The human rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI) expressed concern on January 28 that some of last week's evictions, during which police detained several people in a scuffle, two of whom were subsequently jailed for 14 days, were not conducted in compliance with internationally agreed standards. The Georgian authorities have rejected the AI criticism as "one-sided, biased, and unfair," according to Caucasus Press on January 31.
Meanwhile, several hundred IDPs have approached the French and German embassies in Tbilisi to enquire about the formalities for applying for political asylum in those countries, while others plan to submit similar requests to the United States.
The current wave of evictions got under way last summer and immediately triggered protests by the displaced persons concerned, who adamantly opposed the prospect of being relocated to remote rural districts where there were neither basic facilities nor employment opportunities.
Up to 5,000 people were evicted from temporary accommodation in Tbilisi in June-August. In some cases, Human Rights Watch noted in its annual report for 2010:
In light of the mass public protests, which the opposition Conservative and People's parties helped to organize, Georgia's Ministry of Internally Displaced Persons from the Occupied Territories, Accommodation, and Refugees (MRA) halted the process pending the adoption in October of so-called Standard Operating Procedures which, according to Amnesty International, regulate evictions and the allocation of long-term housing. It is those procedures, drafted by the MRA in conjunction with the international community, that AI believes were not fully followed during the evictions between January 20-24 of some 600 families.
Possibly in light of the negative publicity generated by the self-immolation of a 46-year-old female IDP in October, it was only in mid-December that the families concerned were served notice they would be evicted in December from 22 buildings in Tbilisi and re-housed either in western or eastern Georgia.
Following protests by several hundred IDPs outside the Georgian parliament building on December 17 and 21, the eviction date was put back from December 20 to January 15. But the displaced persons staged further protests on January 12, 15, and 20 to protest their imminent eviction and resettlement.
The entire issue of providing adequate long-term accommodation for IDPs is complicated by what Transparency International Georgia (TIG) terms "outdated, incomplete, and unreliable" data on the number and current residence of displaced persons, and by discrepancies in the status of different categories of IDPs and their entitlement to financial compensation or permanent housing. Apparently the new Standard Operating Procedures address only the actual process of physically coercing IDPS to leave their present homes, but not the underlying discrepancies.
For example, as TIG points out in a lucid, balanced, and thoughtful assessment published on its website last week different sets of regulations apply to the "first wave" of displaced persons from the early 1990s who were housed legally in collective centers in Tbilisi, and the "second wave" of displaced persons who fled during the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war and spontaneously occupied empty buildings in Tbilisi. Only the latter category, according to AI, are entitled to apply for financial compensation to the value of $10,000 if they reject the alternative housing offered, but some of the "second-wave" displaced persons forced to vacate the former customs building in Tbilisi last week complained to AI that they were not paid that money prior to being thrown out on to the street.
The situation is further complicated, according to TIG, by the fact that some "first-wave" displaced persons who lived for years in rented accommodation or with relatives moved in the fall of 2008 to temporary housing in Tbilisi alongside "second-wave" displaced persons. Those "first-wave" IDPs are now facing eviction but do not qualify for financial compensation, and implementation of the long-term housing strategy intended to provide them with permanent housing has not yet begun.
Understandably, this category of IDPs consider themselves discriminated against, and opposition parties have, in Transparency International's words, "found a niche representing their interests," a tactic that led Minister for Refugees and Accommodation Koba Subeliani to accuse those parties on January 23 of "politicizing" the evictions.
Transparency International acknowledges that the Georgian government is in an unenviable position, given the number of displaced persons in urgent need of housing. At the same time, it stresses that even if they occupied buildings illegally, the IDPs "do have a reasonable expectation that they should receive a housing solution that satisfies their needs," and that the Georgian authorities should make a greater effort to communicate with the displaced persons and explain the rationale for decisions that affect their entire lives.
The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that, according to AI, less than 10 percent of the displaced persons currently living in temporary housing in Tbilisi are prepared to accept the offer of alternative housing elsewhere in Georgia.
In a statement on January 21, Georgian human rights ombudsman Giorgi Tughushi pointed out that "adequate living conditions do not include only an adequate building and accommodation; it is also necessary to take a number of other aspects into account…Dwellings should be located in a place where not only jobs but also schools, kindergartens, medical centers, and facilities for other social services will be accessible for [resettled families]." Some alternative housing, including five locations in western Georgia inspected by his staff last month, offered does not meet those criteria, Tughushi said.