Conflict and Migration: The Georgian-Abkhazian Case in a European Context

On June 17-20, 2008 South Caucasus Regional Office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation together with University of California, Irvine and Conciliation Resources, London, organized a conference “Conflict and Migration: The Georgian-Abkhazian Case in a European Context.”

Flight and displacement are among the most lasting consequences of military conflicts. Apart from existential hardships for the persons directly concerned, they generate long-ranging obstacles to reconciliation and efforts to settle conflicts through political means.

Especially in the case of ethno-political conflicts, such as the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, where direct links are made between the demographics of ethnic groups within a disputed territory and its political status, refugees/IDPs find themselves enduring hostages of political confrontation. Many years after the end of combat operations, the potential return of the refugees threatens the new political order of one party, while their integration seems to undermine political claims of the other. In addition to that, organized repatriation of Diaspora Abkhazians has become an issue widely discussed and promoted in Abkhazia.

However, conflict-related migration does not yield to political principles and concepts. Integration in a new location; spontaneous, non-sanctioned return; emigration to third countries; immigration from third countries - these and many other phenomena form new realities over time that need to be acknowledged and paid heed within policies oriented towards peaceful conflict settlement. Flexible, open-minded solutions that balance out the interests of persons directly affected by the conflict, and at the same time prevent new confrontation, are preconditions for sustainable peace.

The conferences on “Aspects of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict” organized by the Heinrich Boell Foundation and the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine provide an opportunity for Georgian and Abkhazian participants to discuss openly and in a constructive way the most delicate and pressing problems of the conflict, and consult a range of international experts about possible progress toward solutions. In particular, when dealing with “conflict and migration”, it is helpful to look to other European conflict regions and analyse which paths have been forged elsewhere for solving the migration problems caused by conflicts even before final conflict regulation [resolution?] can be achieved.

Treating refugee/IDP issues as taboo, or instrumentalising them, reinforces fears and illusions on both sides of the Georgian-Abkhazian divide and holds back progress in the peace process. The organizers of this conference therefore hope to foster open and solution-oriented discussion of this very complex topic.

The discussions were structured in the three following thematic blocks:

Panel I. Return and Repatriation – Positions of the various parties, hopes and fears

  • Which positions does the Abkhaz side take with regard to the return of the refugees/IDPs/repatriants? How are these positions argued? Political, humanitarian, legal aspects?
  • Which positions does the Georgian side take with regard to the return of the refugees/IDPs/repatriants? How are these positions argued? Political, humanitarian, legal aspects?
  • Return of refugees/IDPs: Lessons learned from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia

Panel II. Integration – Strategies, political positions, experience 

  • Strategies for integration of IDPs in Georgia
  • Political debates about integration within Georgia
  • Experiences with integration of refugees/IDPs/repatriants in Abkhazia
  • Approaches to deal with refugees/IDPs in Cyprus

Panel III. Maintaining the status quo versus right to return? Moving beyond the deadlock

  • A comparison of approaches to the problem in Europe: Bosnia, Cyprus, Kosovo, Croatia
  • In which ways are final conflict settlement and approaches of dealing with return and migration issues mutually dependent? - Temporal, political, financial aspects etc.
  • How can the sides reconcile different understandings of what justice means?

Political and civil society representatives from Georgia and Abkhazia, from EU countries and from the Western Balkans and Cyprus, as well as experts from international organizations, participated in the conference.

Bilateral meetings between the Georgian and Abkhaz participants took place both before and after the conference. The aim of these meetings was to promote an informal exchange of information regarding current developments on both sides.