The issue of Armenian refugees and displaced persons runs like a red thread through every chapter of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, still not finding its presence on the agenda of decision makers.
When the Karabakh Movement began in 1988, it met a violent response from Soviet Azerbaijani authorities. Reprisals against Armenians both within the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO), the Shahumyan region, and throughout the rest of the Azerbaijani SSR took place. As a result, more than half a million ethnic Armenians were displaced from Azerbaijan; 360,000 of them found refuge in the Republic of Armenia. According to the 1997 census, the number of refugees living in Armenia was about 310,000. These are the most recent figures available as the category was not tracked in subsequent years.
However, the experience of refugees who reached Armenia has not been smooth. Some of them continue to live in shelters that were meant to be temporary. Others have been uprooted once again as a result of the 2020 Artsakh War.
Four Displacements in One Lifetime
“My grandmother used to describe how they marched, starving and thirsty, in 1915. When crossing a river carrying two children strapped to her back, a Turk’s bullet hit one of them. In order to at least save the other one (my father), she was forced to throw the child into the river. I could not imagine that just a few years later, I would become part of that cruel tale,” recounts Victoria Tevanyan, 63. Her grandmother barely survived the genocide and settled in the present-day Terter region of Azerbaijan.
Living under the Soviet Union, Tevanyan married and moved to nearby Yevlakh, where she lived in peace in a splendid house. Until 1988. “In some towns in Azerbaijan, they began to hate and butcher the Armenians who were once revered,” she laments. “It was impossible to comprehend what was happening; it was extremely tense. We fled to the nearby hills, from where we reached the village of Begumsarov, in the region of Mir Bashir (currently Terter).” Two months later, together with their four young children, the family fled for safety once more and arrived at the Armenian village of Chali in the region of Martakert, in the NKAO.
They thought that their wandering would end. With all their savings, they bought a house and put their mind to settling down in a new home. They had another child and tried to move beyond the trauma.
But in 1992, circumstances escalated once more. The now-independent Azerbaijani government confiscated their property. Tevanyan, pregnant with her sixth child, once again had to flee to save her family.
“My husband was already on the battlefield. Together with my children and the other villagers, we somehow managed to escape. It felt like a movie; we were travelling like a caravan for kilometers, just like during the Genocide. My contractions began while marching—and what pain! I remembered my grandmother and was terrified that I might also be forced to leave the infant behind,” she shares.
The experienced women of the village helped Victoria deliver her child—there in the mountains, under a tree. “They were all waiting and, on hearing the infant cry, began to slowly move, until we could catch up to them. I delivered the child and stood up and began to walk; every minute was precious,” she recalls.
They reached Stepanakert, where it was “raining bombs”. Women and children were leaving the city through the forests, walking… and walking.
Victoria’s sister lived in Charentsavan, in Armenia’s present-day Kotayk region, at that time, and they decided to stay there. After living in a dormitory for about two years, they joined the resettlement of the then-liberated region of Kashatagh in 1994. The large Tevanyan family moved to Berdzor (Lachin) and received a house with a garden. A seventh child was born and the family started to get back on their feet. In 1996, her husband died in a tragic accident. Widowed with her three daughters and four sons, Victoria didn’t buckle. They stood firm in the recovered homeland for 26 years. Her children got married and had children of their own. It seemed that the episodes of tragedy had been relegated to history once again. Then… the 2020 Artsakh War began.
The elder son-in-law of the Tevanyan family was among those killed during the war. Once again, they had to abandon their flourishing home and return to Charentsavan. “We are living on the 13th floor, in a rented apartment, 12 people under a roof that leaks when it rains. Neither now, nor the previous time, have we been granted refugee status; though I have lost so much. Azerbaijan parades its refugees, but what about me? What am I?” The woman chokes up as the desperation of her circumstances washes over her. She dries her eyes and shrugs her shoulders, helplessly.
Who Are the Refugees?
Armenia’s 2008 Law On Refugees and Asylum defines who is considered a refugee, emphasizing the fact that they have been subjected to violence and persecution. That law is based on the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which Armenia joined in 1993.
This law provides for a wide range of support measures for refugees, and guarantees their rights; however, those who have refugee status say that they have not always been extended these opportunities.
“The document they gave us proving our refugee status seemed to count for nothing; the conditions were such that we could not move around with ease. I recall that they wouldn’t even lend me books at the library, provide health care, education, etc., with this refugee status. There was obvious discrimination against people with refugee status,” recalls Oksana Musayelyan, Chairperson of Refugee Voice NGO.
In 1990, the Musayelyan family, barely escaping from the atrocities of the Azerbaijan Popular Front, fled from Baku to Yerevan empty-handed.
“We fell into the hands of those gangs on June 14. They kicked us out of the house. We saved our mother from their hands and went to my aunt’s house where several of our relatives had already gathered. We wanted to leave the country, but it was impossible. They were plundering and burning the belongings of the Armenians. The following day, those gangs also reached that house. They tied us up. They beat my uncle terribly. We somehow managed to escape and reached Krasnovodsk [across the Caspian Sea in Turkmenistan] by ferry, from where we flew to Armenia,” recalls Musayelyan, who was 13 at the time.
They applied for refugee status as soon as they arrived, noting what they had been through and what they had left behind in Azerbaijan. She thinks this injustice should be pursued through international platforms, but laments that no such process was ever initiated.
“The Azerbaijani side actively uses the issue of its refugees and regularly raises questions about them, whereas similar questions have been silenced in Armenia for years. Our rights have not been defended in any way; our issues have not been voiced anywhere,” says Musayelyan.
Magazine Issue N16
This year marks the 34th anniversary of the Karabakh Movement, a monumental event in the collective and historical memory of the Armenian nation. The popular movement led to the reawakening and transformation of the Armenian nation.
This magazine issue entitled “The Movement”, includes articles that discuss the imperative for a new Artsakh narrative, shifting Russian foreign policy in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenian IDPs from the two wars and the view from the diaspora.
What has Russia’s policy positions and long-term shifts been toward the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as the issue has become more nuanced and complicated over the decades?Read more
How did the Armenian community in France live the events of 1988? What were the challenges faced in the diaspora and what were the main debates over the question of Armenia’s independence?Read more
While the Karabakh Movement led to a national reawakening, the situation today is vastly different. What does the future hold for Artsakh, and has Armenia lost agency in resolving the issue that has been the cornerstone of Armenian statehood?Read more
A Difficult Decision: Trading Status for Housing
The Armenian authorities decided in the mid-1990s to begin a program of naturalization—offering citizenship—which, according to many of the refugees, was a policy to cover up the problem. Musayelyan explains that it’s not that those who were expelled from Azerbaijan don’t want Armenian citizenship, but they have misgivings that accepting it would deny them rights without resolving their issues.
“I even remember they used to tell us, ‘Accept citizenship and we will provide you with housing within two or three years.’ In reality, people who accepted citizenship were subjected to that enforced naturalization. But afterwards, they were once again left with nothing, left in the same condition, with the same social problems–but are now Armenian citizens [and ineligible for refugee status],” says Musayelyan.
Since 1997, the most important eligibility requirement of the programs providing housing to people deported from Azerbaijan is holding Armenian citizenship.
According to the data available to Musayelyan, as a result of this, out of all those who were forcibly deported from Azerbaijan, only 20,000 people still have refugee status.
Nelli Davtyan, Public Relations Officer of the Migration Service of the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Infrastructure, notes that as of 2019 the state has launched a new program to provide refugees with housing. Once again, those who take part will be obliged to renounce their refugee status. According to data from June 2019, there are 882 families deported from Azerbaijan in need of housing in Armenia—628 in Yerevan and 254 in other regions of Armenia. This program will resolve the housing problem for 250 families living in extremely poor conditions.
“Under current conditions, of course, it is difficult to speak out about the fact that we have refugees, and they have certain demands,” says Musayelyan. For many years, Armenia did not provide basic living conditions for those forcibly deported from Azerbaijan. Some of them continue to live in damp and cold dormitories or even with dog breeders. Meanwhile, the naturalization program has eliminated them as a party to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Going Around in Circles
Eleanora Asatryan, the coordinator of the Refugees and International Rights Civil Society Network, says that the Armenian authorities’ disregard for the issue of refugees from Azerbaijan was manifested not by not providing them all with housing, but in their categorical refusal to protect their violated interests and rights (by Azerbaijan) at the level of state policy. In Asatryan’s opinion, Armenia is not obliged to provide free housing to all the refugees, but should have been responsible for ensuring the consistent and effective legal and political protection of these people in the appropriate international arenas.
According to Asatryan, Armenia has not in fact dealt with the refugee issue at international organizations. Instead, with the support of these international organizations, the Armenian authorities have pursued a policy of integration of the refugees into Armenia, the essence of which was the nullification of the issue of the Armenian refugees, thus preventing their issue from becoming part of the political agenda of the negotiation process.
“It is clear that the acceptance of Armenian citizenship by an ethnically Armenian refugee from Azerbaijan does not by any means guarantee housing. Instead, tens of thousands of them accepted Armenian citizenship only in order to legally emigrate to a third country. The Armenian authorities, by forcing the refugees to acquire Armenian citizenship, ‘closed’ the refugee issue for themselves, but opened the door for a new wave of Artsakhtsi-Armenian refugees in 2020,” says Asatryan.
During the 2020 Artsakh War, it was pointed out that more than 90,000 (around 60% of the population) left their places of permanent residence and moved temporarily to the Republic of Armenia. According to June 2021 data, the number of displaced Artsakhtsis in Armenia is 5,526 families, comprising 22,177 individuals.
It is remarkable that, once again, they have been left without any status. Point E of Article 1 of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states, “This Convention shall not apply to a person who is recognized by the competent authorities of the country in which he has taken residence as having the rights and obligations which are attached to the possession of the nationality of that country.” Almost all Artsakhtsis carry Republic of Armenian passports as no other document would be recognized for international travel.
The issues of those displaced as a result of the 2020 Artsakh War have been piled onto the social and political issues of the refugees from Azerbaijan, which have been pending for 30 years.
“Seeing our compatriots forcibly deported following the 2020 Artsakh War, I recall all that we went through,” says Armen Hakobyan, 42, who was forcibly deported from Kirovabad (present-day Ganja, Azerbaijan) to Armenia in 1988.
Although he was 9 years old when he left his native residence, the horrifying scenes he witnessed and the subsequent attitude he encountered in Armenia are indelibly etched in his memory.
“They destroyed and burned everything in Kirovabad on December 1, 1988. When we came to Armenia, the whole nation was shouting for unity. The [1988 Spitak] earthquake occurred a few days after we arrived, and they completely forgot about us. As a nation, we were all helping those injured by the earthquake. Who was interested then in the forcibly deported, who had arrived and were simply left shelterless?” says Hakobyan. He remembers with pain how they were mocked and shunned for not understanding Armenian and speaking in Russian. The Armenian schools in Azerbaijan had been closing over the years, effectively depriving the local Armenian population of the opportunity to learn their mother tongue.
In 1993, the Hakobyan family—Armen with his father, mother, sister and brother—was accommodated in the Arabkir administrative district of Yerevan, in a hotel formerly known as Praga (Prague), in two rooms totalling 29 square meters. He still lives there with his wife and child. The fact that they have a roof over their head disqualifies them for any additional support.
“Azerbaijan was creating a list of refugees out of nowhere, was spreading news all over the world and was campaigning for them. Here, no one dealt with us. They didn’t raise our issues. They didn’t show us to the world. They didn’t demand reparations. They simply covered everything up,” says Hakobyan. He regrets that these lessons haven’t been learned, and the same mistakes are being made again in the case of the Atsakhtsi-Armenians.
Those who have been forcibly deported note with regret that the perceptions about them in Armenia are distorted. They think “They are people who are Armenian, who have come to their homeland, and should be satisfied with that.” However, these people have lost their homes and in many cases, their relatives and their livelihoods. What they are asking for is their dignity.