say the majority of asylum seekers at the centre in the Ministry when asked why they have decided to come to Georgia. “You cannot live there even one hour. It is impossible,” says Nawar from Iraq who has been in Georgia for three years. He came here to live a normal life, receive education. Now he is studying at Technical University of Tbilisi and even married a Georgian girl while still waiting to receive the official refugee status. “There are some documents still needed,” Nawar says adding that he likes living in Georgia and does not want to leave this country.
Unlike him, Ghassan, also from Iraq has been already granted refugee status in Georgia. He still considers moving to another country. “I came here to live in peace. I would stay here if I found a permanent job but it is so hard. I try to work as a guide for Arab tourists but that is seasonal work and I have to pay for rent,” Ghassan says.
For those who cannot afford housing, the Ministry of Accommodation and Refugees has a 60-bed shelter near the capital city of Georgia. This is not enough, as Minister Subari said. “Currently we are building another 70-bed shelter so there will be a capacity of 110 people in total, but even that is still not enough. We hope to do more”, he added.
At the same time, the Ministry is obliged to take care of more than 260,000 people who received the status of Internally Displaced People (IDP) as a result of the armed conflict in two of the breakaway regions of Georgia: de facto Abkhazia (1992-93) and South Ossetia (1991-92; August 2008 Russian-Georgian War). Only one third of those people have been provided with housing so far and the process is still ongoing.
“Our major goal is to help them have a livelihood in order to assure them that the state aid is not the only way to survive. After we provide housing and they can experience a feeling of property, we want to change this psychological kind of addiction to state allowance and show them how to live independently,” Subari said.
The majority of IDPs are ready to return their homes if there is peace and stability. Irma’s house in Akhalgori, neighbouring de facto South Ossetia and currently controlled by Russian forces, is abandoned. She lives in Tserovani IDP settlement and works as a teacher at the school there. “It is not bad here but if there was peace I would definitely return to my home in Akhalgori. Before leaving I was working at a school there as well. However, I cannot go there under occupation circumstances,” she told E&M.
According to rough estimates, Georgia needs one billion US dollars to provide housing to all of the IDPs around the country but its current economic state does not allow such expenditure. In case of conflict resolution with the breakaway regions IDPs have right to decide on their own if they want to return or to stay. Those who will already own property as IDPs will have the legal right to keep it, whichever decision they may take.
Teaser photo: Denys Zhylin (Unsplash)