The 2020 Artsakh War precipitated overlapping refugee crises. Tens of thousands of Armenians were displaced from their homes in the Artsakh republic during the 44-day war, fleeing incessant shelling of civilian settlements by the Azerbaijani armed forces and seeking temporary safety in Armenia. The Russian Defense Ministry cites that over 50-thousand citizens of Artsakh have returned to their homes since the end of the war.
Meanwhile the November 9 end-of-war agreement permitted Azerbaijan to retain control over the seven outlying territories (Agdam, Fizuli, Jabrayil, Zangelan, Qubatlu, Kelbajar and Lachin) that had been the subject of negotiations so far, as well as parts of the former Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast itself that it captured during the war, including the Hadrut region, the city of Shushi and several dozen other communities. Consequently an estimated 30,000 people have lost their homes to Azerbaijani occupation.
This week the Office of the Human Rights Defender of Armenia published a guide delineating the types of financial and social assistance available in Armenia to people displaced from their homes in Artsakh. In addition to revealing the humanitarian framework adopted by the government for meeting the needs of the Armenian population of Artsakh, the guide exposes the legal ambiguities surrounding their status as displaced persons.
The guide sets forth parameters for eligibility to receive funds from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs of Armenia. Every citizen of Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh) is eligible to receive a base amount of 68,000 drams, plus an additional 15,000 drams if that person does not own real estate in Armenia. Citizens of Artsakh who lived on lands passed over to Azerbaijani control will receive 300,000 drams. Citizens who live on land retained as part of Artsakh proper yet whose homes have become uninhabitable as a result of the destruction of the war will receive 250,000 drams.
The government has also committed to cooperating with municipal governments to integrate displaced persons into the Armenian labor market. Participants of temporary public works programs overseen by local governments will be paid 8,000 drams a day. Employers who train unemployed workers from Artsakh in order to provide them with work experience will receive 34,000 drams a month. In the meantime, unemployed individuals can receive a monthly salary of 100,000 drams for up to three months.
Finally, the guide ensures that citizens of Artsakh are entitled to the same rights as citizens of Armenia, including the right to education, employment, medical help and social services.
The law in Armenia “On Refugees and Asylum” grants a wide range of rights to asylum seekers and refugees, including property rights, the right to paid employment, social security and medical care, education and temporary housing. The law incorporates the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol into domestic law. The convention defines a refugee as “a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence” who is “unable or unwilling to avail him or herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.” Armenian law details a process for the recognition of refugee status and provision of asylum for foreign citizens and stateless persons. However, this process involves two different countries, since the citizen of one country applies to the government of another country for international protection.
The United Nations also specifies internally displaced persons (IDPs) as a separate categorization. The UN defines IDPs as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence” and “who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.” IDPs are not conferred special status under international law, since they legally retain their rights and guarantees as citizens of their country. Armenia’s law on refugees and asylum does not include provisions on the recognition of IDP status.
Since the Republic of Artsakh is not internationally recognized as an independent state, Armenians displaced from Artsakh during the war are not protected under international law as refugees. They do not retain IDP status either, since they are considered citizens of Artsakh upon entering Armenia.
The government of Armenia addresses this gap in international refugee law by granting people displaced from Artsakh similar rights guaranteed to refugees and asylum seekers under Armenia’s domestic law, notwithstanding their lack of refugee status. Beneficiaries must obtain an Armenian passport in order to access financial and social assistance programs. In the meantime, they retain their status as citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh. It is unclear whether the Armenian government intends to create a pathway to dual citizenship for Armenians displaced from Artsakh, thus securing their rights as IDPs. However, such a scenario would prevent future conferral of refugee status.
The ambiguity in the international status of Armenians displaced from Artsakh raises several concerns besides their rights under Armenian domestic law. Primarily, it complicates their right to return to their homes. The seventh point of the ceasefire agreement states, “Internally displaced persons and refugees will return to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas under the control of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.” While this provision has been applied to facilitate the return of Azerbaijanis displaced during the Artsakh War of the 1990s to the region, it has not been considered in the case of the tens of thousands of Armenians displaced during the 2020 Artsakh War.
According to a note issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Regional Bureau for Europe in November of 2020, the UNHCR considers Azerbaijanis displaced from Artsakh during the First Artsakh War “internally displaced persons.” Its treatment of Armenians during the 2020 Artsakh War is more cryptic, labeling them “refugees and persons in a refugee-like situation.”
Moreover, if any displaced person from Artsakh was to seek asylum outside of Armenia, they might not be able to do so, since they would not be recognized as refugees.
The presently undefined status of the displaced Armenians from Artsakh raises important questions about international refugee law and its treatment of stateless persons and people from internationally unrecognized territories. For the time being, the future of the Armenians of Artsakh and their ability to claim their rights under international law are uncertain.
Meanwhile, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman of Artsakh published a report on the threats of destruction and erasure facing Armenian cultural heritage on lands occupied by Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani armed forces deliberately targeted Armenian religious and cultural heritage sites in Artsakh throughout the war, including Ghazanchetsots (Holy Savior) Cathedral in Shushi and archeological sites near the preserved Hellenistic Armenian city of Tigranakert. The report details at least 13 examples of attacks and vandalism against Armenian cultural monuments since the end of the war. These include severe destruction to the dome and bell tower of the 19th century St. Hovhannes Mkrtich (Kanach Zham) Church in Shushi.
Considering the well-documented pattern of the erasure of Armenian cultural heritage by Azerbaijan, the report urges the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to take action to protect Armenian cultural heritage in Artsakh and prevent further destruction.
Back in Yerevan, Vazgen Manukyan met with followers of the National Salvation Movement this week to discuss a range of issues, including the domestic political situation, socio-economic and national security concerns and geopolitical developments. Manukyan has been selected by the movement to lead an interim government of national unity that will organize snap parliamentary elections. Manukyan shared that nationalism and freedom do not contradict each other and that education is paramount in building a citizenry with national and democratic values.
The National Salvation Movement also released a statement offering a roadmap to free and fair parliamentary elections following a meeting on January 26. The statement reaffirms the necessity of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s resignation. “It is of fundamental importance that the candidate to lead the transitional government has sufficient experience in governance and does not participate in the elections,” the statement reads. “Any attempt to hold elections led by the incumbent prime minister or the incumbent administration will undermine the legitimacy of those elections from the outset, which will be fraught with dangers of destabilization and political conflict.”