UN refugee chief begins mission to Georgia

19 August 2008The top United Nations refugee official arrived today in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to assess humanitarian operations and meet some of the people displaced by last week’s fighting – now estimated to be around 158,700. The four day visit of UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres will also take him to Russia, where some of those uprooted by the conflict in Georgia’s South Ossetia region have fled. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) now estimates that 158,700 people have been displaced by the conflict – which began over a week ago when heavy fighting broke out in South Ossetia between Georgian and South Ossetian forces –based on figures provided by the Georgian and Russian governments.The ensuing hostilities, in which Russian forces also became involved, has displaced up to 30,000 people within South Ossetia, UNHCR said. In addition, some 98,000 people are displaced in other areas of Georgia, including most of the population of the town of Gori. Russian officials in North Ossetia indicate some 30,000 people from South Ossetia are still in Russia. “The High Commissioner will again press for the protection of the civilian population, especially those newly displaced, and for safe and unhindered access by humanitarian organizations to the areas of displacement,” UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic told reporters in Geneva. During a meeting this morning with the Georgian Minister for Reintegration, Temuri Yakubashvili, Mr. Guterres called on the international community to mobilize resources for the humanitarian assistance effort in Georgia.As part of the $58.6 million humanitarian appeal launched yesterday by the UN and its aid partners, UNHCR is seeking $16 million to cover its protection, shelter and assistance programmes for the newly displaced in the Caucasus region.Mr. Mahecic reported that the situation on the ground in Georgia remains “volatile and unpredictable.” The agency has flown aid supplies for more than 50,000 people to Tbilisi but road convoys cannot reach western Georgia, where some 15,000 displaced are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.The first humanitarian flight to Batumi in western Georgia arrived today, carrying aid supplies including 200 tents, 15,000 blankets, 3,000 kitchen sets and 6,000 jerry cans.“UNHCR, which has six offices in Georgia working on behalf of some 220,000 previously displaced people, is rapidly moving ahead with distribution of aid items,” Mr. Mahecic said.Just yesterday, 13 UNHCR teams gathering some 40 staff and 13 trucks distributed humanitarian assistance to some 11,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Another 10 teams visited 50 collective centres accommodating some of the newly displaced population to assess the numbers of displaced, their needs and living conditions. On Sunday, a joint UNHCR and World Food Programme (WFP) convoy was able to get into Gori, the first time since the outbreak of the conflict that UN agencies were given access to that city. UNHCR delivered aid for some 1,500 people, which included jerry cans, kitchen sets and blankets. The goods ware unloaded in a warehouse and will be distributed by local authorities. UNHCR staff reported the town to be mostly deserted on Sunday, but they came across some 50 to 60 people gathered in the city centre and waiting for assistance. “There were clear indications of massive looting of shops and apartments,” said Mr. Mahecic.The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that since yesterday, several villages in Georgia, including the city of Gori, are now accessible for the first time in two weeks. However, according to the UN Resident Coordinator in Tbilisi, there is still no access to South Ossetia.In a related development, the head of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has spoken out against the killing of at least three journalists in the recent conflict and urged respect for the safety of media professionals.In a statement issued in Paris, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura referred to the killing of Dutch cameraman Stan Storimans, of RTL television; Alexander Klimchuk, a Georgian photojournalist working for Russian news agency Itar-Tass; and Grigol Chikhladze, a Georgian working for Russian Newsweek.“In such times, it is essential that the authorities abide by international law which affirms the civilian status of war reporters,” said Mr. Matsuura. “I call on the authorities to investigate these cases and take appropriate action.”