UNHCR hopes to improve conditions for returnees to Abkhazia in 2009

News Stories, 22 October 2008

© UNHCR/P.Taggart
Repairs Needed: UNHCR hopes to help renovate the dilapidated homes of returnees in Abkhazia.

GALI, Georgia, October 12 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency plans next year to step up its support for tens of thousands of returnees in the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia as part of a new approach to needs assessment and fund-raising.

UNHCR currently provides very basic shelter assistance and a limited income generation programme to an estimated 45,000 returnees, but plans in 2009 to also fund the construction and rehabilitation of houses for use by the returnees in areas close to Abkhazia's border with Georgia proper. The agency also plans to build community centres for use by all ethnic groups groups.

The extra funding for this assistance is being sough as a result of the pilot Global Needs Assessment (GNA), under which the amount of money sought from donors will reflect real needs rather than what UNHCR thinks donors can provide. The programme was launched this year in eight countries, including Georgia, and will be rolled out worldwide for the 2010-2011 planning cycle. So far, donor response has been promising.

"Under the current aid programme, we are only able to provide emergency shelter," explained Srecko Neuman, head of UNHCR's field office in Gali. "This means one dry warm room per family not enough to resume a normal life." Neuman said he hoped that UNHCR's shelter project budget of US$350,000 for Abkhazia would rise substantially as a result of the GNA, making a big difference in the life of returnees.

This would be welcome news to people like Ruslan and his wife Oxana, who fled the village of Saberio during the Georgia-Abkhaz conflict of 1992-1993 and only returned three years ago. Some 80,000 ethnic Georgians fled into Georgia proper at the time, but an estimated 45,000 have returned to eastern Abkhazia, including 10,000 to Gali town.

Ruslan and Oxana live in poverty and squalor. Their house is in a state, though Ruslan has carried out basic repairs with tools and construction materials provided by UNHCR. Because of an unresolved problem with identity papers, they are unable to access social and health services. They are the kind of people UNHCR hopes to help.

But UNHCR's programmes are aimed not only at helping the most vulnerable returnees, but also at easing their reintegration and building bridges and confidence between the ethnic Georgians and their Abkhaz neighbours.

Take the school in the village of Tageloni, which was reconstructed four years ago by UNHCR and caters to all villagers. "We have 120 [primary and secondary] pupils in 12 classes and a community centre that is very popular among Georgians and Abkhaz. We have chess tournaments, ping pong matches and courses [on how to run small businesses] for the population," said the headmaster, Temur Djologua, an ethnic Georgian.

The UN refugee agency plans to use any increases in its budget through the GNA in 2009 to build more multi-purpose centres that will serve the community and contribute to the healing process and reconciliation. The community centres will also be used for a number of activities aimed at helping the reintegration of the returnees, such as business and legal counselling.

A number of aid agencies, such as the Danish Refugee Council, run income generation projects with UNHCR help. Returnees with plans to open a small enterprise will be able to apply at the nearest community centre for a grant. The centres will also officer basic gynaecological health advice to women from all communities.

In Tageloni, the school not only provides a vital education to all the village children, it also acts as a meeting point for adults it's like a big communal sitting room. The men pop in during the evening or at weekends to play table football, table tennis or chess. The women gather in the cafeteria for a nice cup of tea and a chat.

"This brings our two ethnic groups closer to each other and changes the attitude of both sides," said Headmaster Djologua. "We feel welcome among our neighbours and we are happy to have returned."

By Melita H. Sunjic in Gali, Georgia