After Nagorno Karabakh, an Uncertain Future for Refugees and the Region
Ilaria Romano 27 March 2024

Hundreds of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh took to the streets of Yerevan a few days ago. They demanded a more comprehensive response plan from the Armenian government, as well as protections from international entities that may enable them to one day return to their homes. The protest included the reading of a declaration that cast light on the housing difficulties encountered by the former inhabitants of Artsakh. The latter have criticized the government’s “inadequate” response to the crisis.

The provisional plan drafted by Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Khachatrian in February includes public funding for the purchase or construction of new homes for refugees. Each refugee would receive 3 million dram, the equivalent of 7,400 dollars. Refugee representatives rejected the offer on the grounds that such an amount would only allow them to find housing in remote villages, where opportunities for work are few and far between.


International Crisis Group Data

According to a report from the International Crisis Group, 100,000 Armenians left Nagorno-Karabakh after Azerbaijan‘s offensive on September 19, 2024, which put an end to the enclave’s autonomy. Almost 80 percent of the region’s population fled to neighboring Armenia. This constitutes the largest mass exodus into its own territory that the country has experienced in recent history.

After registering all refugees, the Armenian government then sought to provide them with accommodation in cities, in order to avoid the creation of refugee camps. However, resources are limited. Each adult refugee received the equivalent of 250 dollars upon entry into the country, followed by a monthly subsidy of 125 dollars to pay for rent and basic needs (the average salary in Armenia is 668 dollars per month). In order to reduce expenses and survive on such small amounts, some families have chosen to share the same home. However, their future remains uncertain, because it is still unclear whether Yerevan will be able to continue the aid program, which is set to expire at the end of March.

Refugee aid has placed a considerable burden on the Armenian economy. The country consists of a mere three million inhabitants, 25 percent of whom already lived under the poverty threshold even before the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. Today, one out of every thirty inhabitants is a refugee from Artsakh. Put another way, there are as many refugees as there are people living in the country’s second-largest city, Gyumri.

Refugee aid constitutes a significant socio-economic challenge. Without adequate long-term support, the country’s poverty rate can only increase. Though so far the people of Armenia have shown great solidarity, increased poverty may lead to societal tension, especially as the allocation of funding to refugees may result in cuts to other services.


The Housing Crisis

Even though the Armenian government initially planned to relocate refugee families to the country’s urban centers, the majority of refugees opted to settle in the capital. Rent is higher in Yerevan, but the chances of finding work are greater as well. Today, Yerevan hosts 50,000 Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh. An additional 30 percent of the total refugee population settled in the capital’s vicinity. For example, Masis, 17 km from Yerevan, hosts 11,000 refugees, the equivalent of almost 10 percent of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh before September 2023. In Masis, public buildings have been turned into residences, because all the available housing has been leased.

The Armenian government hopes to build new apartment buildings. However, even with the aid of companies and private donors, this would require huge sums: a small apartment for a single family in a town near the capital would cost at least 20,000 dollars.

Costs diminish considerably in the smaller towns and villages, in less densely populated areas. In Vardenis, on the border with Azerbaijan, houses may be purchased for a mere 5,000 dollars. However, none of the refugees wish to live there, fearing both the possibility of further clashes between the two countries, and fewer work opportunities. A town official told representatives of the International Crisis Group that many of the refugees originally intended for Vardenis decided to get off their buses once they realized their destinations. Only 800 refugees, the very poorest, now live in Vardenis. They constitute only a tenth of the number of refugees the government had planned to relocate to the area.


The Employment Crisis

In terms of employment, the Armenian government quickly launched an employment plan that included funding incentives for companies that hired refugees, in the hope that this would lead to regular long-term contracts. According to official data, over 5,000 Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh have found a job over the last six months. However, it is difficult to predict how many will manage to keep their jobs. Though the Armenian economy has certainly grown over the last five years, the additions of thousands of new jobseekers may raise the country’s unemployment levels from the current 11 percent to 15-17 percent.

Moreover, according to UNHCR, 30,000 refugees are children and 18,000 are over 65. A few thousand more are disabled, in many cases as a result of several decades of conflict, and they are therefore unlikely to find employment. Long-term plans must include a plan for the more vulnerable.


International Aid

From September 2023, the European Union has provided over 12 million euros in humanitarian aid to the Nagorno-Karabakh refugees. At the start of 2024, the EU invested a further 5.5 million euros intended to ease access to essential services, healthcare, and housing.

Ever since the start of the conflict in 2020, the European Commission has allocated 38.4 billion euros for the supply of food, products used for hygiene, emergency education, health and psychosocial support, medical equipment, and demining operations in the areas directly involved in the war.

Yerevan has also requested a loan from the World Bank, and diaspora organizations in Europe and the United States have attempted to raise money for aid. The UNCHR estimates that Armenia needs 97 million dollars to cover refugee aid costs, at least until the end of March. However, even with the help of sixty local and international organizations, only 40 percent of this amount has been raised.


Normalization Between Armenia and Azerbaijan

The government of Azerbaijan has always made it clear that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh are free to return to their homes if they accept Azeri rule. However, this does not seem feasible to many refugees, having lived for several decades in a self-declared autonomous republic in latent conflict with Azerbaijan, with occasional bursts of violence that culminated in the September 19 attack.

Normalization between Azerbaijan and Armenia remains the only path to prevent further instability. In order to reach a deal, the two countries must agree on borders and transportation. Baku wishes to restore transportation links between Azerbaijan and its enclave, Nakhchivan: the previous plan was for such links to run through Iran, but the most recent proposal would involve a route through Armenia. At the same time, Baku demands that Yerevan abandon any of its claims for territory. At the moment, the refugees see no possibility of returning to their homes, unless they receive safety guarantees from international entities.


A “Great Return” for Azeris

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan has launched a resettlement program for Azeri citizens in Nagorno-Karabakh. According to data from AzerTac, the Azeri national press agency, 1,360 families have taken part so far, for a total of 5,400 people.

These are either former Azeri refugees who had left the enclave after the war in the early 1990s, or children and grandchildren. 527 families have returned to the city of Fuzuli, 431 to Lachin, 175 to Aghali, 20 to Talish, and 207 to Zabukh.

This resettlement scheme, dubbed the “Great Return” by the Aliyev government, started in 2020, when it involved the 300 settlements regained after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. The first phase of the scheme is scheduled to reach completion by the end of 2026, with the resettlement of 34,500 families, thanks to a funding allocation of 3.1 billion dollars largely invested in reconstruction projects.



Cover photo: Residents of Armenia and individuals who have been displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh gather for a rally at Freedom Square in Yerevan, Armenia On 20 March 2024. Armenians unite to urge the Armenian government to address the housing requirements of those from Nagorno-Karabakh who were forced to abandon their residences during the events of September 2023, alongside the restoration of essential social programs. (Photo by Anthony Pizzoferrato / Middle East Images via AFP.)

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