By Atom Markarian
The government will ask parliament to extend the December 31, 2003 legal deadline for the adoption of Armenian citizenship by ethnic Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan, officials said on Wednesday.
Ministers said the tens of thousands of refugees who still hold outdated Soviet passports should be given three more years to become fully naturalized in Armenia. They will propose this month relevant changes to the Armenian law on citizenship passed by the National Assembly in 2000.
The law has been used by the government to encourage the refugees to become full-fledged citizens of Armenia. Many of them have been reluctant to do so for fear of losing their right to compensation for property lost in Azerbaijan and social benefits provided by domestic and foreign aid agencies.
According to the head of the government’s Department on Refugee Affairs and Migration, Gagik Yeganian, the government effort has largely been a success, with some 55,000 former residents of Azerbaijan having adopted Armenian citizens since 2000. Only 7,000 of them did that in the previous ten years, he said.
Yeganian said that the authorities will encourage the process by continuing to make provision of adequate housing for refugee families conditional on their having Armenian nationality. “There is a strong correlation between the adoption of citizenship and housing conditions,” he told a news conference.
In particular, the citizenship is a key condition for the free-of-charge privatization of state-owned buildings that have housed many refugees for more than a decade. The government estimates that some 3,000 such families still huddle in run-down hostels, boarding houses and other temporary shelters.
Over 300,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan took refuge in Armenia between 1988 and 1990. Many of them have since emigrated to Russia and other former Soviet republics in the face of difficult socioeconomic conditions. Yeganian could not say how many of them currently reside in the country without a citizenship.
The official announced that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has approved a recently approved government plan to provide adequate housing to some 4,000 low-income families of displaced persons that live in deplorable conditions. The government hopes to raise the bulk of the required $20 million from external sources. Yeganian said the UNCHR will assist in its implementation.