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Interview with Mr. Vincent Cochetel, Director of the UNHCR Bureau for Europe during his visit to Georgia

Wednesday, September 25
6-15 September 2013
UNHCR Tbilisi, September 2013

Question: What were your main objectives coming on this mission?

Answer: I have been invited by the Government of Georgia to visit the country to get more familiar with the complex situation in Georgia. It was very interesting to see the progress made by the Government and partner agencies. I wanted to understand the dynamics of the situation better, to see whether internally displaced people want to return or not, what solutions they have in their mind after so many years in displacement.

Q: How do you evaluate the relationship between UNHCR and the authorities?

A: The relationship with the Government of Georgia is very good. We appreciate our frank, direct and transparent cooperation. We also appreciate that the Government is implementing the IDP policy in a realistic manner, recognizing that people need durable housing solutions and livelihood support, pending return, for those who can and want to return later on to their place of initial habitual residence.

Q: Do you have any particular observations on the situation of the displaced you met during your mission? How are they doing as compared to the situation in other countries?

A: The displaced people I have met are very courageous people. There are two categories of people: those who have found a durable housing solution in the country and those who are still waiting after many years of displacement. In the second group are a little disillusioned and desperate, as they are living in very precarious conditions. This is impacting their ability to get back to their feet and to move on with their lives. We hope that all those people will be able to benefit from the same solutions that others did. As to comparing the situation in Georgia with the situation in other countries, I would compare it with IDPs in Bosnia, though the political context of the countries is very different. There are still many IDPs in Bosnia, who are in collective centers, and others who are outside the collective centeres. The authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been working in cooperation with UNHCR on housing and livelihood projects for the people. The conflict ended in 1995, and there are still 103,000 people who need a solution. We are not yet at the end of the road in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the policies of the Government there are less well defined than in Georgia. Georgia took a decision to have a law and to implement it. It does have very precise categories in terms of vulnerability of people to try to prioritize the allocation of housing to the most needy. We are not yet at this stage of development and implementation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Q: What more do you think should be done to ensure that those displaced, their children and grandchildren have a future that allows enjoyment of their rights and helps the development of the country?

A: I think for the children we have to make sure that they are not disadvantaged in terms of access to education. Sometimes they live in remote places in a very difficult situation. That generation should not suffer the way their parents suffered. They are the future of the country, so we really need to make sure that those children’s lives get back to normal. For the parents it is more difficult – many of them are traumatized by their homes having been left behind, by their relatives who died and friends who were lost in the conflict. For them all we can do is to give them at this stage decent and affordable housing options as well as support their survival mechanisms.

Q: What are UNHCR's plans for the future engagement with Georgia? Funds are reduced from year to year? Can Georgia count on UNHCR?

A: The first thing that Georgia can be sure about is that we will not spare our efforts to try to mobilize the donor and international community, so that there is no lesser attention to the situation of IDPs here in Georgia, to the situation in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region. It is really important that the international community remains focused on this situation. I believe that this is one of the protracted IDP situations that could be solved in terms of housing and livelihood solutions within the next 10 years. If the donors’ attention continues we could close this displacement chapter. It does not mean that these people will never return to the places where they were displaced from, but at least ad interim they would be in a better situation than some of them are. Now that is one area of engagement of UNHCR. Furthermore, we will try with our limited capacity to complement the programmes of the Government with some projects that focus more on the livelihood of the people and protection intervention for most vulnerable displaced persons. We will continue to try to assist the Government in building its capacity, its legal framework and its service for the people who are displaced.

In addition, it is important to see that there are more asylum seekers coming to Georgia from different countries in the world. Some of them are fleeing the Syrian crisis situation, Syrian asylum seekers and Iraqi refugees who were living in Syria. Those people are coming to Georgia and to other countries in the region. It is important that the Georgian Government develops its asylum system. It has improved and a lot of progress is being made in the area of reception. But it is not enough. We need to make sure that there is a fair and efficient procedure and people do not wait for too long for the outcomes. The outcomes have to be fair and based on the merits of the case and not on any political considerations. For those who have been granted refugee status we need to make sure that there are solutions for them and for some of them it will be local integration in Georgia. For others, it might be resettlement to third countries. Georgia will need to start integrating some of these refugees. For those not in need of international protection, Georgia has to work on assisted returns.

There are also some 859 persons without nationality living in Georgia. The number is small and manageable, but it is important that Georgia advances in finding solutions for those persons. The legal framework has been improved, because Georgia has already ratified one international instrument related to the status of the stateless persons. We hope it will ratify the second instrument, that will provide the global framework for Georgia to better address the needs of those people and address the very specific situation in which those people are. Being stateless means you have no rights to have rights. Without nationality, there is no starting point, so it is really important that safety nets are put in place for stateless persons.

Q: The number of asylum-seekers in Georgia has increased considerably since the start of the conflict in Syria. From an average of some 40-60 asylum-applications a year we are now looking at over 600 asylum-seekers coming to Georgia since 2012 (mainly ex Syria). What is your advice to the authorities on how to handles this situation?

A: It is important for the authorities to understand that these people are not necessarily in transit. Some of them came to find protection and seek protection in Georgia. Others may disappear or move on, but it is really important to look at who is who. UNHCR is not saying that all those people who seek protection are necessarily in need of international protection. Those who are in need of international protection should be identified quickly, decisions need to be taken in a timely manner and people need to be informed about the options in terms of durable solutions. It is always very difficult to integrate in a new country. Georgia is in this respect rather new asylum country. However, it is time to start integration with the small number of refugees. For those who are not in need of international protection and who have otherwise no right for any other form of stay in Georgia, it is also important that there are adequate and humane enforcement mechanisms, because asylum is only for people who deserve it.

Q: UNHCR and the Government have successfully worked together for the naturalization of refugees of Chechen origin from the Russian Federation. 532 have already received Georgian citizenship Why is it important that refugees, who so wish, receive the citizenship of Georgia?

A: It is very important. Receiving the citizenship of the asylum country gives hope to people, that they are going to belong to this society, they are going to belong to that community. It gives a very important signal in terms of integration that their status will not be temporary. Their future will not be suspended by some administrative decisions at a later stage. If naturalized, refugees are making efforts to integrate and if they are peaceful members in their community, access to citizenship is a natural pass way to a more comprehensive integration and for their children – they will be active citizens of this country, there is no doubt.

Q: You have been in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the context of the Geneva International Discussions visit. What are your observations?

A: The first observation was an observation of the Administrative Boundary Line both with Tskhinvali and Abkhazia. The freedom of movement of people is extremely limited. We are extremely concerned by plans and the announcement made by the authorities in control to further restrict or regulate the movement of the people across the Administrative Boundary Line. Many people have relatives on the other side. Many people need to cross to sustain their livelihood. Essential products are cheaper on one side. People need to get access to markets to sell their products. They get some income from that. People want to visit cemeteries, want to visit relatives on the other side. I felt quite shocked by the way people have to cross the Administrative Boundary Line. It is painful to see as these are mainly old people, woman and children, carrying heavy bags and waiting in long queues. It is really important to ensure that whatever the politics of the situation might be, lives of people do not get further affected by this fencing at the border and other related activities. Vis-a-vis South Ossetia, UNHCR has been asking the authorities in control to ensure access of humanitarian aid organizations, not just UNHCR, but in general. There are needs in South Ossetia. People have been displaced. Some people are returning or want to return. Some of the social local infrastructure has been destroyed and we believe that humanitarian organizations could help alleviating the situation. However, for that we need access and flexibility from all the parties, and not any preconditions in terms of how we move and how we can operate in South Ossetia.

Vis-a-vis the situation in Abkhazia, the authorities in control have requested all humanitarian organizations in February 2013 to limit their activities to Gali district. That’s where we are operating with some housing and livelihood projects to support the lives of people who have returned. UNHCR would be ready to assist any person of concern to UNHCR in the same situation, irrespective of their ethnicity or origin. So, any person who returns to Abkhazia and is of concern to UNHCR, could, if in need, be assisted by UNHCR. UNHCR worries about the announcements made that the crossings may be closed for three months in relation to the Olympic Games in the Russian Federation. This could have an impact on the life of people who need to cross the Inguri Bridge and to use other official crossing points one way or the other for a long period of time. We are very concerned about this announcement.

Q: UNHCR is participating in the Geneva Discussions Process. How do you see its future and what can UNHCR bring to the table to drive it forward?

A: There are different aspects of the Geneva International Discussions. People are critical of that process, because some time there is frustration that it does not achieve any tangible objective. One of the objectives of the Geneva International Discussions was to make sure that all parties refrain from the use of force. To a large extent, this has been achieved. The number of incidents has considerably reduced. I think, this is a good thing, that there is at least a forum, where the parties can engage and discuss such issues. At the same time, there is a working group that relates to humanitarian activities. In that working group, we have not seen much progress. It is a challenge to have humanitarian issues discussed in a process that has other dimensions, because UNHCR is a non-political humanitarian organization. What we care about is the well-being of people, the possibility for them to move back and forth, and the possibility for them to return when and if possible. The possibility of all communities affected by the conflict or by displacement to receive assistance to make sure their basic needs are addressed is equally important. This should be totally dissociated with any political considerations. I am afraid that sometimes the politics are jeopardizing the chances for us to make some progress on the humanitarian front. I would like humanitarian issues to be kept very distinct from the rest of the Geneva International Discussions to make sure that all the parties show more concern and care about all affected population and a bit less about the politics of the situation. I would certainly try to ensure that the humanitarian issues in the Geneva Discussions are a bit less theorized, and more based on people’s basic needs and aspirations. UNHCR Georgia