It is a well-known fact that the Republic of Armenia has engaged in a conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) area.[i] The ethnically Armenian NK region comprises 1,700 square miles of mountainous terrain in southwestern Azerbaijan.[ii] Though it had been placed under Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction in the 1920s, NK declared its independence from Azerbaijan in 1992. Since it is now entirely under Karabakh Armenian control, conflicts have arisen between the Armenian troops and the military forces of Azerbaijan. It means the armed conflicts between these two parties initially emerged in late 1980 to 1994. Then a ceasefire was signed in 1994 by giving two decades of relative stability which ultimately led to an increase in the tension gradually. As a result of that, in late September Azerbaijan successfully captured strategic heights overlooking the two highways that connect Armenia to NK.[iii] In October outbreak of hostilities again occurred in northwestern Azerbaijan, 60 miles away from NK.[iv] It is also required to accept the fact that both Russia and Turkey view this area as a sphere of influence. In that regard, Armenia conducts close relations with Russia and Iran to counter Azerbaijan’s ties with Turkey, Georgia, and even with the United States.
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan saw hundreds of thousands expelled on each side as forced migrants. A forced migrant can be defined as someone who is forced to leave his or her home because of a real or perceived threat to life or well-being.[v] Since the inception of the NK conflict, Karabakh Armenian troops have been forced the Azeri population to leave the territory by creating more than 2 million refugees and internally displaced people (IDP)s. Along with that, around 600 thousand Azerbaijanis were expelled from their homes. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees(UNHCR), this region has been identified as a region that is having a large number of IDPs – one of the highest IDP caseloads in the world.[vi] A refugee refers to a person who has been forced to flee his or her country because of the presence of persecution, war, or violence. He or she has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.[vii] Concerning this, both countries are the parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. In contrast, IDP is someone who has been forced to flee their home but never crosses an international border. Unlike refugees, IDPs are not protected by international law.
The first wave of the movement of these forces migrants occurred in late 1987 and early 1988 as Azerbaijanis fled from communal violence in Kafan and Megri in Armenia. Then inter-communal violence provoked by Armenians to transfer NK to Armenia that resulted in the migration of 330,000 people from Armenia and Azerbaijan.[viii] These groups mainly consist of the elderly, women, and children, and most of the youngers and men are often stayed in Nagorno- Karabakh to fight against other parties. On the other hand, another 200,000 were driven out of Armenia proper, making them refugees in Azerbaijan[ix].
The UNHCR once revealed that refugees and IDPs have not yet given specific attention to the state of Armenia and the international community.[x] Within this setting, the complexity of this issue has been further increased as nearly 25,000 persons sought protection in Armenia from the beginning of the Syrian conflict. This tendency has resulted to put the country as the third-largest recipient per capita of Syrian refugees in Europe.[xi] Apart from that, because of an explosion that occurred in the city of Beirut port in Lebanon in 2020, over 2,000 Armenians who had moved from Armenia to Lebanon, arrived again in the home country intending to seek shelters and other necessities. As per statistics, there are 80,000 and 120,000 Armenians live in Lebanon at present.[xii] Mainly, the Armenian government showed their willingness to facilitate the “ repatriation” of Armenians, by arranging twice-a-week Beirut-Yerevan flights despite coronavirus-related restrictions imposed in both countries.[xiii]
It is an undeniable fact that the right of asylum seekers and refugees to return to the home country is universal. Human Rights Education Associates (HREA) has pointed out that the effective repatriation of refugees or asylum seekers is highly based on returning to their home countries where their lives and liberty are no longer threatened.[xiv] But the question then remains is how far they can keep hopes on a progressive future in a country like Armenia. Although the government-run vulnerability assessment system (PAROS) provides financial assistance to them, they have not yet considered the forced displacement as a factor of vulnerability. A recent report issued by the American National Academy of Sciences mentioned that over 50,000 refugees in Armenia lack a permanent resident permit, civil rights, and freedom.[xv] However, another prevalent challenge is that the State Department for Refugees in Armenia has not yet provided reliable figures on the number of refugees living in the country.
With regards to IDPs in Armenia, there is no specific government care on IDPs who instead have taken cared of by relatives or friends or settled small groups live in temporary accommodations. In the case of Azerbaijan, Azerbaijan has one of the largest per capita refugee and displaced person burden in the world.[xvi] These forced migrants of Azerbaijan mainly consist of Chechens, Armenians, Iraqis, Palestinians, and others from the Middle East.[xvii] But the Azerbaijani government’s preservationist policies towards IDPs have occasionally been criticized by international human rights organizations.[xviii] In Baku, Sumgait, Ganja, and other large cities, IDPs have been rehoused in government buildings, schools, kindergartens, student halls of residence[xix]. As they have been settled in state-built homes do not own them, they cannot sell or sublet the homes.[xx] Furthermore, their standard of living has fallen due to the lack of access to clean water, proper infrastructure, and livelihood opportunities.
This article mainly concludes that the forced migrants in both Armenia and Azerbaijan live in limbo with insecurities. Azerbaijan wants the restoration of pre-war demographics and to regain its sovereignty in NK while Armenians expand ethnic demarcation through the use of force to secure their control over the territory. In this context, it is very clear that the forced migrants in both countries are not in a position to make free and informed choices as to what constitutes the best long-term solution to their problems – return or resettlement.