Institute for War & Peace Reporting | Caucasus Reporting Service | July 8, 2011
Residents of the Georgian port town of Poti are furious about plans to settle 12,000 refugees in purpose-built accommodation there, saying their arrival will worsen the already catastrophic job situation.
Poti, on the Black Sea, is home to 47,000 people, so the influx will increase the population by a quarter. The first 4,100 are due to arrive in September.
Georgia has a chronic refugee crisis dating from the expulsion of ethnic Georgians from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which have declared themselves independent states.
President Mikhail Saakashvili’s government is trying to find permanent homes for all the displaced people – about 250,000 in total. Many of them have been living in old hotels, schools and other buildings ever since they were forced from their homes by conflict in the early 1990s.
Plans are under way to build whole housing schemes for them in places like Poti.
A free industrial zone in the port, where foreign companies can invest under very light regulatory controls, is intended to soak up the additional labour as well as provide jobs for existing residents. But locals say the industrial zone has been slow to generate jobs, and there is not enough work around for them, let alone a wave of new arrivals.
The municipal authorities say they have no unemployment figures, but everyone in the town knows someone who has had to move away, or even leave Georgia altogether to find work in Turkey or the European Union.
“My neighbour has gone off to earn money in Turkey, and she sees her children just a few times a year,” Lia Galdava, 35, said. “My husband works in Zugdidi [40 kilometres from Poti. In a situation like this, the government is planning to increase the population with refugees who also need work.”
Galdava and others worry that when new jobs are created, the refugees will be at the top of the list.
This was confirmed by Violeta Jgamadze, who is in charge of refugee affairs at Poti’s municipal administration, who said, “Refugees will get priority in the work-creation plan, since that’s necessary for their integration.”
The questions remains whether there will be enough jobs for all the refugees, and whether they will be trained to do them.
“The refugees are going to have to start their lives again and learn new professions in a new place where the unemployment level is catastrophically high. There just aren’t the resources for any of this,” Keti Sichinava, of the Association of Media and Society said.
The mayor’s office is hoping that foreign assistance will help create jobs, although a spokeswoman said there were no plans for how that might happen.
“We think foreign donors could resolve the employment problem. The mayor’s office is ready to discuss this question with any donor. If necessary, we could even co-finance projects,” she said.
The free industrial zone is seen as the town’s best hope. When Saakashvili opened it in 2008, he promised that after four years, it would have generated 200 million dollars in investment, tens of thousands of jobs and more than 400 companies on the site. With about a year left to go, investment to date totals just 30 million dollars, and only 200 people work in the free zone, including a number of foreigners.
“Currently, 49 licensee companies are registered in the zone, but only two of them are operating. The others are still at the preparatory stage,” Shalva Beraia, a spokesman for RAKIA-Georgia, which operates the zone, said.
The slow progress has disappointed local residents, and they are equally sceptical about promises of a new investment phase next year.
“People had big expectations of the industrial zone, and they haven’t been fulfilled,” Mzia Tsaava, 52, said. “People here live very poorly. I have two sons and neither of them works. I don’t know how we can survive. It’s good that something is being done, of course.”
Otar Bebia, 63, added, “I don’t know who came up with all this. Turnover has almost halved in the port, and I have no hope that the new companies will be successful. No one consults local residents – we aren’t even needed as manual labourers. They just promise us things, and nothing gets done.”