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Adrienne Warren

Desperately Seeking Refuge: From Syria to Armenia

Two years after the outbreak of  what was initially a largely peaceful uprising, Syria has descended into a brutal civil war with increasingly dire humanitarian consequences. With current estimates of a total of 1,750,075 refugees, the Syrian war is drawing the attention of more and more regional actors–including Iran, Iraq, and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. As well as Jordan, the Kurds, and Israel.  Concerns are escalating on a regional level, as experts Daniel Levy and Julien Barnes-Dacy explain, “Violent tensions are now spreading out beyond Syria’s porous borders and the risk of a regional conflagration is growing.” But on a human level, what are the implications for the neighbouring countries, absorbing Syria’s refugees? takes a look at the example of Armenia.

Syria. author: ewixx. source: Flickr

Syria. author: ewixx. source: Flickr

Armenians have been living in Syria for centuries, though the vast majority of Armenian-Syrians are descendants of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Those that survived forced marches through the Syrian Desert, by what was then Ottoman Turkey, found refuge en masse in Syria, particularly in Aleppo. The Christian Armenian community of Syria constituted nearly 100,000 Armenians before the start of the civil war. But it is now estimated that as much as half of that population has fled. 

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is now at the epicenter of the Syrian conflict. Last week marked a year since the military confrontation in Aleppo began, following the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011. Aleppo is home to more than 80 percent of Syria’s Armenian community, and those who are still there are caught in the cross-hairs of the bloody battle for control of the country.

While the uprising has left over 2 million people internally displaced in Syria, over 1.5 million have sought refuge outside of Syria, in neighbouring  Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Thousands more have fled to the Caucasus and North Africa. According to reports, the Armenian Government has accommodated approximately 10,000 Armenian-Syrians, including the proposed building of a “New Aleppo” neighborhood in Ashtarak. Meanwhile, Lebanon reports a similar number of Armenian-Syrian refugees have immigrated and are mostly being housed by relatives and others in private homes.

More than 7,000 Syrian Armenians have already expressed the desire to relocate to Armenia, according to the Armenian government, and some have argued the absorption of such large numbers of refugees is seen by the Armenian government as a potential boost to a stagnant economy and population fall.  Armenia has even offered passports to Syrians with Armenian heritage at its consulates in Syria. Howeve, Richard Giragosian, director of the Yerevan-based Regional Security Center, says that even for those escaping a war-torn homeland, Armenia’s lagging economy and entrenched corruption make it an unattractive destination for its global diaspora:

“Despite the apparent urgency of the crisis for Armenians in Syria, Armenia remains a remote and distant focus. Even some of those now coming to Yerevan may be only treating it as a temporary refuge.”

However, temporary or not, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’s Kashatagh region has absorbed a number of Syrian-Armenian refugees. Kashatagh, in the southwest of Karabakh, now has 23 Syrian families documented–totaling 71 people, a total of 105 people. The region started constructing apartment buildings for Syrian refugees in May of this year. According to analysts, Armenian families coming from Syria prefer to settle in the Kashatagh region out of all districts in Nagorno-Karabakh. Ruben Matevosyan, the head of the division for immigrant and refugee affairs of the district administration believes this is because the district has more favourable climate, fertile land, and the inhabitants, who are also immigrants, understand them well.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has announced that it has serious concerns over the resettlement of Syrian Armenians, who are fleeing violence in their country, in Nagorno-Karabakh, an area over which Armenia and Azerbaijan have been engaged in conflict for more than two decades.

“We are seriously concerned over the resettlement of Syrian Armenians in [Azerbaijan’s] occupied territories,” Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov told local reporters in February.

Azimov elucidated, explaining that Azerbaijan is not opposed to the placement of Syrian Armenians in other areas, but is totally against the accommodation of Armenian refugees from Syria being resettled in Nagorno-Karabakh.  Azimov explained:

“Fifty percent of the Armenian population has left the country. As a result, there are many empty places in the country which might be used to resettle the Syrian Armenians in order to improve the demographic situation,” Azimov added that he felt  that quite different reasons are underlying the choice to resettle in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The plight of Syrian-Armenian refugees has caught much attention, last week prompting the U.S. House Subcommittee to pledge over $50 in humanitarian aid to Armenia in helping to assist the growing refugee population. As the Subcommittee explains:

“…Events in the Middle East, from the Arab Spring and the conflict in Syria to the continuing transition in Iraq, have intensified the challenges facing minority communities, including Christian populations, within these areas of conflict, instability, and transition. The Committee urges the Secretary of State to continue humanitarian and resettlement assistance for members of these vulnerable communities, both inside and outside their countries of origin.”

The report continues:

“While the Armenian presence in Syria has a very long history, the majority of Syrian Armenians are descendants of those who found shelter, safety, and a new life in Syria after the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923. The Armenian community numbered approximately 100,000 at the start of the present conflict. Estimates today are that as many as half of the community has left Syria, some permanently, others with the hope that they will be able to return. More than 10,000 Syrian Armenians have already fled to the Republic of Armenia, and another 10,000 or more have found refuge in Lebanon.”

The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) are calling on the Senate to help realise several key priorities in assisting the Syrian-Armenian community, namely reaching the following aid-goals: Contributing at least $5 million in U.S. assistance to Nagorno Karabakh, $50 million in assistance to Armenia, funds for humanitarian and resettlement assistance specifically targeted to Armenian and other Christian populations as well as other minority communities affected by the recent unrest in the Middle East.

The goals also refer to the on-going dialogue about the Nagorno-Karabakh regional conflict. The ANCA’s report calls for the removal of barriers to contact and communication with representatives of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic, as well as participation of Nagorno Karabakh leaders in the OSCE Minsk Group negotiations.

The Human Rights Data Analysis Group have reported that there have been 92,901 documented deaths alone in Syria, between March 2011 and April 2013. However, the actual death toll is likely to be significantly higher, and the Human Rights Data Analysis Group urges that this number, in truth, should be regarded as the minimum number of casualties.

From #Armenia in solidarity with #Syria

sources: Public Radio of Armenia, Washington Post , European Council on Foreign Relations

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Graduated in International Relations and Russian. Resident of Estonia, but a citizen of the world. Most interested in contributing to the progress and education of mankind--as the primary tool of achieving global unity.

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