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Reconceptualizing the Social, Environmental, and Political Hazards Associated With Conflict-Induced Displacement in the Republic of Georgia  

Suzanne Harris-Brandts and David Sichinava

Following the Soviet Union’s disintegration in the early 1990s, Georgia entered several ethnic conflicts with its autonomous regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have sought unilateral secession. In total, over 300,000 people—primarily ethnic Georgians—have been forced to flee, finding refuge in other areas of Georgia, and becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs). To date, displacement in the country has largely been framed as a conflict-induced phenomenon tied to several acute periods of violence. Yet the hazards IDPs face do not end following their initial displacement. Up to 45% of IDPs have found refuge in vacant, non-purpose-built buildings—so-called collective centers (also referred to as organized resettlement facilities for displaced persons, “დევნილთა ორგანიზებულად ჩასახლების ობიექტები” in Georgian)—including former factories, kindergartens, hospitals, and hotel-sanatoria. There, they are exposed to mold, contaminated soil, sewage, and other environmental hazards. Government mobilization to improve collective centers or relocate IDPs elsewhere has been slow, in part due to weak state institutions and a lack of resources, with the state heavily reliant on international aid. Historically, the state also had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of precarious IDP housing given that the right of return is interconnected with Georgia’s sovereign territorial claims. The hazardous environmental conditions of IDP collective centers have, therefore, been politically weaponized by the government, showcased to domestic and international audiences alike as evidence of the urgency in unifying Georgia’s territory. Since the late 2000s—decades after initial displacement—the government has finally shifted its approach and IDPs are incrementally being granted tenure or being resettled in purpose-built housing. Yet this, too, has prompted a reconceptualization of the social, environmental, and political hazards associated with displacement. In the early 21st century, the environmentally hazardous living conditions of Georgia’s collective centers are being used to justify IDP forced evictions in areas prioritized for urban redevelopment. The result is secondary displacement and an erasure of IDPs’ local histories. In these ways, environmental hazards have become deeply entwined with the social and political aspects of internal displacement in Georgia. The loss of collective centers in prime real estate areas links to a different aspect of post-hazard reconstruction yet one also deserving of attention. IDP identity is embedded within these spaces and should not be simply erased by future development. In such situations, there are socioeconomic and political complexities beyond the acute and pragmatic needs of securing humanitarian shelter away from violence. Thus, the line between displacement-induced hazards and political and environmental ones is blurred, making distinct categorizations less useful. Understanding these interconnections relative to issues of governance, resettlement, housing provision, and urban renewal is crucial to effectively support Georgia’s IDPs.