2017 World Refugee Day key messages
UNHCR welcomes the very receptive approach both the Government of Armenia and the overwhelming majority of the Armenian population have taken in receiving persons displaced due to the conflict in Syria seeking protection in Armenia. According to Government source, since the start of the conflict in Syria Armenia has welcomed over 22,000 persons, primarily of ethnic Armenian background. While some of them have moved on to other countries, serving as migrant workers in the Golf states, having made use of resettlement opportunities or united with family members elsewhere UNHCR estimates that about 15,000 displaced continue to stay and UNHCR notes with appreciation the significant progress many families where able to make towards achieving self-reliance and integration into the Armenian society. Many of the displaced families benefitting from their vocational skills, work and entrepreneurial experience they brought with them to Armenia have opened and are now successfully running small and medium size businesses, such as small restaurants, cafes, catering services, but also some factories and workshops in the field of textile production, shoe making and jewelry creation. “The highly developed service culture, diligence and quality of work of the displaced businessmen and workers has brought ‘fresh wind’ to the Armenian economy and society and contributes to their development” emphasized Mr. Christoph Bierwirth, the UNHCR Representative in Armenia adding that “this fits very well, the new directions of the government as to the economic development of the country giving increased attention to small and medium size enterprises and the development of the tourist sector.” UNHCR has also noted with appreciation that the new Prime Minister has repeatedly and publicly acknowledged the value of the displaced population for Armenian economic development, sending a clear message of welcome to the population. The quality of the products and the good ‘value for money’ has now allowed some of the displaced businessmen to start engaging in export to third countries such as Iran and the Russian Federation, some benefitting from export promoting projects of our broader operational partners, the German Development agency GIZ and our UN sister agency UNIDO.
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Despite all progress made there are still challenges and more needs to be done to successfully conclude the multifaceted integration process. While at smaller numbers [239 persons – 111 families] of new arrivals from Syria were still recorded in 2016 (in particular in Fall when fighting in and around Aleppo intensified) and early 2017. Those who came to Armenia recently often found themselves in most destitute conditions, having lost their homes and often loved ones, and were not rarely suffering from serious trauma. They need humanitarian and psycho-social support and UNHCR is pleased that during the recent years and with the support of many local and international NGOs, faith-based and diaspora organizations and in close cooperation with the authorities a comprehensive response and referral system has been created, which can address these needs. This system needs to be maintained and UNHCR calls on donors, government and private ones to continue to support programs which offer immediate humanitarian response, contribute to self-reliance and serve the facilitation of integration in Armenia.
Some families, in particular those consisting of elderly, single headed households or students or having family members with disabilities face more problems in their integration, given constraints in their ability to work, limited number of job opportunities and low wages. Durable housing remains a challenge. Most of the displaced have to rent apartments, many at least temporarily benefitting from a rental subsidy scheme made available by UNHCR and diaspora organizations, such as the Armenian Redwood Project and the IDeA Foundation. While many families would still like to keep options open and do not exclude a return to Syria once such will be possible in safety and dignity and increasing number of families see their long term future in Armenia. In line with Armenian tradition they would like to demonstrate and solidify their decision by acquisition of an apartment or other real estate in Armenia. Income levels and in particular challenges in getting access to finance and high interest rates make this difficult to achieve. While provision of durable housing to displaced populations reaches far beyond UNHCR’s purely humanitarian mandate, UNHCR would like to see enhanced engagement of development and diaspora actors in addressing durable housing needs. Given a functioning housing market in Armenia and a significant number of apartments being unused, this may not necessarily require construction, but could also be addressed by way of introduction of a subsidized (low interest rate) housing credit scheme, potentially paired with some grants helping on the initial down payment. Social housing can be a complementary way to offer longer term housing solutions.
In addition to persons displaced due to the conflict in Syria seeking protection in Armenia, the country faces other displacement challenges. Among the over 360,000 persons who were displaced between 1988 and 1992 in context of the Nagorno- Karabakh conflict, Some 2000 have not yet availed themselves to the opportunity of naturalization in Armenian and remain de jure refugees.
The escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in early April 2016 resulted in, at peak, over 2000 persons, overwhelmingly women, children and elderly, having fled from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. Most of them found shelter with relatives or family friends often belonging to the poorer segments of the society. UNHCR was impressed by the level of hospitality and support extended to the displaced. The situation prompted UNHCR to immediately engage. As explicitly expressed by the Armenian delegation at the annual meeting of the UNHCR Executive Committee “(the Government of Armenia highly value(d) the prompt and effective humanitarian response by the UNHCR Representation in Armenia, which quickly reached out to the people in need, offering targeted core relief item and within shortest time put into operation a cash based intervention system assisting the most vulnerable”. The cash based intervention allowed for a more dignified and flexible response. The experience gained has now informed our further contingency planning and preparedness efforts. Most of those displaced from Nagorno-Karabkh were able to return; by the end of 2016 a total of 573 persons (representing 172 households), primarily originating from the conflict affected village of Talish, remained in displacement.
Moreover, the Armenia also hosts refugees displaced due to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine as well as refugees from Iraq, Iran and in smaller numbers originating from a variety of African and Asian countries. UNHCR wishes to emphasize that refugee protection needs to be offered without discrimination and irrespective of ethnic background or religion of the displaced.
UNHCR was concerned about some cases of penalization of asylum-seekers for illegal border-crossing without due attention been given to related provisions in international refugee law excepting refugees under certain conditions from penalization. UNHCR has fullest understanding for the need of the State authorities addressing legitimate security concerns, in particular given the difficult geo-political situation of the country, but such should be done in a way fully compatible with international refugee and human rights law. UNHCR hopes that ongoing efforts entailing training of government officials, lawyers and judges, strategic litigation, and a multi-partide working group will help to overcome remaining protection challenges in the country completing the positive picture offered by the reception of persons displaced from Syria and the progress made in their integration.
In conclusion of the media briefing on the occasion of World Refugee Day 2017 the UNHCR Representative in Armenia, Mr. Christoph Bierwirth expressed: “In Armenia the recollection of the terrible and tragic events which started 102 years ago entail the memory of many Armenians having survived because protection, asylum was offered to them by other nations, in Europe, in the Americas, but also in many Arab countries. The institution of asylum is valued high in the Armenian society. This collective memory and experience should also govern approaches to today’s displacement challenges.” He emphasized: “Refugee protection and integration is not only a task for the authorities, everyone, every member of the society can contribute to the creation of a receptive environment. Everyone can and should care; be it the landlord who offers rent at a fair price, the employer who offers a fair salary to the displaced employee and patience during the initial coaching and adaptation period, the neighbor who offers a helping hand to the refugee who moves in next door, the consumer who makes a choice between cheap and sometimes low quality imports and the products offered by displaced entrepreneurs, or the student who shows his new displaced fellow student around the campus and familiarizes him or her with the study system in Armenia. There is no limit for creativity as to ways how to address the plight of refugees and means to demonstrate that you care.”
UN Secretary Genaral's Message of the day can be found HERE.
The statement of the High Commissioner for Refugees can be found HERE.