The most recent history of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Azerbaijan dates back 15 years, when conflict erupted over Azerbaijan's Armenian-majority enclave, Nagorno-Karabakh. During the fighting that followed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, over a million people on both sides were forcibly displaced. Many of them live in refugee camps, depend on insufficient humanitarian assistance, and face gloomy prospects for the future. Today, the humanitarian organizations struggling to help Azerbaijan's refugees and IDPs are engaged in a transitional strategy aimed not only at protection, but also at longer-term sustainable development.
Roots of the Crisis
In 1988, Azerbaijan and Armenia had not yet gained their independence from the Soviet Union. The last years of the communist era for these two countries were marked by large-scale ethnic cleansings and bloody ethnic clashes, such as pogroms of Armenians in Sumgait and Baku, and the massacre of Azeris in Khojali. Some of this violence was encouraged by the "divide and rule" aspirations of the waning Soviet empire.
This initial unrest sparked fierce hostilities that eventually engulfed Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as the population of Nagorno-Karabakh itself. The fighting took the lives of about 30,000 people and lasted until 1994, when the two sides reached a cease-fire agreement.
The first flow of refugees from Armenia and Azerbaijan began in early 1988. As of 1990, all ethnic Azeris who had been living in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh were forced to leave their historical places of residence. In the opposite direction, as of 1992, almost all ethnic Armenians fled Azerbaijan. All in all, about 185,000 Azeris and about 300,000 Armenians were forced to leave their homes because of their ethnicity.
The second wave of mass migration took place between 1992 and 1994, as the result of an Armenian offensive and seizure of about 20 percent of Azerbaijan, including the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh area and six other adjacent administrative regions. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes and seek refuge within their own country. As a result, Azerbaijan hosts about 650,000 internally displaced persons. In addition, there are 50,000 Meskhetian Turks who were deported from Georgia in the 1940s, then fled to Azerbaijan from Uzbekistan in 1989 in a movement not connected to the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Thus, the total number of refugees and IDPs in Azerbaijan is about 885,000. Given its 7.5 million population, Azerbaijan has the largest per capita refugee and IDP burden in the world.
In spite of the cease-fire and termination of hostilities achieved in 1994, the conflict is still not over. A political resolution has not been achieved despite the best efforts of the international community and the governments of the two countries.
Status of the Refugees and IDPs
Since 1988, the refugees and IDPs displaced by the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh have been struggling for economic stability. Most of them have been living in refugee tents, railroad cars, and haphazardly established settlements. Access to clean water and sanitary services in these situations is poor, and energy supplies are often severely limited. Nevertheless, the condition of the forcibly displaced is marginally better today than it was between 1988 and 1992, at the peak of ethnic hostilities and massive migration from the war-torn areas.
In some respects, however, the situation has not improved, as opportunities to make a living have not expanded as hoped for. An economic slump in the early 1990s made things even more difficult for these refugees and IDPs. The worst affected have been children and women belonging to families that face unemployment, physical insecurity, stress and, above all, enormous loss of dignity and self-respect. A large majority of them have been deprived of many rights and are without access to minimal social protection. They have also been the most severely affected by the economic slump that followed on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Despite the cease-fire and some improvements in the country's economic situation, the future of these people is unclear. They risk being neglected or socially excluded, and they remain the most disadvantaged in terms of finding work. Only approximately 30 percent of them have access to jobs. Furthermore, even if they obtain employment, their wages are very low in comparison with ordinary citizens.
The economic prospects of these refugees and IDPs has been complicated by government policy. Starting in 1993, Azeri authorities began to take measures to prevent displaced persons from travelling to the capital and other major cities. Roadblocks kept them close to the front lines of the conflict, preventing their deeper penetration into the country. In May 1995, the mayor of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, issued a decree prohibiting people with no permanent residence (a remnant of the Soviet propiska system) from acquiring a home in the city. A similar restriction is applied to aliens, who are not entitled to buy property in the country.
In addition, the police require all people arriving in Baku to register with the relevant district police station within seven days and have been ordered to expel from the city any person who fails to meet this requirement. This practice conflicts with the Azerbaijani Constitution as well as international law, which both provide for freedom of movement.
Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Department of State, more than 70,000 displaced persons continue to live in camps at below-subsistence levels, without adequate food, housing, sanitation, education, or medical services. Azeri authorities are using this situation as a bargaining chip to demand more assistance from humanitarian organizations and to press the Armenian side at international forums on the final borders settlement.
Towards Sustainable Solutions
The situation in Azerbaijan shows the limitations of existing human rights and humanitarian law, which does not afford sufficient protection to IDPs. The law does not explicitly and adequately deal with many situations that affect the internally displaced. For example, in principle, no international organization has a global mandate to protect or assist people who have been displaced within their own country.
However, the UN General Assembly authorized the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to extend international protection and assistance, by use of "its good offices," to people who might be outside the strict statutory definition of its mandate. Apart from UNHCR, many other organizations began working in Azerbaijan in 1993 in response to the crisis resulting from the conflict with Armenia and the inability of the government to meet the needs of the many refugees and displaced persons. These include the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Oxfam, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Danish Refugee Council, Mercy Corps, CHF International, the International Rescue Committee, the International Medical Corps, Pathfinder International, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Save the Children Federation, and World Vision International. To date, 57 international relief and development agencies have been registered in Azerbaijan. In the last 10 years, they have provided $520 million in support and assistance to IDPs and refugees within Azerbaijan. In 2002 these agencies' assistance totaled $42 million.
In the initial stage, the intervention of international organizations revolved around emergency water supply and sanitation plus food distribution and shelter-related activities. However, given the absence of a final political solution that could allow refugees and IDPs to return to their places of origin, these organizations have modified their strategy for Azerbaijan and critically shifted from humanitarian assistance to sustainable, longer-term development. The fundamental objective of this strategy is to raise the living standards of IDPs by rehabilitating the main physical and social infrastructure, as well as by creating new jobs.
For example, since 1993, UNHCR's general objectives have concentrated more on the economic and social needs of the displaced. From 1999 onward, UNHCR activities in Azerbaijan have been targeted at issues such as multi-sectoral assistance, shelter, income generation, crop production, and animal husbandry. In 2000, the Azeri Government, UNHCR, the World Bank, and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) came to an agreement on the promotion of self-reliance and local settlement for vulnerable displaced people, without prejudice to their eventual return, when conditions so allow.
The current and future programs of the humanitarian organizations represent a clear example of this transitional strategy aimed at longer-term sustainable development. Over the past few years, international organizations have continued their transition away from purely relief and humanitarian assistance towards the social and economic integration of populations affected by the conflict. In 2001-2002, these agencies carried out microcredit, business development services, community development, and primary health care projects.
The international community has made particular efforts to reduce suffering and alleviate poverty among the members of vulnerable populations, to develop a foundation for democracy and governance at the grassroots level, and to continue economic restructuring efforts with a focus on agribusiness. These activities have covered almost all regions of Azerbaijan, with a primary focus on the conflict-affected areas. Over 600,000 people, of whom 51 percent are women, have directly benefited from these services. All projects have incorporated cross-sectoral and interagency integration in order to enhance the impact of services and benefits.
Almost all international organizations have made grants to poor communities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and community-based organizations to solve various socio-economic problems. Most of the grants have been in the fields of employment, infrastructure development, construction/rehabilitation work, education and human rights. Some donors, for example, have helped poor communities and local producers set up facilities to process agricultural goods. These grants have also helped provide shelter to a large number of IDPs who were without proper accommodation. Meanwhile, the self-sufficiency of returnees and IDP communities has been promoted through small-scale income-generating programs.
Prospects for Development
The future prosperity of Azerbaijan—and by extension, the fortunes of the forcibly displaced within its borders—depends on how soon a permanent and lasting solution is found for the armed conflict. It is expected that in due course, the return of IDPs will begin, along with permanent rehabilitation. In this period, as peaceful political options are being explored, it will be important to resolve certain humanitarian issues, irrespective of political considerations.
First of all, it will fall on the Azeri government to make the lives of IDPs and refugees more secure by investing directly in their education and health services, and by expanding job opportunities. At the same time, international humanitarian support remains vital for Azerbaijan, where only a small proportion of IDPs now have access to jobs and some kind of income. Along with humanitarian aid, however, it is even more essential to initiate special development programs. One of the strategic needs is the creation of new jobs for IDPs by identifying market and employment opportunities, promoting enterprise, and providing technical assistance. Employment is a complex issue, however, because the jobless rate is high even among the rest of the population. Microcredit schemes that can help build up small and medium industries, mitigate unemployment, and make the economy grow can play a role in satisfying the needs of local people and IDPs alike.
Meanwhile, many areas of Azerbaijan still face a pressing need for infrastructure development and reconstruction so that IDPs can be resettled into these regions and integrated with the larger network of Azeri society. This issue of resettling and rehabilitating IDPs is not a short-term one, and accordingly, aid agencies are beginning to take the longer view.
In the short term, international humanitarian assistance, in Azerbaijan as elsewhere, helps to tide over difficult circumstances. But to the extent that such aid can evolve to fit the circumstances, a new social order is possible that incorporates both local citizens and the forcibly displaced. In Azerbaijan, many of the relationships needed to achieve such a transformation—among the international organizations, the government, local populations, and the forcibly displaced themselves—are beginning to develop.
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