04/07/2013

Refugees in Armenia: An unexpected “homecoming” for Syria’s Armenian Diaspora

Nirj Deva MEP, Vice Chair of the European Parliaments Development Committee states: “As a consequence of Syria’s longstanding internal conflict Armenia has accommodated more than 7000 Syrian Armenians within its borders and has received no external help. The EU has helped countries such as Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan by providing both humanitarian and non-humanitarian aid for their efforts in refugee rehabilitation and it should help Armenia in the same way.”

Most of us still remember March 2011 when thousands of civilians took to the streets to protest against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria, leading to one of the most violent civil wars of this century. It is not surprising therefore that it was followed by a massive influx of refugees leaving their hometowns to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Such was the case for the Syrian Armenian community who found a safe haven in their motherland, the Republic of Armenia. After the Nagorno-Karabakh and Iraq wars, this is the third major conflict leading to the establishment of refugee communities in Armenia. According to the World Bank’s 2010 estimates, the percentage of Armenia’s population below the poverty line is as high as 35.8%. Taking this into account, how much can a country do to accommodate thousands more when, internally, it is already suffering from very high poverty and unemployment rates?

OBSTACLES TO INTEGRATION: ARMENIA’S EFFORTS IN FACILITATING REPATRIATION

Starting in early 2011 popular demonstrations in the demand for more justice, freedom and political reform in Syria resulted in a civil uprising which led to a violent armed conflict between various opposing forces and those loyal to the current regime. Today Syria is a country which can no longer provide a safe, accepting and comfortable environment for its minority groups to prosper, and it is with its current longstanding state of conflict where many have had to leave the country in the search for better lives. After almost a century of peaceful coexistence with Syrians, ethnic Armenians from Aleppo, Damascus and other cities are trying to save themselves by seeking temporary or permanent refuge in Armenia amongst some other countries. Syria was a country with a population of 50 to 60 thousand Armenians and those who remained in Syria have found themselves displaced from their homes and have had to seek refuge in designated tent camps due to the violent nature of the conflict. However, since the beginning of the conflict more than 7000 Syrian Armenians have moved to Armenia and are now trying to restart their lives residing in Yerevan and also in some smaller cities and rural areas.

Upon arrival Syrian Armenians have experienced some major obstacles with regards to integration in society. Difficulties for them have presented themselves in finding suitable housing, household items, winter clothing, food, jobs and in many cases there is the additional language difficulty, where Syrian Armenians speak Arabic or Western Armenian which is different to the country’s Eastern dialect. This all important change in lifestyle and adaptation to the new environment is always going to be difficult and can cause problems for some refugees who have come from the once prosperous urban areas of Syria.

In a country where its own citizens are already struggling to find jobs and pay rent, the Government of Armenia and various NGOs, such as the “Help Your Brother” charitable foundation, are trying their best to accommodate these refugees. Their efforts are wholesome but still much more help is needed. The refugees which have recently immigrated need to learn how to adapt to local market demands, and a country like Armenia finds this area of re-integration hard as it lacks the resource capabilities to provide certain social services to aid newcomers in developing their skills in their search for work. As the Chinese proverb says; “Give me a fish and I will eat for a day, teach me how to fish and I will eat for a lifetime”.

The government is doing its best to help the situation. Its asylum and visa policy, where visas are easy to get on arrival and one only needs to be of Armenian descent to obtain citizenship, certainly have helped the immigrating refugee population significantly. Moreover the government is trying to help those who are in need by offering free medical care, opening new schools which follow the Syrian curriculum and covering university tuition fees. Also actions have already been taken to construct new buildings to permit the relocation of the refugees and various NGO’s have played a major part in distributing coupons to those in need for them to get access to food and clothing.

ARMENIA’S FINANCIAL AND BUDGETARY CONSTRAINTS: CAN THE EU HELP?

Independent only since 1991, Armenia has experienced an impressive economic growth rate but at the same time has had to face important internal issues such as the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a rise of homelessness after the 1988 Spitak earthquake, and the backlash of the war with Azerbaijan between 1988 and 1994. Also, due to a lack of natural resources in the country and its geographical location, landlocked between Turkey and Azerbaijan, which have their borders closed with Armenia, and unstable Georgia and Iran, the country remains poor and does not have the necessary resources to effectively deal with problems such as this one regarding Syrian refugees.

So, is there anything the EU could do to be of support to the government to help the peaceful and effective integration of Diasporan refugees from conflict zones such as Syria?

For the refugees to consider permanent resettlement, they need to feel at home in Armenia and the lack of suitable social housing is preventing them to develop a sentiment of belonging. Within this specific case of resettlement, the country could make very good use of some outside help. The European Union, an entity which is currently negotiating an Association Agreement with Armenia which would also include an agreement on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area can be of important help by providing some level of humanitarian aid and local assistance to the country.

On the 24th of June this year, the European Commission and the High Representative for the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, issued a joint communication which encapsulated how the EU would respond to the conflict and its consequences both in Syria and its neighbouring countries. The proposed actions included securing access to humanitarian assistance in all affected regions, an increase in financial aid and support for a political settlement. It also mentioned supporting the United Nations with human rights issues and the well-being of the civilian population by developing derogations to the sanctions regime, helping the most vulnerable to resettle in EU territory, preparing for the post-conflict phase, preventing radicalization of EU citizens and also dealing with its own foreign fighters that have travelled to the conflict zone (European Commission, 24.07.2013). Furthermore the EU has already provided humanitarian and non-humanitarian assistance to Syria’s neighbouring such as Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan (European Commission, 24.07.2013). However, there has been no engagement on behalf of the EU with Armenia, which has also received an important number of refugees coming from Syria since the beginning of the war and could benefit greatly from European aid.

H.E. Avet Adonts, Head of Armenia’s Mission to the European Union, said during an interview that the decision by the EU to increase financial assistance by 400 million euros in 2013 for Syria and the nearest countries ready to receive refugees can be crucial for the Syrian Armenians. He mentioned that “the Commission can develop a special tool for helping Syrian refugees of Armenian origin, not only by providing humanitarian aid such as: additional medical emergency relief and protection, food, water, sanitation, shelter, winterisation and psychosocial support, but at the same time it could support the government of Armenia in the development of a special programme for the resettlement of Diasporans from Syria. This would help them find their path to work in the country and allow them to become fully integrated into society.”

Welcoming these Syrian Armenians can only help to enrich the Armenian nation by bringing cultural diversity and new ideas. But budgetary constraints make it very hard for the government and other organisations to address their needs on a wide scale effectively. The refugees face a lot of social, economic and cultural obstacles that prevent them fully integrating into Armenian society, even if they have almost the same rights as locals. By providing humanitarian and non-humanitarian aid and by establishing a programme to facilitate relocation, the EU could play a very important role in integrating and empowering these refugees into society, and its efforts here would be seen as being symbolic towards the future prospects of EU-Armenia cooperation.

Written by Sarine Arslanian – Armenia Correspondent, edited by Armen Andonian, Secretary General – EU-Armenia Friendship Group in the European Parliament and supported by Nirj Deva MEP – Vice Chair of the European Parliament’s Development Committee.

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