- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 February 21, 2003 

Full Privileges: Former refugees take citizenship and the right to vote

The Presidential election of this week became another chance for several thousand residents to exercise their rights as citizens of Armenia.

More than 50,000 refugees gave up their refugee status for Armenian citizenship, thus acquiring the right to vote.

Since the early 1990s, Armenia has hosted around 311,000 Armenian refugees who escaped from Azerbaijan, mainly from Baku, Sumgait, Shahumyan and Kirovabad.

In 1995 the Armenian National Assembly passed a law on citizenship for the refugees, that allowed all refugees who are permanent residents of Armenia to acquire citizenship.

But the problem of their integration and naturalization still remains acute for the Armenian Government. Continued economic stagnation, high unemployment, and severe housing problems make life of many refugees difficult here.

Despite the Government and different international organizations' efforts on naturalization of refugees only 16 percent of refugees accepted Armenian citizenship.

Most who became new Armenian citizens are those who found jobs in Armenia or obtained property.

Irina Matevosyan's family is one of those. For eight years her family lived in various hostels. But two years ago the family moved into a new house made possible by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Last year all the family of four accepted Armenian citizenships.

"When we did not have a house we did not know if we wanted to be citizens of this country. It did not mean than we wanted to stay here as refugees but we were not even sure if we would stay here," Matevosyan says.

"Now when we have a shelter we feel more confident, despite my husband and I are unemployed. I think all refugees will accept citizenship if the Government creates for them at least an adequate shelter. Over 50 families in our building are refugees. I know that many of them became citizens only because they were granted a home."

In contrast to Matevosyan another refugee family says it does not want to acquire Armenian citizenship. Refugee Arthur Apresyan has lived in a hostel of the HayElectro plant for 13 years. He has refugee status, which he says "does not have any value either". Still, Apresyan, 45, and other owners of 92,000 houses left in Azerbaijan hope they will be compensated for the property they left when war broke out.

Emil Sahakyan, public information assistant of the UNHCR says many refugees like Apresyan are concerned that if they become citizens they might lose the possibility to be compensated for the property left in Azerbaijan. They are also afraid to lose benefits from the humanitarian organizations.

"This is a main reason why only 16-17 percent became Armenian citizens," Sahakyan says. "But according to the Law of refugees after they accept citizenship they keep privileges."

As for the benefits from the humanitarian organizations the refugee does not benefit just for being a refugee. Sahakyan says that the assistance system in Armenia is based on vulnerability, which has no connection to the refugee status of the person or the family concerned.

Officials form the Department of Migration and Refugees say they keep a record of people who formally registered as refugees. If necessary the refugees will be given an official document showing their status.

Still many refugees acquire the Convention Travel Document instead of getting the Armenian passport. According to the Geneva Convention of 1915 and the Law of the Republic of Armenia concerning the refugees, the CTD proves their identity outside Armenia. Many refugees consider it as a chance to leave Armenia and begin a new life in a new country.

The probability that they will illegally stay in another country is high. The embassies of the United States and of France announced that despite the fact they recognize CTD the refugees might have serious difficulties while getting visas. The refugees who leave for Russia must get a Russian visa, which is not necessary for other Armenian citizens.

According to the UNHCR more than 40,000 refugees (13,000 families) are living below the poverty level in very poor shelter conditions.

Sahakyan says that each year the budget of UNHCR is being cut. Two years ago the budget was about $2 million. This year it is less than $1 million. Half of that sum will be spent on building houses. (Refugees in Armenia are considered in a "protracted" situation, while the UN directs its financing to countries where refugees are the result of more immediate conflict.)

"According to a very approximate estimation at present there are about 120,000-130,000 refugees in Armenia," Sahakyan says. "The exact number of refuges will be known after the results of the census will be published."

The census, conducted in October 2001, is expected to be published this summer.


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  Photos of the week
  Photo of the week: Talk Time
Click on the photo above to enlarge

Photo of the week: Talk Time
Click on the photo above to enlarge

Hope and Assurance

It has been a season of many emotions, Decision 2003. Doves of peace were offered and officers to enforce that peace were stationed around the Central Elections Commission.



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