Refugees in their Home Country: Georgia’s Forgotten People

19 September 2016, BBC Magazine published an incredible photo series highlighting a large group of Georgians making their homes in the abandoned buildings of Tbilisi, the capital. It’s been 25 years since the Soviet Union power fell in Georgia, and since that time Georgians have struggled to regain economic their livelihoods. Others, the younger generations, have grown up in conditions of poverty — never knowing what a livelihood and proper housing even mean.

It’s a concept that many of us do not even consider, or understand is possible: that one can be a refugee in their home country. To an extent, homelessness is a condition of refugee-ism; but the forgotten people of Tbilisi know that meaning even more deeply.

It brings one to ask what defines refugee-ism to begin with. Refugees are people who, according to the UN definition, flee their home country on a “well-founded” fear of persecution based on their ethnic identity, religion, or social values. They can also be escaping natural disasters, or extreme economic conditions. This may put refuge-seekers in different categories such as ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘economic refugees’ that may in turn impact their ability to apply for asylum and residency in a foreign country.

JACOB BORDEN for BBC Magazine.

But what about the residents of Tbilisi? Many of them are natives of the capital city, or hailing from other regions of Georgia. They have only known a soviet and post-soviet Georgia in recovery.

Like many of the 65 million asylum seekers around the world, these refugees in their own home have also been displaced by political instability and violence. The main difference is the location of the shelters where they have sought refuge. Unlike refugees seeking asylum abroad, however, these people have stayed within Georgia’s borders. “Some are refugees from Abkhazia, a Georgian region which fought a war of secession in 1992–93” according to the BBC. And many of the hundreds seeking shelter in Tbilisi’s abandoned buildings are children.

About 400 people have found makeshift housing in a former military hospital from the Soviet era. This photo series from Jacob Borden for BBC magazine captures their hardship — and their creativity as they seek a sense of normalcy. It’s particularly striking against the continued development of Georgia’s capital city in the twenty-five years following the Soviet downfall.

Tbilisi has been recovering economically and is home to a cultural revival. One of its buildings, the Leaning Tower of Tbilisi, is a curious tourist attraction. The rickety tower looks like something out of a fairy tale from two hundred years ago. The Chicago Tribune has named Tbilisi a top travel destination. The city is clearly growing.

The ironic part? The Leaning Tower was constructed in 2011, while little municipal attention has gone to expanding the reach of social services.

Poverty levels, in fact, are about as stable as the currency — confirming the slack in economic growth.

“The level of poverty was 80% in 1994, 46.2% in 1997, 51.8% in 2000 and 52% in 2004.”

Matiko Pirtskhulava, aged 46, left, says she doesn’t feel like she is part of society. Though many of Georgia’s ‘forgotten people’ receive state benefits, social services do not provide the clean water and shelter that are their human rights. Worse, government does not provide for some of the basic needs that allow Tbilisi citizens to feel included in Georgian society.

Maia Daiauri, aged 45, pictured on the left, is one of many women and children who have taken to abandoned buildings seeking shelter from widowhood and homelessness.

But if Georgia’s forgotten people make us question the definition of refugee-ism, they should make us question the definition of normalcy as well. Their exclusion from basic services and participation in society has forced some to redefine ‘basic need’. Others have grown up knowing only this kind of life. And they have developed a strong community for it. ‘As one resident says: “We don’t have much, all we have is each other.”’

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