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
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
"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.
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
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
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.