Arifa Kapba is a Correspondent for Abkhaz Television and Radio Company and an author of arts programmes.
The resettlement of descendants of muhajirs from Syria to Abkhazia first began after the conflict in Syria became more aggressive and bloody. At the end of December 2011, the Abkhaz Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) issued a statement expressing concern about the developing political crisis in the Syrian Arab Republic and the fate of Abkhazians living there. Subsequently, the Abkhaz government twice sent government missions to Syria (in August and September 2012), made up of representatives of the State Committee for Repatriation, MFA and the Federation of Abkhaz Cultural Centres in Turkey. A survey was undertaken which provided information about those people wishing to resettle in Abkhazia. In addition, a ‘hotline’ was set up to the Consular Service at the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Syria. This helped to simplify the procedure for repatriates to obtain Russian transit visas. With Russian support, charter flights were organised from Damascus. A large share of the repatriation cost was shouldered by the Abkhaz government. As of today, the number of persons who have resettled in Abkhazia from Syria has reached 522 persons. All the repatriate families have been housed in private houses and flats, paid for by state funds. They also receive monthly benefits of 2,000 roubles (RUB) (approx. €42 as at January 2014) per adult and RUB 3,000 (€63) for pensioners and children. In addition, the State Committee for Repatriation has organised free Abkhaz and Russian language courses for repatriates.
Attitudes to repatriates from Syria
Repatriation to Abkhazia has been the subject of wide public discussion, reflecting differing opinions in society. Some maintain that those who have come to Abkhazia should be considered ‘refugees’, to whom the Abkhaz government is providing ‘humanitarian assistance’; others see them as ‘repatriates’, who, under Abkhaz legislation, are returning to their ‘historical homeland’. These two opinions formed the basis of differing attitudes towards people arriving in Abkhazia. While some refer to them as ‘returnees to their historical homeland’, ‘brothers from Syria’ or ‘Syrian Abkhaz’, others refer to them simply as ‘Syrians’ or sometimes ‘Syrian refugees’. In the official media, this process is often framed as something positive and progressive, even a significant step forward in the country’s development, and most information is delivered in an enthusiastically patriotic tone. Nevertheless, it is no secret that there are differing opinions in society about this issue. Some citizens disapprove of or are even hostile to the repatriation process. In their opinion, the state is allocating exorbitant funds to resettle people from Syria that could have been spent on internal problems, which are considerable already.
All agree that the return of Syrian Abkhaz to their homeland is a positive thing, but there is a sense that there is no overarching strategy or policy for their further integration into Abkhaz society. At least as of yet, no such strategy has been articulated at an official level. The issue of Syrian Abkhaz integration is often raised on social networks, particularly Facebook. Often, the state and government are accused of fuzzy and chaotic thinking about the return of repatriates, although it should be noted that no one has actually proposed an integration strategy themselves.
Meanwhile, it has still not been determined, and there is no consensus about, who should be eligible for repatriation to Abkhazia – whether just descendants of Abkhaz or of all Circassians – and who has the right to citizenship, and so on.
Living conditions and views of repatriates from Syria
In order to answer this question, we met and interviewed 10 returnees. We also spoke to experts who interact and work with repatriates from Syria every day. The following findings give an insight into conditions regarding employment, language, citizenship, education and integration.
Employment: The main difficulty for Syrian repatriates is finding work. Of the 10 repatriates surveyed, only two are employed, both of whom work at the Sukhum central eye hospital. The state is the main employer of Syrian Abkhaz. It is likely that this is because the state as a matter of principle intends to support these people. For instance, the Abkhaz State Television and Radio Company have employed three experts: two sound producers and an operator. Many repatriates from Syria have found work in the Foreign Ministry, and an Arabic version of the Ministry’s website has been launched due to their efforts. However, such examples of successful employment are in single figures. In most cases, Syrian Abkhaz face great difficulties in finding work, despite the fact that almost every one of the families (which usually have four or more members) includes highly-educated people with various professional specialisations.
Thus, an average family of four has to live on benefits of RUB 8,000 to RUB 10,000 (€170–210) a month. Naturally, this forces many to seek earnings wherever possible, including unskilled manual labour.
Unfortunately, unemployment is a widespread problem in Abkhazia. Many university-educated young people cannot get jobs for two or three years. In the case of repatriates, this is further complicated by the fact that they do not have property or relatives who can help them, or land they can cultivate for sale or subsistence, and there is no one they can expect assistance from. According to one repatriate: “The state gives us housing and a reasonable allowance, but it is not enough to live on and we do not know what will happen in the future.”
However, other citizens receive no benefits at all (for unemployment, for example), and the state pension is considerably less than the amount allocated to one repatriate each month (only RUB 500 (€10) a month). This is one of the reasons for negative attitudes towards repatriation. Some resent the fact that the state spends more on the ‘Syrians’ than on the poor of the ‘domestic population’. This has led to negative attitudes in some quarters towards repatriates and even hatred and aggression, as evidenced by acts of aggression against repatriates, albeit sporadic, such as an attack on one man in Gudauta.
This situation is not helped by rumours circulating that each repatriate receives a state monthly allowance of RUB 10,000 (€210). According to one 20-year-old repatriate: “They say that we are idlers, receiving RUB 10,000 per month and still complaining. We don’t know where this information comes from, but tell them it is not true. We are not idlers – we really love work and are ready to work.” This repatriate graduated from technical college in Syria and worked as an electrician for a year. He said that he has occasionally worked here in his specialism, but usually agrees to any job to earn money. His family also has two young children, along with his mother and ailing father.
Language: The repatriates believe that their difficulty in finding employment is only partly because of language problems. Many specialists, such as doctors, technicians and certain other professions, do not need a good command of the language to work. However, this is a major reason why some employers refuse to take them on. Yet, language training is part of the integration process for repatriates and the state is addressing this issue more or less systematically. Two months ago, the State Committee for Repatriation began free Abkhaz and Russian courses for repatriates from Syria.
Unfortunately, this also causes dissatisfaction among some people. For example, the law states that such language courses should be open to other categories, such as those with permanent resident status and all those eligible for Abkhaz citizenship. However, as of yet no such courses have been organised. Many see this as a clear case of discrimination.
Abkhaz language courses are popular among the young Syrian Abkhaz. However, even here a problem is emerging. Having lived in Abkhazia for some time, the Syrian repatriates realise that the main lingua franca is not Abkhaz but Russian. The latter is used by most people on the street, in state facilities, shops, etc. After a while, repatriates conclude that to integrate into local society, they need to learn Russian rather than Abkhaz. A teacher, Tamila Arshba, explains: “Repatriates are increasingly saying: let’s stop learning Abkhaz, it would be better to study Russian, which is needed more.” It is obvious that this issue is the subject of strong debate between liberal-minded elements, who believe that repatriates should learn both Abkhaz and Russian, and more radical persons, who are convinced that repatriates should study only the Abkhaz language.
Citizenship: Another problem outlined by repatriates themselves was difficulty acquiring Abkhaz citizenship and passports. Many of the Syrian repatriates have already received Abkhaz citizenship and passports, but for others the procedure is taking too long: they submitted their documentation several months ago but have still not received their passports. Some noted that it is more complicated for people of Circassian descent than for descendants of Abkhaz. This is most likely because society has not yet determined who exactly has the right to return to Abkhazia: descendants of all Circassians or only the Abkhaz.
Education: Many repatriates complain that they cannot enrol their children in kindergartens. The refusals are due to a lack of space in the kindergartens. However, admissions to school are easier, and a particularly large number study in the Sukhum secondary boarding school and Sukhum primary school.
Integration: A particular issue for Syrian Abkhaz is that of moral or psychological integration, if it can be called thus. One repatriate, in conversation with us, described her neighbours’ (mainly Abkhaz) behaviour towards her as “not particularly good”. The woman refused to give more details, but was sure that she “felt antipathy from her neighbour”. She outlined: “I always dreamed of returning to the land of my ancestors and of bringing my children here. We used to live well, in the very centre of Damascus. My husband stayed there and sends us money: we do not feel we are in financial need, but our souls are tormented because we did not get what we expected here: we didn’t meet anyone with the same surname as us and have little contact with Abkhaz. We’re strangers here and we’re always reminded of it.”
Many repatriates spoke of similar problems. They often feel neither loved nor understood. Moreover, they often feel hostility and resentment from many local people. We discussed this issue with Khairi Kutarba, who returned to his ancestral homeland from Turkey 20 years ago and who now feels completely integrated. However, he understands well the feelings of those who are now in the process of adapting. In Khairi’s opinion: “A great deal depends on how local residents act towards the repatriates. Some things we hear – for example, ‘we gave you asylum, saved you from the war, and you’re still not happy’, or ‘we don’t get given flats and monthly allowances just like that, and you’re still complaining’ – are completely unacceptable and even offensive.” He adds: “The state should do everything it can to ensure that the public begin to understand the whole significance of the return of these people to their historical homeland.”
As we can see, a whole range of problems has emerged regarding the return of repatriates. Perhaps the main problem, at the root of all others, is the lack of an overall long-term government strategy for the return of repatriates to their ancestral homeland. Significant difficulties still remain in this area – despite the creation of a special integration department in the State Committee which has been tasked with dealing with this, and despite the significant financial resources expended (RUB 2.5 million (€52,730) are allocated every month for the needs of repatriates from Syria) and financial support from the country’s residents (the administrations of Gal district and Noviy Afon have allocated budgetary resources of RUB 420,000 (€8,860) and RUB 720,000 (€15,195) respectively for children of repatriates).
Difficult questions still remain. How can we ensure that the 522 Syrians who returned to their homeland (Abkhazia) will not immediately return to Syria once the situation stabilises? How can they be integrated into Abkhaz society, resolving problems of housing, employment and psychological integration? Moreover, given the current difficulties, is a new wave of repatriation possible and how rational would it be? The answers to these difficult questions can only be given by the system and by well-developed tactics that should be clearly articulated in the strategy.
In my opinion, the strategy should answer some important questions. Who has the right to return: all Circassian-Adygenes or just descendants of ethnic Abkhaz? This requires clear justification, which should be transmitted to the public through the media, public discussions, articles, broadcasts and so on. People living in Abkhazia need to realise why the repatriation process is necessary: what is the benefit to the state, so that no one asks the question “Why do they actually come?” It should be clearly stated to the public if a process of repatriation or of humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees is taking place, because in the first case, all state financial expenditure is justified for long-term goals, while in the second case it is questionable.
Finally, here are some important issues that should be considered when drawing up strategies.
- When repatriates return to Abkhazia, the rules for their repatriation should be clearly explained to them. They should receive accurate information about living conditions and place of residence. The sum they can receive from the state should be clearly outlined, and so on. They should only be resettled in Abkhazia if they provide complete written consent for a permanent resettlement. Without this, the repatriation process will have no meaning.
- The strategy needs to define clearly who has the right to return and how many more people (a concrete figure) can be resettled.
- It should be determined how the rights of repatriates can be balanced with those of other parts of the population to avoid any sense of inequality and problems. This should take into account others in the population who also have the right to study the Abkhaz language and who receive social benefits, and so on.