- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
February 13, 2004

Home from home: Citizens of Armenia are forced to leave Turkmenistan

Where is my homeland?

Having gathered all of their belongings into several shuttle trunks, 92 Armenians left their homes to return to their homeland.

The citizens of Armenia, among them 32 children, were repatriated by plane from Turkmenistan, where five years ago a change in the law had turned them into illegal residents. Yerevan welcomed them on the first night of February with sharp cold and bleak hopes for a better life.

“Where is my homeland? I've lived in Turkmenistan for 30 years and 30 years in Armenia as well. So where's my homeland?” asks Yuri Alexanyan, 61, one of those repatriated.

In June 1999, the Government of Turkmenistan introduced a visa regime for all CIS countries. Members of other nationalities in the county became illegal residents overnight and faced a desperate situation.

“To legalize their status in Turkmenistan they had to pay at least $3,000,” says Karen Asatryan, project director at the Armenian Sociology Association. “The only alternative for them was to return to their native land, but they didn't have the money for that.”

Even though repatriates signed a declaration that they were returning voluntarily, as a condition of assistance from the International Organization on Migration (IOM), they left Turkmenistan under compulsion. Having no legal status there any longer, they were unable to get work and could not provide their families with a normal life. They also had to rent apartments, since they had no right to places of their own.

The counsellor at the Armenian embassy in Turkmenistan , Garry Israelyan, added: “Their children have no future there, since they can't get education in that country.”

“My husband has been staying at home for quite a long time since he wasn't able to find a job,” says repatriated Smela Israelyan, 38. “I had to do trade to feed the family, we have four children. Often we even had no bread at home.”

32 children are among the repatriates.

According to some of those repatriated, local authorities took advantage of their lack of legal status to oppress them. Amalia, 29, who asked not to give her full name, had been living in Krasnovodsk, Turkmenistan without a visa since 2000. Police made spot-checks after the new regime was introduced, she says, and if they found someone with no visa “they would simply kick them out” of their homes.

She adds: “The checks ceased only after the Armenian embassy came to our defense.”

Amalia says her husband Sarkis, a motor mechanic, had to “repair cars for free only for them not to disturb us. We were also called often to the city administration of Krasnovodsk and they left us alone only after finding out that we're going to leave”.

Many of the repatriates left behind children, husbands, or wives in Turkmenistan. Valera Babayan, 34, who worked at a cemetery in Ashkhabad says his wife and their two-month-old child are there. He says that he doesn't know what to do now.

“My wife has Turkmenistan citizenship, so if I bring her to Armenia she will have the same status here as I do there.”

Narine, 44, came to Armenia with her 16-year-old daughter by leaving in Turkmenistan her husband and son, who have citizenship. Her father, who lives in Goris and whom she hadn't seen for almost 10 years, met her at Yerevan airport.

“Since I have a Soviet passport I hope to get myself a new Armenian passport here and then to return to my family by invitation,” says Narine.

Most of the repatriates who returned to Armenia left the country in 1992-1993 because of the war and economic collapse, says Garry Israelyan.

“There are people who came to Turkmenistan after visa regime was introduced, but they did not prolong their visas. Some simply had not enough money, others no desire,” says Shirin Toychieva, a representative of the IOM in Ashkhabad . She estimates that there are still 300 citizens of Armenia living illegally in Turkmenistan.

The last Soviet census of 1989 put the number of Armenians living in Turkmenistan at 40,000.

“Many of those who had money and business have left,” says the embassy's Israelyan. “Business loves freedom. There are probably 25,000 or 30,000 Armenians remaining there (legally).”

The operation to resettle the Armenians was carried out by IOM in Ashkhabad and the Armenian embassy in Turkmenistan , with financial support from the governments of Great Britain and the Netherlands , who allotted $43,000 to support it. The IOM and the embassy are trying to raise further funds for at least one more flight to help those still there illegally.

Upon their arrival in Armenia , the repatriates received support money of $100 per adult and $50 per child from the funds provided by the two foreign governments. Most of them have no homes here any more and are being sheltered by relatives in Goris, Sisian, Abovyan and Yerevan . They will have to look for jobs and rebuild their lives by themselves. Also, they will have to spend money on obtaining Armenian passports.

Gagik Eghanyan, director of the State Department of Refugees and Migrants, says the Government provided no assistance to reintegrate its repatriated citizens because it does not have any money to do it. He said the priority for state support were the many resident poor in the country.

“The situation is especially difficult for the repatriated Israelyan family,” says Karen Asatryan. “Before leaving for Turkmenistan in 1992, they lived in the Mardakert region in Nagorno Karabakh. During the conflict their house was completely destroyed and now they can't go back there. They don't have Armenian citizenship, since it says they are from Azerbaijan in the nationality column of their old Soviet passports.”

The process of obtaining Armenian citizenship can be long and difficult. Smela Israelyan, with despair in her voice, says: “I just don't know what to do. I thought I would come to Armenia with my family and things would settle here, but it turns out that nothing has changed.”

ArmeniaNow contacted the Embassy of Turkmenistan in Yerevan for information about the visa requirements and the processes of obtaining citizenship in that country. Officials at the embassy declined to comment.

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