By Emil Danielyan
The United Nations’ high commissioner for refugees, Ruud Lubbers, was in Armenia as part of a regional swing on Monday, pledging continued UN assistance to thousands of Armenians forced to flee Azerbaijan.
Official sources cited him as praising the Armenian government’s efforts to provide the refugees with decent housing and help them integrate into Armenian society -- two major problems that have yet to be resolved more than a decade after the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Lubbers, a former Dutch prime minister, discussed their plight with Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and signed a cooperation agreement with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian.
Over 300,000 ethnic Armenian residents of Azerbaijan took refuge in Armenia between 1988 and 1990. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) which opened a representation in Yerevan in 1992, has been at the forefront of international efforts to alleviate their plight, providing humanitarian aid and financing housing construction. It has rendered similar assistance to hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees constrained to leave Armenia, Karabakh and Armenian-controlled territories in Azerbaijan proper after the outbreak of the bitter dispute.
Many of the Armenian refugees have since left Armenia for Russia and other former Soviet republics in the face of difficult socioeconomic conditions. There is no official data on how many of them remain in the country. A government statement said both the UN official and Markarian recognized the need to ascertain their number.
The vast majority of the refugees are believed to live in poverty. The government estimates that some 3,000 refugee still lack proper housing, huddling in run-down hostels, boarding houses and other temporary shelters. In August 2003 it unveiled a $20 million scheme to build new homes for them.
However, officials cautioned at the time that the government can provide only $5 million of the sum and hopes to obtain the rest of it from international donors, including the UN. It is not clear if the Armenian leaders raised the issue with Lubbers.
UNHCR activities in Armenia have focused in recent years on promoting the naturalization of the refugees. Many of them have been reluctant to adopt Armenian citizenship for fear of losing their eligibility for government benefits and international aid.
The process has gained momentum since the late 1990s, with a UNHCR spokesman describing it last February as “one of the most successful voluntary naturalizations of refugees in recent decades.” Markarian told Lubbers that 67,000 refugees have already received Armenian passports.
(Photolur photo: Lubbers meeting with Oskanian.)