YEREVAN—Following the mass displacement of Artsakh’s Armenian population to Armenia, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s administration has opted to confer “temporary protection status” on the refugees, who are already in possession of Armenian passports.
Dr. Nyree Derderian, former chairperson of the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) Central Executive Board, raised concerns about the Armenian government’s decision. “The decision to grant ‘temporary protection status’ to Armenians from Artsakh has sparked controversy for various reasons,” Derderian said in an interview with the Weekly. One of the key points of contention revolves around the citizenship status of the displaced. Many of the refugees from Artsakh already possess Armenian passports and are recognized as Armenian citizens. This raises questions about why they are not automatically acknowledged as Armenian citizens.
Additionally, this decision carries legal implications. Armenian law traditionally reserves the “temporary protection status” for foreign nationals and stateless individuals. Applying this status to people who hold Armenian passports deviates from the customary use of this legal framework, which is designed to provide protection to non-citizens.
“The categorization of these individuals under ‘temporary protection status’ may also have implications for their ability to receive international humanitarian assistance and support, as it sets them apart from recognized refugees,” Derderian said. Conferring this status to Armenians from Artsakh who are already Armenian citizens raises concerns about potential confusion and access to benefits, aid and assistance.
Following a large-scale attack on Artsakh by Azerbaijan on September 19-20, Artsakh authorities agreed to disband and disarm the Artsakh Defense Army. They later announced that Artsakh’s state institutions will be dissolved by January 1, 2024. Within a week, over 100,000 Armenians were forcibly displaced from Artsakh to Armenia.
While the government faces persistent challenges in providing aid to the Armenians who have suffered tremendous losses during the ethnic cleansing of Artsakh by Azerbaijan, the ARS remains steadfast in its efforts to provide them with housing assistance, educational aid and more, to guarantee their survival and recovery.
Derderian has been tasked with co-chairing the Artsakh Support Body, a committee established by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) Bureau. Comprising representatives from sister organizations, including entities from Artsakh, this committee is charged with coordinating initiatives designed to provide support to the people of Artsakh.
The foremost concern for forcibly displaced Armenians from Artsakh is stable, long-term housing, according to Derderian, as temporary solutions prevail.
Currently, many have secured temporary housing, either with family members or through short-term rentals. “In 2023, it is uncommon to observe the provision of accessible housing for Armenians from Artsakh. While there is a minute portion that has been granted accommodation without rental fees, it is a distinct departure from the conditions we witnessed during the 44-day war and the first Artsakh war (1988-1994), where opportunities for temporary shelter were available without charges,” said Derderian. The rental market in Yerevan has witnessed increased costs, influenced by factors such as the war in Ukraine, the influx of Russian citizens and substantial emigration from Artsakh.
Derderian also highlighted the need to ensure the integration of children and adolescents into Armenia’s educational structure. In regions outside the capital city Yerevan, enrolling students in schools is generally unproblematic due to manageable class sizes. However, in Yerevan, where overcrowded class sizes are common, many Artsakh students and their parents have been forced to explore alternative options for education. Additionally, with the academic year already underway, the distribution of school textbooks has left many Artsakh students without the essential educational materials.
As winter approaches in Armenia, displaced families face a critical need for essential items to endure the cold weather. Many have specifically requested beds, linens, pillows and, notably, winter comforters and mattresses. The demand for winter clothing, including heavy coats, jackets and footwear, is urgent. In certain regions, there is a necessity for heating, preferably through wood stoves, aiming to reduce the cost of electricity, which is charged at significantly higher rates in Armenia in contrast to Artsakh.
“The forcibly displaced residents of Artsakh seek employment opportunities rather than relying on aid. They prefer the chance to earn a living and support their families,” said Derderian. This approach assures that families can forge a new life, endure and care for their children and loved ones through their determination.
An often overlooked concern is maintaining the cohesion of Artsakh’s communities. This is crucial for various reasons, Derderian said, including the preservation of their dialects and the safeguarding of their culture and traditions. Since 1988, the people of Artsakh have endured multiple wars and displacements, making their communities their most reliable support system. Preserving communities also contributes significantly to the enhancement of mental health.
Mental health is frequently underestimated, particularly concerning children, who grapple with emotional challenges and yearn to return to their familiar environments—homes, friends, schools and playgrounds now relegated to a distant past. “It is crucial to engage with children, addressing their emotions and helping them navigate the anxieties associated with war and displacement,” Derderian said.
ARS Artsakh chairwoman Lilit Martirosyan recounted the harrowing situation that unfolded when Azerbaijan launched the attack on Artsakh on September 19 and the ensuing chaos. All vital roads linking villages and provinces to Stepanakert, Artsakh’s capital, were systematically blocked. In her view, this constituted a form of genocide, as people were left with nothing, with their sole focus being survival. Basic communication channels with relatives and friends were severed.
Martirosyan’s family hails from the Mokhratagh village in the Martakert region. They were forced to abandon all of their belongings, including valuable books about Artsakh’s history, which weighs heavily on her heart. Her family spent three days on the traffic-ridden road from Artsakh to Armenia, where they were sent to the town Vayk for registration.
Martirosyan and her family have received financial assistance from the government. The government has promised 50,000 drams ($125 USD) to displaced families per month until March 2024 and a one-time payment of 100,000 drams ($250 USD).
Yet none of Martirosyan’s family members have received their regular monthly pension disbursements. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in Armenia has outlined the requirements for individuals to receive pensions and allowances, focusing on forcibly displaced persons from Artsakh who were granted temporary protection.
To ensure the rights of refugees from Artsakh, legislative changes have been introduced and a platform for online applications will soon be created, according to the Armenian government. People who previously received a pension in Artsakh can apply for pensions, allowances and benefits. If they did not receive a pension in Artsakh, they must apply at a local Unified Social Service office. It is mandatory to be registered at their current residence address in Armenia before applying for these benefits, or their applications will be rejected.
Presently, the ARS, operating through the Artsakh Support Body, has allocated housing for nearly 2,000 families. Over 5,000 families, comprising almost 30,000 individuals, have been registered to receive aid and participate in the organization’s short-, mid- and long-term programs. Essential items such as clothing, beds, linens and comforters are being distributed. A thousand food and hygiene boxes have already been prepared and distributed, with an additional 5,000 boxes currently being prepared.
The ARS, in collaboration with the Artsakh Support Body, is establishing a Social Services office. “Leveraging our experience, particularly in the Western USA, where the largest Social Services office has operated since 1980, we aim to provide opportunities and guidance for Armenians from Artsakh,” Derderian said.
Future programs include initiatives for job placement and startup business funding for young adults through “Verelk,” a program initiated by the ARF Bureau Youth Office in Artsakh and Armenia’s southernmost province Syunik. There are also plans for business development and startup opportunities for adults.
Martirosyan said that the ARS Artsakh chapter will continue its operations for the foreseeable future, serving as a means to connect individuals and spearheading various projects to aid their compatriots. She remains hopeful that the ARS can replicate the work conducted in Artsakh in Armenia, including the ARS preschools.
“We urge individuals to contribute financial support to our programs,” Derderian said, noting that in the past, the ARS has shipped clothing, medication and other items to Armenia from abroad. However, the stringent regulations imposed by Armenia’s customs services make it challenging to release items sent from overseas.
“Considering that items available overseas can also be obtained in Armenia, contributing to the local economy while aiding Artsakh families, we encourage financial donations,” Derderian said. Individuals can contribute through local ARS entities or the Central Executive website.