The No to Phobia platform, a coalition uniting eleven Georgian watchdog organizations, expressed concern over “the wave of xenophobia” that erupted after ethnic Azerbaijani majority Marneuli and Bolnisi municipalities had been put under lockdown on March 23 due to the occurrence of community transmission of COVID-19.
In a statement released on March 25, the CSOs said that following the shutting down of Marneuli and Bolnisi municipalities, “statements promoting discrimination and containing hate speech [targeting local ethnic Azerbaijanis] were disseminated in the society, especially in social media.”
Prime Minister Gakharia’s press briefing about placing on lockdown the said two municipalities was shortly aired in Azerbaijani language, which prompted some of Georgian Facebook users to bash ethnic Azerbaijani compatriots for their poor command of the Georgian language. Furthermore, a number of social media users ascribed inconsiderate behavior of the Covid-19 patient from Marneuli to her ethnic origin. Ethnic Azerbaijani civic activists reported that some of the users went as far to demand expulsion of ethnic Azerbaijani citizens of Georgia from the country.
According to the latest 2014 General Population Census of Georgia, Marneuli Municipality is home to 104,300 inhabitants, while Bolnisi Municipality is inhabited by 53,590 persons. The two municipalities are densely populated by ethnic Azerbaijani community of Georgia. Azerbaijanis make up around 80% of Marneuli Municipality.
Georgia is home to 233,000 Azerbaijanis, who account for 6.3% of the country’s 3,7 million people.
The organizations also noted that “given systemic problems the ethnic minorities face, the xenophobic attitude expressed [against them] following the spread of the virus further aggravates the existing challenges and foments their ostracization.”
“In light of the recent developments, it is crucial that each and every citizen feels his/her responsibility and promotes unity in the society,” the statement reads.
The civil society organizations called on the media outlets to take adequate actions against the social media users’ comments, which contain xenophobic content and sow discord within the society. The CSOs said some of these comments promoted discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity as well as health condition.
They also called on politicians and public figures to voice their support towards equality and to contribute to the integration of ethnic minorities into the Georgian society, and on civil activists and other groups to report xenophobic content in social media in accordance with Facebook and Twitter public standard rules and policies.