Damtew Dessalegne: Refugees have not been able to integrate fully, and
that is the most difficult challenge within Armenian asylum system

ArmInfo's Interview with Mr. Damtew Dessalegne, Representative of the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Armenia, on the
occasion of the World Refugee Day

by Oksana Musaelyan
Sunday, June 24, 14:25

What is the state of refugee situation in the world after the turmoil in
the Arab world, and how does the UNHCR manage to regulate the problem of

The state of the worlds' refugees and other displaced population is very
disquieting. Last year, 2011, saw the displacement and the pursuing
hardship and difficulties of nearly 43 million people worldwide, of whom
15.2 million refugees, 26.5 internally displaced within their own
countries. New displaced persons in 2011 run 4.3 million, so many people
abandoned of their homes in such a short period of time, resulting enormous
human suffering. It was difficult in 2011 for us, for humanitarian workers
from the UN, other international and Governmental organizations to cope
with this massive human displacement. Humanitarian workers are dealing with
internally displaced in countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq,
where the security situation is extremely difficult and that causes serious
risks for the humanitarian workers. Some people are trying to address the
needs of the most vulnerable population but at the same time putting their
own lives at risks.

How do the asylum countries accepting refugees manage to solve the

Europe as a whole received last year around 327 thousand asylum
applications, if you add North America, Australia, Japan, all
industrialized countries combined, they received less than the number of
refugees in one single refugee camp in Kenya. What does this mean? It
means, unless there is an effective burden sharing between the rich and the
poor, nations sharing responsibilities, then refugees and internally
displaced will suffer and this effective responsibility sharing mechanism
is not in place. Yes, we are UNHCR as a leading UN agency for refugees, we
have received generous support from our donors to provide needed
assistance, our budget this year is 3.6 billion US dollars, but the human
needs still much greater than the resources. The difficulty that those
countries in the developing world caring the heaviest task of meeting the
needs of the most vulnerable people, at the same time in the industrialized
countries we see more restrictive asylum polices more and more shifting the
burden again to the South if you like, which is already overwhelmed by
large numbers. This is what UNHCR has to contend with.

How do you estimate the situation with refugees in Armenia? The majority
of refuges in the country are those who came to Armenia from Azerbaijan as
a result of the Karabakh conflict=85 Most of them have already been

Armenia has done a very good job in resolving refugee problems, responding
to arrival of 360 thousand refugees at the time when Armenia had to deal
with multiple problems, earthquake, new independent state, difficult
economic situation, that's really deserves highlighting because it is
important. Of those who came that time, right now there is 2000 remaining
as refugees, even that is a rough estimated and the figure could be less.
What happened to the rest? Many have become citizens, almost 90 thousand
due to official figures. Many others moved onto other countries like other
Armenian citizens. Almost the same with Iraqis, around 1000 who came to
Armenia in 2006-2009 the majority have acquired Armenian citizenship and
many others after becoming citizens of Armenia and even before have left
the country to join family members, relatives and some other European

It seems they get passports in order to leave the country=85

Economic and social conditions of the country are not able to integrate
them, but again how many Armenians are leaving every year - 30 000? So,
30000 Armenians are traveling abroad to improve their work, their lives, so
the situation with refugees is not different. This is economic situation,
if employment is difficult, if they cannot manage and take care of
themselves, then they look for opportunities elsewhere. It would be great
if refugees once given the status remain here, integrate and become fully
contributing members to the society.

So, do you think that even those refugees who did acquire the Armenian
citizenship still could not integrate in the society?

Integration at the legal cultural level is much easier especially for those
of Armenian ethnicity. Problem is at the economic level. Yes, I can say
that refugees from Azerbaijan , from Iraq , and the most recent ones very
few, have not been able to integrate fully, and that is the most difficult
challenge within the Armenian asylum system. Refugees are accepted, well
received and registered, documented, their status documented, then what?
Generally they are left on their own with very little practical support
mechanisms, we do what we can within the resources available to us but
there is not meaningful integration program from the state, including
organization of low cost course such as language training, that is the
starting point to support refugees to integrate, even for ethnic Armenians.
We have done quite a lot as far as UNHCR is concerned, significant housing
projects to supporting educational institutions and hospitals but now we
are consolidating after 20 years of activities in Armenia. So it is time to
focus our primary function which is assisting the Government to further
develop and strengthen legal framework for the protection of refugees.

Recently Armenian Ambassador to Switzerland Charles Aznavour met the High
Commissioner Antonio Guterres to discuss the initiative on the refugees'
housing problems in Armenia , as a follow up to the donor conference last
year. What kind of help can UNHCR provide to the Government of Armenia in
this issue?

The Government organized the donor conference last May, inviting High
Commissioner to come and participate in the conference, support the
initiative. The High Commissioner kindly agreed to do so; he came although
it was a very busy period because of the crisis linked to the Arab Spring.
But he came nevertheless because he felt it was important to support the
Government of Armenia, sensitizing the donors, development agencies to
provide the support needed for transition for humanitarian assistance to
development assistance. As I said before, our support is humanitarian
field, to address during refugee emergencies to provide assistance for
people's essential needs and the rest in the legal field: developing asylum
system, procedures and training authorities. Once the emergency is over
then development actors should jump in and provide the longer terms
assistance, housing, health care, micro credit projects. And the funding
also comes from the different sources for development. Anyway High
Commissioner addressed to the conference to support Armenia because even
where there are new priorities for donors, Armenia should not be forgotten.
Unfortunately, the response was not very encouraging at that time, only one
country Brazil gave a very modest funding (50 thousand US dollars). The
Government was requesting 40 million for 1200 families - most of them are
former refugees that are citizens of Armenia now. The meeting between
Ambassador Aznavour and High Commissioner is more a courtesy meeting,
because they have not met recently. They had useful exchanges, on which HC
briefed the Ambassador on his preoccupation and the priority globally, and
again he emphasized the importance of including refugees and former
refugees in the country's national development plan.

Shouldn't Governments ensure economic liability including housing prior
granting citizenship to refugees?

In many countries other countries one of our biggest struggles is to
convince Governments to give citizenships to refugees that have been
hosting 5-10 years. What governments must ensure is equal treatment, non
discrimination, enjoy of fundamental human rights and freedoms. Housing
programs vary from countries to countries, in some countries they are
subsidized housing schemes, in others again people are on their own. In
some countries the organizations help refugees for a while until they
become self-reliant, but again not for 20 years=85 there is time limit! The
more wealth a country has the more it offers to its citizens. In Armenia it
is extremely difficult for everyone, but the 96% of the existing housing
stocking is privatized, is in private hands, so the Government does not
even have properties to use for needy refugees, new citizens, at least
temporarily until people find employment. So it is national problem,
housing problem is a problem actually common in many former Soviet
republics. Yes, there are some solutions to get out of it, but it is a long

Could it be that donors refused help refugees just because the problem was
not presented as solely a refugee problem?

It is an extremely difficult situation in many countries where after 5-10
years and even more refugees still live in a camp, no opportunity to
integrate, acquire citizenship. In Armenia refugees from Azerbaijan almost
automatically acquired Armenian citizenship, we can't keep on calling them
refugees just because they were born somewhere else. Under international
law, as soon as a refugee acquires a new citizenship he is no longer a
refugee. It is not a problem, it is good, it is excellent.

>From the scope of legal framework maybe, but from the scope of practical
measures that have been taken to alleviate refugee situation prior to his
acquiring the citizenship=85 These people have turned from refugees to

Citizens, not aliens. Alien is a foreigner, not a citizen of the country.
They are fully fledged citizens.

Yes, but the key housing problem that the Government promised to solve is
not solved and there are no prospects for solution.

But is the Government providing housing to all citizens? Is it?

It does not, but in the end of 1990 it said, `You get the citizenship of
Armenia and we will give you a house'.

I don't think any Government would say `Look, get our citizenship and we
will reward that with an apartment, I think it was saying is that you
should not continue to live a life of limbo because the life of a refugee
is, we will give you Armenian citizenship because you are ethnic Armenians
by origin, you came back to your homeland and we know that housing is a
problem for you because you came with almost nothing, and we will do
everything possible within the state budget to support you. I think that
was the Government was saying, and indeed for a while they had money in the
state budget and there were housing purchase certificates issued, it was
stopped 3 years ago, as the economic situation was tough for the country as
a whole, we must admit, but in my view also they could have continued at a
reduced level. They stopped almost completely. It was not the way you
presented it, with all due respect=85 `Get our citizenship, we will get you a
house=85' it was not that way.

They said, `We start a housing program, get the citizenship, it will give
you advantages and you will not lose your right for compensation for the
lost property and house, you are on the list, and you will get a house
within the program. Some years passed, the

Government stopped to allocate budget, the program closed, the problem is
not yet solved and the international donor organizations refuse to help the
Government, saying that they have not really refugees, they are former
refugees. Moreover, well known Gagik Yeganyan (who forbids me all the time
to speak Russian) not once emphasized personally that refugees should be
happy and thankful to Armenia that it provided asylum for them, and it is
not liable to solve any housing problem=85

That's governmental policy; it spoke on its behalf not on behalf of UNHCR.
Because this also creates some confusion, people saying because the
Government told them even after you naturalized, you will still be treated
as refugees, you will maintain the refugee rights, therefore you will say,
`Why did you stop helping me?'. That's the Government policy, the
Government does not make a distinction between citizens and refugees.
That's fine, but for UNHCR this is illegal question. As UNHCR we continued
to assist former refugees without making distinction.

But today the Government cannot get help from the donor organizations,
they say you don't have refugees, all of them are naturalized. So did the
Government have legal basis to grant citizenship prior to finding funds to
get solution to the major refugee problem, which is housing?

First, the Government took a policy decision to treat former refugees who
became citizens the same as refugees, not to make a distinction. That's
Government policy decision, it is free to do what it wants, nothing to do
with us, we don't share that view. We follow international law. Now,
donors, their reluctance to come and join forces and provide the requested
40 million for the housing I suspect has nothing to do with
citizens/refugees status. It is not. Housing is very expensive, we know
that, because we spent significant amount for building housing, cottages in
Armenia for 10-15 years, and that was most of our budget, 80% of our budget
over the years.

Donors provide humanitarian assistance for new emergencies; provide it to
us, to

UNHCR, generous support to help the Government to help refugees for 20

And at one point, donors are also saying: Armenia, you have to be
self-sufficient, you should care for your own refugees, and people you gave
citizenship, because there are new emergencies. Really we don't have enough
resources to address all these new emergencies and the old unresolved
refugees' problems, we have to chose our priorities where we have people
with the greatest needs in Africa, Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have
to save lives, and there is heavy burden on some of the countries because
they receive half a million less than in a year. If you have need in
housing for citizens, for refugees, you should place that within national
development plan and then see with development organizations, World Bank,
European Bank for development to see how you are able to address the
problem. I think this is rational.

What will be in perspective for these people?

Among refugees who came from Azerbaijan, we have people successfully
working in politics, we have members in Parliament, artists, musicians,
university lecturers, business people. It is not everybody having difficult
time. Yes, there are many whose lives have not improved over the years,
there are elderly men and women, who live in communal centers. But the
other good thing is that we do not have here in Armenia the kind of racism,
discrimination and xenophobia we have in many other European countries
towards refugees and foreigners in general.

The state is not doing enough? Yes, I agree, but at least in theory the
Government also recognizes the need to solve the housing problem. I would
encourage for refugees to play an organized advocacy, lobbing to ensure
that the special needs of these people are addressed in different ways; it
should not just be left to the Government. I am optimistic that the
situation will improve with improvement of the economic and social
conditions, with more stability in the political system, with democracy
holding, rule of law improved, with less corruption, because the refugee
situation does not exist in a vacuum, influenced by all these major factors
happening in the country. We see developments in many of these major areas,
I am optimistic that refugee situation will also improve but people need
also to look after themselves, to do a little bit more than relying on
state assistance.