June 20th is the World Refugees’ Day: we talked about the problems of refugees immigrated to Armenia in 1988 with the Executive director of the Against violation of law NGO Larisa Alaverdyan.
Since 1988, after the massacres in Sumgait and Baku there was a significant flow of refugees to Armenia. Were we prepared to accept them?
No one was prepared in the Soviet Union because it seemed that the Union is steadfast, a great empire where the prevalence of law was unmistakable if concerned with the state interests. No one could assume that such things may happen. In this respect nobody was prepared.
How Armenia received the Azerbaijanian Armenian refugees, how were their residence issues solved?
It is important to stress out that the government of Soviet Armenia had the goal to avoid tent refugees. On the other hand, Soviet Armenia was one of the most progressive among other Soviet republics in terms of quantity and quality of social buildings and structures. There was a range of resort houses, health resorts, camps, hostels etc. The political will and accessible means allowed solving at least the issue of temporary residency. Part of the refugees succeeded to exchange their apartments and solve the issue of housing.
There was another issue. Nobody knew this situation is going to last forever. Most of the people believed that it is temporary, Soviet authority will set the order and will protect them. Only after the referendum of 1991 when several republics decided not to stay a part of Soviet Union, wide public realized that the great empire does not exist anymore and will not take care of them.
How many refugees did Armenia receive?
Totally 500 000 refugees and 360 000 came to Armenia. More than 120 000 directly from Baku emigrated to other republics where they had job opportunities, relatives or friends. The main part of refugees moved to Armenia in November,1988.
Those who had connections with Armenia preferred to move here. There were also Azerbaijani Armenians who considered their motherland not Armenia but the place from where they were displaced. They moved to the republics of the Soviet Union where they had connections.
What were the issues of refugees immigrated to Armenia in the beginning and what are they now?
There are three main issues of refugees which the state was not able to solve: housing, job, language. I always declared that these three issues are specific for the refugees, all remaining is a consequence.
Due to the mentioned issues they appeared in poverty. One of the UN study had confirmed that refugees are the poorest part of the society in Armenia even among those who are in poverty.
I do not discuss the legal protection and human rights because these problems are common in Armenia.
The language problem is solved among the new generation because they have attended schools. While those refugees in age of 40 and older can not communicate in Armenian so far, due to the absence of the state program on Armenian language teaching.
I think that people of middle age and older who moved here believe their life is a failure. They did not feel themselves a minority in Azerbaijan. They were building and establishing the country. And all of a sudden they appeared in such a situation. This is a huge psychological problem and it is amounted to other 3 issues and it is obvious what a psychological state have the refugees in Armenia.
What impact had the earthquake of 1988, Artsakh movement and the war for refugees in Armenia?
These all led to migration. Just imagine, there was no job, they had language problem, and the beginning of the war… The refugees tend to fear because they were not usual refugees, they forcibly displaced and there were many human victims.
In the middle of 1990 we had more than 360 000 registered refugees in Armenia. They just wanted to live peacefully. However part of them saw no opportunity for job and life and left Armenia. There were many high level professionals among them who could not find a job due to the language problems.
How many refugees are left in Armenia and what is the responsibility of the state in this regard?
I do not know how many refugees are still in Armenia but it is not essential for me. Armenia still should fulfill its obligations as a receiving party. That is, whether Armenia was intended to solve the problem of refugees is becoming secondary. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the support from international society Armenia should have found the ways to improve the situation of the refugees.
I believe that the question of quantity of refugees left in Armenia is improper. Suitable question is in relation to how many refugees Armenia has carried out its obligations? Even if they are not in Armenia or have received citizenship, they are still demanders. They at least should enjoy the right to return and reparation. Nevertheless, our state had not solved the problems of refugees ever. 85 percent of forcibly displaced people from Azerbaijan left their property there and they have the right to that property but there is no structure to deal with the issue. UN does not work on the issue as well and provides merely humanitarian assistance.
How would you evaluate the housing policy of Armenian Government for refugees?
The mere fact that there was no tent city in Armenia, minimal conditions were provided. This is good but as an NGO representative who worked on refugees’ issues from the beginning, since 1995 I have strongly criticized the programs aimed at providing refugees with houses. This was a cottage construction. First of all the project was far from the idea of integration. On the contrary, it contributed to isolation, in many places there were no infrastructures for normal life: shops, schools, cultural centers etc.
There were many unfinished buildings and I am convinced that money received as humanitarian aid should have been used for housing. Finally, at that time the apartments were not privatized and the state could have made the reallocation. It was not a matter of budgeting; it was a matter of proper management.
Later they have started to do something: reconstruct the hostels into the apartment complex. Then the Migration Agency started to register the refugees and put them to the waiting list for receiving the apartment. But there is no use of that, there were no allocations from state budget for the housing of refugees since 2009. As a member of the National Assembly I have raised this issue every year.
The apartments which are distributed to the refugees were built by the funds allocated before 2009.
I believe that taking into account existing conditions: war, earthquake, collapse of the Soviet Union the newly independent Armenia should have done a proper planning and implemented the project by skilled management instead of using the conditions as a justification of the situation. Changes in staff had not lead to the change of the policy in the field.
Since 2000 I have not considered the issue of refugees as a separate issue. If the country was not able to find the development model which could lead to progress until 2000, it will fail any project. And I believe that the project of housing for refugees has failed as it happened with the project of housing for graduates of orphanages. The same mechanism, same attitude and same pain...
What if we compare the policy of Armenia with the neighboring Azerbaijan?
Armenia has done more than any country could do. Do not forget that refugees in Armenia constitute 12 % of the population. I think that compared to our neighbor, Armenian government solved at least one issue: none of the refugees stayed homeless. Azerbaijan have chosen a more cruel way, it still keeps its refugees in tent cities.
We have many people who are living in hostels and in habitations with poor conditions but there are few cases when the refugees appeared in the street.
However, while solving the issue of residence, the government had not solved the issue of job placement, the most urgent issue today which forces people to close their apartments and look for job in other places.
What are the legislative issues in your opinion?
Until 1998 Armenia applied the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and only in 2008 the country has adopted the law on Refugees and asylum.
The issue is that the states who received refugees of the same ethnicity never treated them the way they treated foreign refugees in terms of rights and responsibilities. There is a gap in law.
We constantly stated that it is unacceptable to exempt from the army service the refugees who belong to the same ethnicity. Both the international practice and reality proves it is wrong.
What happened during the years? The refugees were mandatory and illegally drawn into the army. Then they decided not to do so. This situation led to the split of the nation. People asked why my son should serve while the refugee should not.
We have always declared that there should be a different approach to the issue of Armenian refugees and foreign refugees. And for all those who state that the UN Convention set the requirement for refugees to be exempted from the military service, we have proved that the Convention says that the state alone decides this issue.
The law on refugees, as it is, is not bad. Nevertheless, you know, there is a huge gap between the law and its implementation.
What is the state of refugees immigrated to Armenia from Arab countries recently?
They belong to a different group. Every year we receive people who immigrate to Armenia from different countries and get the status of refugee. But there are few cases, there are very few foreigners. Today the world is open; everybody knows that the social-economic situation in Armenia is complicated. So I do believe and I do hope that a significant flow is not expected.