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Welcome Refugees? Syrian Repatriates in Abkhazia

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Author list: Lundgren, Minna

Publication year: 2018


Abstract

At the time when Abkhazia was incorporated into the Russian Empire in the 1860s many Muslim Abkhaz, Muhaiirs, were driven out and found refuge notably in Turkey but also in Syria and Jordan. These diaspora Abkhaz have been subject to a repatriation campaign initiated by the Abkhazian de facto authorities in the aftermath of the war against Georgia in 1992-93 that radically altered the demographic situation of the territory. More than half of the population fled the territory, among them most of the ethnic Georgians. The most recent population census, the result of which have been questioned, gives that by early 2011, more than 50 per cent of the 240 000 people living in Abkhazia are ethnic Abkhaz. Yet the Abkhazian authorities de facto authorities aim to retain and strengthen the position of dominant ethnicity through the demographic change that migration has created to their benefit and by encouraging repatriation of ethnic Abkhaz living in other parts of the world. While some diasporic Abkhaz resettled in Abkhazia during the 1990s, economic hardship and the difficulties to integrate within the war torn Abkhazian society, led to a repeated emigration from their ancestral homeland. However the current situation of war and turmoil in Syria has seen a new influx of people with Abkhaz roots, accompanied by a repatriation and integration programme consisting of accommodation, language classes, food and monthly monetary allowances.

Whereas Abkhazian authorities view these people as repatriates, they are considered refugees in accordance with international humanitarian law. While many Western countries slightly reluctantly accept Syrian refugees and asylum seekers into their territories, the Abkhazian authorities officially views the act of welcoming Syrian refugees with Abkhazian ancestry as both an act of solidarity and a homecoming. People claiming an ethnic Abkhaz identity are generally accepted as Abkhazian citizens. But are these Syrian Abkhaz actually allowed to “belong” among other Abkhazian citizens? What are the foundations of their experiences of belonging in Abkhazia? This study builds on interviews with Abkhazian officials, NGO workers, local Abkhazians and Syrian repatriates living in or around the Abkhazian capital Sukhum(i). Drawing on Nira Yuval-Davis’ theories on the politics of belonging as situated temporally, spatially and intersectionally, the respondents’ views on and experiences of belonging in Abkhazia are analysed in conjunction with current historical, political and economic processes. The result shows that there are group specific differences concerning the views on diasporic Abkhaz in Abkhazia. These views largely correspond to the respondents various positions in relation to political power and influence in Abkhazia, and their interests in retaining the dominant position of ethnic Abkhaz inside Abkhazia, or on competing for resources (livelihoods, state subsidies etc.).


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