The arrival on Armenian territory of over 100,000 refugees from the Nagorno-Karabakh/Artsakh region in the space of 10 days is provoking a major humanitarian crisis. For this small country of 2.8 million inhabitants, landlocked and with modest resources, 100,000 people represent 3% of its population. For comparison, this would be the equivalent of 2 million people arriving in France in 10 days. For the 1st time in 25 centuries, there are no Armenians left in Arstakh. In other words, this crisis is much more than a humanitarian problem to be resolved in the space of a few months to a few years. It is the tragedy of an entire people. Helping the young Armenian democracy to overcome it is an international moral responsibility.
Why this mass exodus? To understand this, we need to take a broad look at the recent history of a conflict that dates back over a hundred years. Located in neighboring Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh region has been the object of 4 wars since 1988, when it was a Soviet Autonomous Region. Made up overwhelmingly of Armenians (75% in 1989) weary of social and cultural discrimination, and anxious about the relative loss of their population, the Nagorno-Karabakh region had expressed, through its Soviet (Assembly), the wish to be attached to neighboring Soviet Armenia by virtue of the right of peoples to self-determination. Soviet Azerbaijan, which had been allocated the Nagorno-Karabakh region by Stalin in 1921, responded with ultra-violence against the Armenians living on its soil, and authoritarianism by abolishing the region’s autonomous status. This led to three pogroms between 1988 and 1991, resulting in the mass flight of Armenians from Azerbaijan to Armenia and Azeris from Armenia to Azerbaijan.
The right of peoples to self-determination was once again expressed, this time directly in a referendum in 1991. Using the Soviet law of secession, the Armenian population of the region voted unanimously to become independent of the USSR. At the same time, under the same law, Soviet Azerbaijan also became independent. With the collapse of the USSR, the Nagorno-Karabakh region, supported by Armenia, found itself in the throes of a first war (1991-1994), which gave it de facto independence for twenty-six years of ceasefire. Azerbaijani territories around the Nagorno-Karabakh region were to provide an opportunity to negotiate a status in return for their restitution. Peace did not prevail. A low-intensity conflict continued, punctuated by regular violations and a blitzkrieg (2016). Meanwhile, in Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliev, the despot who has held power from his father since 2003, built his internal legitimacy on revanchism and Armenophobia. Buoyed by revenues from oil and gas exports and a strategic alliance with Turkey, Azerbaijan launched a second war in 2020, known as the “44 Days”, which it won handily. This massive military victory enabled it to recover the territories it had been using as bargaining chips, and to conquer part of the former autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabakh. A new, very fragile ceasefire was established in November 2020, guaranteed by Russian peacekeepers.
Forced exodus, a form of ethnic cleansing
For the people of Artsakhiot, the security situation there is extremely precarious from 2021 onwards, with Russia using the lives of the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh as currency for its ongoing political blackmail of Armenia, jeopardizing its sovereignty and independence. Armenia managed to resist the combined Russian-Azerbaijani pressure, at the cost of military aggression and occupation of parts of its territory by Azerbaijani forces on several occasions in 2021, 2022 and 2023. Faced with this resistance, Baku decided to blockade the Nagorno-Karabakh region in December 2022, closing the Latchine corridor, the only land route linking Armenia to Nagorno-Karabakh. Finally, a blitzkrieg camouflaged as an “anti-terrorist operation” was launched against the region on September 19, 2023. Twenty-four hours of bombardment and fighting against the small self-defense army led to total capitulation: dissolution of the self-defense forces and the region’s representative structures, with a view to “integration” by force into a repressive, ultra-violent and Armenophobic Azerbaijan. With their last defenses down, the Armenians of Artsakh are fleeing their homeland, their homes and fields, their monasteries and churches, their schools and cemeteries.
Baku’s use of bombardment, coupled with its nine-month blockade of Artsakh, has resulted in ongoing violations of international humanitarian law, culminating in the forced departure of Armenians from Artsakh. Ethnic cleansing is not a legal category, but it was described in detail in the international reports that accompanied the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The UN experts commissioned to study the violations described it as follows: “an intentional policy implemented by one ethnic or religious group to suppress the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group in a given area by violent or terrorist means.” The crisis faced by Armenians as a result of the depopulation of Artsakh is not only material and human, but also psychological on a national scale, and political on a national and regional level.
The coming year will be decisive for the success or failure of the Artsakhiotes’ integration into Armenian society. Thanks to the extraordinary outpouring of solidarity and fraternity, the first stage of this welcome, which has relied solely on the resources and energy of the Armenians, is not going too badly. But there are already a number of difficulties arising from structural causes (school capacity, availability of jobs, etc.), which the Armenian state will not be able to resolve on its own.
Welcoming Armenians expelled from Artsakh.
Since September 24, the Armenian state and society have been doing their utmost to welcome their compatriots expelled from Artsakh. The government has succeeded in organizing three main reception, distribution and registration points in Kornidzor, Goris (Syunik, southern region of Armenia) and Vayk (Vayots Dzor, central region of Armenia), where thousands of volunteers have stepped forward. Arrivals were registered and provided with first aid, including medical care, food and clothing; they could fill up their cars free of charge, and so on. Hotels, hostels, private houses and apartments, sanatoriums and specially equipped reception rooms, all listed in the days following the attacks on Nagorno-Karabakh, served as temporary reception points. Not to mention the spontaneous hospitality offered by local people, so frequent that the government was quick to provide financial assistance for host families, some of whom are very modest. Without local associations and volunteers, this first phase would have been much more chaotic. A unique situation: this massive influx was managed without resorting to tented accommodation or refugee camps. Some private sector companies have also spontaneously joined the collective effort, whether in the form of donations in kind (catering, cell phones) or in cash. To date, the Armenian government has earmarked $23 million in its 2024 budget for refugees, specifying that this amount could be increased depending on how the situation evolves. Financial aid amounting to several hundred euros over six months is paid to each refugee (including children) to help with the purchase of equipment and subsidies for communal expenses. Since the end of the 44-day war, over a billion dollars of the Armenian budget has been allocated to the Nagorno-Karabakh region in humanitarian aid. It is assumed that a large part of this sum will be earmarked for medium- and long-term refugee settlement programs.
Learning from the past for successful refugee integration
Judging by past experience of hosting refugees in Armenia, it’s reasonable to assume that Armenia won’t use refugees from Artsakh to brandish hatred towards Azerbaijanis, or to create a unit that can be traded for international political dividends. It did not do so in the 1990s, when the Armenian population of Azerbaijan and the Azeri population of Armenia were on the move (450,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan and 220,000 Azeris from Armenia left). Nor did it during the 1st Nagorno-Karabakh war, when 45,000 Armenians and 680,000 Azeris fled the combat zones of Chahoumian in northern Nagorno-Karabakh for the former, and seven outlying regions for the latter, conquered by opposing troops. In Azerbaijan, many internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been living since 1993 in communal buildings (schools, gymnasiums), or even in makeshift structures built haphazardly on the roofs of apartment blocks. Apart from the fact that social redistribution does not exist in this type of oligarchic, authoritarian regime based on a strongman and his clan, keeping these populations in such precarious conditions serves to maintain the revanchism and Armenophobia on which the Aliev regime has built its domestic legitimacy. Refugees from Artsakh will not have to endure a painful voluntary warehousing in precarious shelters. Nevertheless, there are structural difficulties which, if left unresolved, could discourage refugees from settling permanently in Armenia. They have to do with the state’s capacities in terms of childcare facilities, in particular schools and kindergartens, and employment pools. The government tries to direct settlement towards schools where places are available, but the decision on geographical location ultimately rests with each family. The integration of Artsakh Armenians, including the 30,000 who lost their homes after the war in 2020, is essential on a human level, if these people are to have a future, but also on a political and moral level for Armenian society and democracy.
Demography, a question of future and survival.
Armenia has a demographic problem which, taken over the long term, represents a major threat. Since as long ago as 2006, population decline due to emigration in the 1990s and 2000s, and aging coupled with low birth rates, has been identified as a strategic national problem, with nothing really being done about it. The first timid attempts to address the problem appeared in 2018, after the “velvet revolution”. Pashinyan’s government is introducing family allowances and undertaking an ongoing reform of the healthcare system. Judging by past experience of hosting refugees, there is little cause for optimism. Waves of Armenian refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East in the 2000s and 2010s (Lebanon, Iran, Syria) often arrived in Armenia, only to leave a few years later for countries with more attractive economic and social situations. The question of the geographical distribution of Artsakh refugees also arises. From a strategic point of view, it would be crucial for these populations to live primarily in the southern, central and eastern regions. But the risk of a new war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which would first target these regions, is too high to allow this: the fear of settling near borders that are not only threatened, but where, over the last two and a half years, Azerbaijani forces have penetrated sometimes deeply, is palpable. It is estimated that around 1/3 of the population have headed for Yerevan and its suburbs. Of the remaining two-thirds, the provinces of Ararat and Kotayk, bordering Yerevan, were preferred. Since the end of the 44-day war in 2020, Azerbaijani forces have regularly attacked Armenia. The most violent episode, and the most serious in territorial and human terms, took place in September 2022. Strategic positions on high ground were taken. In many hamlets in both the south and east of the country, farmers no longer have access to their pastures. The town of Djermouk, a major tourist resort known for its thermal cures and sparkling water, suffers enormously from the presence of Azerbaijani troops just a few kilometers from the town, like a reminder of the sword of Damocles hanging permanently over the heads of the local armenian population.
The challenge of sustainable international solidarity
The financial humanitarian aid promised and which has begun to arrive is substantial. France is one of the most generous donors, with 11 million euros. The UN has pledged 97 million. But it is its long-term presence and coordination with the needs identified and expressed by the Armenian government that will make a real difference. To date, a six-month plan has been drawn up. This will not be enough to ensure the integration of the refugees. We need to move on to structural economic and social plans, with a particular focus on the regions, to encourage the long-term settlement of refugees in the most depopulated areas. An international conference bringing together international donors, international lenders – with particular emphasis on French ones such as AFD – major international NGOs, local NGOs and associations, Armenian diaspora associations, and national and regional governmental institutions, would be an appropriate way of coordinating the effort. Not least, it will reassure Armenians that they will not be left to cope with the crisis on their own. A long-term surge of solidarity would be a welcome counterpoint to the profoundly unjust solitude that the Armenians of Artsakh have experienced for the past thirty years. Apart from the Red Cross, no international association or NGO has come to the aid of the Armenians of Artsakh, on the pretext that the republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was not recognized by the international community; then, after 2020, that the region was part of Azerbaijan’s internal affairs. International law has failed to protect Armenians from Azerbaijani state terrorism. We can only hope that international solidarity will stand by the young Armenian democracy and help it meet the challenge of integrating the refugees from Artsakh, so as to reopen the hope of a decent life for these men, women and children on Armenian soil.
Taline Papazian, PhD in political science, lecturer at Sciences Po Aix. She specializes in armed conflicts in post-Soviet states, with a particular focus on Armenia. She also heads the non-profit organization Armenia Peace Initiative. (armeniapeace.org).