Syrian-Armenians and the Legal Snares of Armenian Citizenship

Syrian Armenian children attend a school that teaches Western Armenian (Photo: Asbarez)

While most of those fleeing Syria are in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, several thousand have also gone to Armenia. In fact, compared to stories about asylum seekers in Europe or the Middle East, Armenia has often been lauded by both Armenian and foreign press for welcoming Syrians with open arms. But while Armenia does have much to be proud of in regards to its treatment of Syrian refugees, there is a significant difference between Syrian asylum seekers in Armenia and those in other countries in the region: the vast majority of the Syrian asylum seekers in Armenia are in fact ethnically Armenian. This unique situation, which came about due to events in late Ottoman history, creates substantial benefits but also potential legal detriments for this group of around 20,000 Syrian-Armenians by blocking access to refugee status for them.

Why Are Armenians in Syria?

In the final years of the Ottoman Empire, Ottoman officials carried out a policy of genocide against its Christian minorities, most notably against Armenians, killing an estimated 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923. During and in the aftermath of the genocide, a number of Armenians settled in Syria, either because they were fleeing the Turkish authorities or because the Turks forced them on death marches to the Syrian Desert, with most of them ending up at the infamous Der Zor. For a century, many of these Armenian survivors stayed in Syria and made their new home there.

Despite only ever being a few tens of thousands strong, the Syrian-Armenian community was a prominent one in the Armenian Diaspora. Syria had a wide variety of ethnicities and religions represented there before and after independence, including Yazidis, Druze and various Christian populations, in addition to Sunni and Shiite Muslims. This led to a country that was largely accepting of ethnic and religious differences and functioned as a sort of modern Convivencia. Syrian-Armenians comprised significant parts of the population of major Syrian cities such as Aleppo and were almost always represented in the Syrian parliament. Perhaps the most notable physical manifestation of the Syrian-Armenian diaspora community was the Armenian Genocide monument at Der Zor, which was completed in 1990.

The Terror of the Islamic State

Like the rest of the Syrian population, Syrian-Armenians were swept up in the catastrophic and ongoing civil wars in Syria. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 5.6 million people have fled the country, over 6.6 million are internally displaced, and many more are in dire situations. Syrian-Armenians were seen as supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, possibly to maintain the acceptance of cultural and religious differences that his government has encouraged, which led to a backlash from other sectors of the Syrian population.

The Islamic State (also known as Daesh, ISIS and ISIL) particularly targeted the Armenian community in Syria. The Islamic State was a radical Islamic organization, and it especially targeted Christian communities in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State burned Armenian churches, demolished the Armenian Genocide memorial at Der Zor and targeted Armenian communities.

To the Fatherland

While some Syrian-Armenians have established defensive forces to protect their dwindling community in Syria, many thousands have fled the country. Many of these members of Syria’s Armenian community have returned to their ancestral homeland of Armenia, bringing full circle the cycle of violence that began with the Armenian Genocide. It is very likely that most of these Syrian-Armenian refugees will not return to Syria after the war, so it may even be the effective end of this diaspora community in Syria.

Many Syrian-Armenians naturally looked to the land of their ancestors as a refuge from the violence of the Islamic State and the Syrian Civil War. These new arrivals have had their fair share of success stories, including Syrian-Armenian bakers who were given the Prime Minister’s Award for entrepreneurship and a jeweler who, after losing everything in Syria, established a successful business in Yerevan. Art exhibits praise the Syrian-Armenians’ arrival. UNHCR has even lauded Armenia for its positive approach towards refugees, including the government’s consistent affirmation that Syrian refugees are a positive addition to Armenia. This affirmative treatment of Syrian refugees has received positive comparisons to the European Union’s handling of the refugee crisis in Syria and in the Mediterranean.

But the integration of Syrian-Armenian arrivals into Armenia is not without its problems. Some Syrian-Armenians are frustrated with economic corruption in Armenia and violence against the recent arrivals. This is coupled with persistent ethnic discrimination, inflamed by the xenophobia that has flared up around most of the globe in the past few years. There are documented tensions between those born in Armenia and the Syrian-Armenian arrivals. This led to five-thousand Syrian-Armenians leaving the country between 2012 and 2014.

While Syrian-Armenians and Armenians are linked by a shared cultural heritage, they do speak different dialects (Western Armenian and Eastern Armenian respectively), and of course residing in Syria in a diaspora community for the last century has created social and cultural differences as well. This raises the question of how much Armenian nationalism helps or hurts these recent Syrian-Armenian transplants.

In addition, Armenia has provided resettlement assistance for these arrivals, but it is hard for Armenia, a country of just three million, to sufficiently meet the needs of the estimated 20,000 Syrian-Armenians that have now settled there. Syrian-Armenians have undoubtedly faced significant obstacles in Armenia with accommodation education, and social and economic integration. In particular, the establishment of Syrian-Armenian refugees in Armenia has been complicated by a high unemployment rate and weak economic performance in the past decade.

International Legal Complications for Syrian-Armenians

While the historic cultural ties for Syrian-Armenians are a strong draw for remaining in Armenia, an unfortunate and unintended circumstance may also prevent them from freely pursuing a new life elsewhere. Due to having access to potential Armenian citizenship, Syrian-Armenians, both those who moved to Armenia and even those who moved elsewhere, may be ineligible for refugee status.

While Armenia’s own laws on refugees do apply to Syrian-Armenians, the path to citizenship for all ethnic Armenians, including Syrian-Armenians, is simplified. This has led the vast majority of Syrian-Armenians not to pursue refugee status, but instead opt for trying to obtain Armenian citizenship. Only 236 of these Syrian-Armenians have been granted refugee status. The rest have a mix of dual citizenship, temporary residence and asylum-seeker legal status. But while an easier path to citizenship may be a good thing, it may also cause the Syrian-Armenians to lose any chance of refugee status.

First, under the safe third country doctrine, many countries will not accept refugees if they have previously been in a country that respects the Refugee Convention, the international treaty on the recognition and treatment of refugees. Because many Syrian-Armenians went to Armenia first, instead of other alternative host countries, prevailing international refugee law may limit their access to the package of refugee rights. Since Armenia is a signatory of the Refugee Convention and has provided assistance to Syrian-Armenians, any countries adhering to the safe third country doctrine would likely send them back to Armenia.

The much larger issue is whether expedited Armenian citizenship for Syrian-Armenians prevents them from being legally considered refugees at all under the Refugee Convention. Because Syrian-Armenians are being treated as de facto nationals due to their Armenian heritage, whether or not they can qualify for refugee status is a grey zone. Although there are arguments for why Syrian-Armenians in Armenia should be considered refugees, legally speaking these are not very strong. It gives other countries a powerful basis to reject the refugee claims of Syrian-Armenians that have previously stayed in Armenia, and may even extend to all Syrian-Armenians.  

This justification is premised on the fact that the legal definition of refugee under the Refugee Convention requires that a refugee have no effective nationality that can protect them. Many courts around the world, including the European Union and Canada, have included among this inchoate citizenship. Inchoate citizenship is citizenship that, while not held right now, could be gained through reasonable efforts. By providing fast track citizenship for Syrian-Armenians, Armenia is effectively creating inchoate citizenship for Syrian-Armenians. Therefore, Syrian-Armenians cannot qualify as refugees under the Refugee Convention, so they are ineligible to receive refugee benefits under the Convention in any country, not just Armenia.

The Solution

Armenia providing fast-track citizenship for Syrian-Armenians is a laudable action, but the unintended consequence of cutting off all access to refugee rights can be catastrophic. The best path forward is a compromise. If Armenia is in fact providing proper resettlement assistance to Syrian-Armenians, the benefits of faster Armenian citizenship may very well be worth the costs of them not being able to avail themselves of refugee status anywhere in the world. However, Armenia should keep in mind that this current framework effectively funnels Syrian-Armenians to resettle in Armenia instead of another country, so Armenia must be sure to have the economic bandwidth to support this new population. Effective citizenship is a worthy alternative to refugee status, but if this cannot be provided, it might be best to not provide expedited citizenship at all to not effectively leave Syrian-Armenians with Armenia as the sole resettlement option.

Michael Goodyear

Michael Goodyear

Michael Goodyear is a J.D. Candidate at the University of Michigan Law School. He has an A.B. in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago.
Michael Goodyear

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