Over 2,000 more ethnic Armenians from Syria have taken refuge in Armenia since fighting in Aleppo, their principal place of residence, escalated in May, Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobian said on Wednesday.
Their arrival raised to about 16,000 the official total number of Syrian Armenians currently living in their ancestral homeland.
Syria was home to up to 80,000 Armenians, most of them descendants of survivors of the 1915 genocide in Ottoman Turkey, before the outbreak of the bloody civil there four years ago. Most of them are thought to have fled the country since then.
Hakobian estimated that only around 15,000 Armenians remain in Syria now as she commented on their plight during the Armenian government’s question-and-answer session in parliament. “Unfortunately, the situation in Syria is worsening by the day,” she said. “A total of another 2,500 Syrian Armenians have come to Armenia since the May events,” she added.
Nazaret Aroyan, who owns several carpet shops in Aleppo, is one of those people, having settled in Yerevan with his family a month ago. Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am), Aroyan expressed concern about the security of his sister and her husband trapped in the warn-torn Syrian city. He said she works at a local public hospital and therefore needs government permission to leave the country.
“She has asked for permission to leave. Four months ago they sent her papers to Damascus,” Aroyan said, adding that she is still awaiting an answer.
“The situation there is really bad,” said Nazaret Kuyumjian, a younger Syrian Armenian refugee. “Yesterday they shelled a school and there were kids there.”
Mikael Garabed, another former Aleppo resident, said he has still not managed to convince his two brothers to relocate to Armenia. “There is no electricity and running water there,” he said. “Living conditions just keep getting worse.”
The Armenian government faced growing domestic calls for the evacuation of the remaining Armenians in Syria as fighting in and around Aleppo between Syrian government troops and rebels intensified earlier this year. The government made clear then that it will not encourage or help them to leave Syria en masse without the consent of the leadership of their shrinking community. The latter has been opposed to such an exodus until now.
In May, Hakobian acknowledged that with no end in sight to the Syrian conflict the exodus may only be a matter of time. The minister discussed the matter in July with the leaders of the Armenian community in neighboring Lebanon, which has taken in an even larger number of Syrian Armenian refugees. She said afterwards that the authorities in Yerevan are “sending signals to our compatriots that they should leave Syria in various ways.”
According to Syrian Armenians in Yerevan, many of their relatives would like to flee Aleppo and take refuge in Armenia but cannot afford expensive journeys out of the city. Some are probably also mindful of a lack of economic opportunities Armenia. Many Syrian Armenian refugees have been struggling to make ends meet in the unemployment-stricken country.
“They [the refugees] are starting to realize that there is no going back and to quickly integrate [into Armenia’s socioeconomic life,]” Hakobian told the National Assembly on Wednesday. “We all must help them to find jobs and help them with accommodation.”
Firdus Zakarian, the head of a Diaspora Ministry task force dealing with Syrian Armenians, cautioned in that regard that the government is too cash-strapped to provide significant material assistance to the refugees and therefore hopes to secure funding from foreign states and international organizations.