Top UN refugee official wraps up mission to Georgia, Russia

22 August 2008
António Guterres talks to displaced people in a collective centre in Tbilisi

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres is today concluding a four-day visit to Georgia and Russia, visiting people forced to flee their homes by the conflict that began when heavy fighting erupted on 7 August.

Visiting South Ossetia today, Mr. Guterres – the first senior international official to travel to the area since the start of fighting – will assess the humanitarian situation and see first-hand the conditions for the uprooted to return to their homes.

Yesterday, he was in North Ossetia, where he met with Sergey Shoigu, minister for civil defence, emergencies and disaster response, as well as Konstantin Romodanovsky, who heads Russia's Federal Migration Service (FMS).

In the region's capital Vladikavkaz, the High Commissioner visited refugees and displaced South Ossetians, who expressed their desire to return to their homes.

Russian authorities believe over 30,000 people from South Ossetia have fled across the border into North Ossetia, part of Russia.

UNHCR estimates that close to 160,000 people have been uprooted since clashes began between Georgian and South Ossetian forces, with Russian forces becoming involved in South Ossetia and in the region of Abkhazia in north-western Georgia.

According to Georgian authorities, the official death toll in the Caucasus country is 213, with over 400, mostly soldiers, being treated in hospitals.

Yesterday, Mr. Guterres met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, with their talks focusing on UNHCR-Russian cooperation in supplying aid and humanitarian access, both in areas of Georgia where military actions are still taking place and in South Ossetia.

“We also examined humanitarian assistance and protection in North Ossetia, which has received thousands of people who fled South Ossetia,” the High Commissioner said, adding that they explored the process and prospects for the voluntary return of the displaced.

“We also agreed on the principle of the non-discriminatory nature of the right of return for all civilians forced to flee.”

UNHCR's large-scale aid distribution is under way, with over 7,000 blankets and 3,200 jerry cans being handed out yesterday in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, in addition to the nearly 10,000 kitchen sets and other supplies already delivered earlier.

The agency approximates that up to 25,000 people are in need of assistance in western and central parts of the country.

Yesterday, the first UNHCR convoy to Gori, just south of South Ossetia, left Tbilisi carrying blankets, tents and jerry cans. Most of the 40,000-strong population has fled the city, with those staying behind being mainly the elderly.

According to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), which is coordinating the health and nutrition response in Georgia, no outbreaks of communicable diseases have been reported in conflict areas as of 20 August.

Treating the injured has been impeded due to the destruction of two hospitals in South Ossetia and Tkviavi.

An assessment of Gori – carried out by WHO, UNHCR, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and partner agencies – found that no major health or nutritional problems had been reported, the city's water supply was safe but that living conditions were very poor.

For its part, the World Bank is dispatching an economic assessment team to Georgia at the invitation of the Georgian Government.

The agency said it will work with authorities to assess the economic effects of the fighting and provide recommendations on how to generate growth and prevent poverty.

“Georgia has strong economic fundamentals, the result of a committed reform programme and prudent fiscal management by the Government,” Theodore Ahlers, the World Bank's acting Vice President for Europe and Central Asia, said in a statement. “These factors will help the economy to weather the impact of the conflict.”

But he warned that economic growth could be dampened by investors' cautious attitudes.


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