By Mihran Kalaydjian, CHA
Syrian Armenians in Armenia – Home away from home?
IT IS a tragedy of catastrophic proportions. The war in Syria has uprooted 40% of the population. Some 6.5m Syrians have sought refuge in other parts of the country; about 2.2m people have fled abroad. More are leaving every day.
Neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, already host millions of displaced people from earlier crises in the region, and struggle to cope with the newcomers. Humanitarian agencies have raised only a fraction of the funds required to help those in need. It is a precarious, and potentially dangerous, situation.
Syrian Armenians, at least, may have another option. Armenia sees itself as the “homeland” for Armenians worldwide. The government says that Syrian Armenians who go to Armenia are therefore not refugees in need of protection, but members of the diaspora coming home. Most governments of countries that host Syrian refugees yearn for the day they will leave. The authorities in Yerevan, in contrast, would like Syrian Armenians to stay.
A small Armenian settlement has existed in Syria for centuries, centered on Aleppo. The sanctuary it offered to people fleeing the Armenian genocide in 1915 greatly increased its numbers. Over the past few years, this onetime refuge has become a source of flight. As Robert Fisk wrote recently in The Independent, a British daily, 65 Syrian Armenians have been killed since the war began in Syria, and over 100 kidnapped. Religious fanatics have also destroyed Armenian orthodox churches.
The Armenian government estimates that up to 80,000 Syrian Armenians lived in Syria prior to the current war. 12,000 or so are now living as refugees in Lebanon. Approximately 11,000 Syrian Armenians have moved to Armenia. And another 10,000 or so more have sought asylum elsewhere.
Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of deliberately resettling Syrian Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, a charge that Yerevan denies. Either way, the numbers allegedly involved–200 or so–are relatively small. The vast majority of Syrian Armenians in Armenia live in Yerevan. The Armenian government eases their integration by granting them citizenship and allowing access to healthcare and education. Emotional ties to Armenia and a common language are further attractions, even if most new arrivals are seeing their homeland for the first time.
Such help only goes so far. Roughly half of those who arrived have been able to get by on their own resources. Some have found jobs or set up businesses, despite the high level of unemployment in Armenia. Yet others arrive with little to their name, in need of shelter, food and clothing. A number of organizations provide temporary accommodation. The government would like to build apartment blocks to provide housing on a permanent basis. But that may take money it doesn’t have.
Will more Syrian Armenians head to Armenia? That depends on the situation inside Syria, and the quality of life of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. For now, both look grim. Approximately 120 more people fly to Yerevan each week from Lebanon. Moreover, many of the Syrian Armenians in Armenia have subsisted on their savings so far. Those are likely to run out at some stage, increasing the need for humanitarian support.
Like Azerbaijan and Georgia , Armenia is used to dealing with displaced people. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s drove up to 1m people from their homes. More than two decades later, many displaced people in both countries continue to live in poor conditions.