Armenia and the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Armenia and the Syrian Refugee Crisis -2

The Tomassian family, one of the last Armenian families in Kobani, Syria (Arab Punar known for many Armenian refugees who settled there around 1915 fleeing the Armenian genocide) who fled their homes and had been living in a UN tent camp in Suruc, (Southern Turkey) settled in Yerevan, Armenia in 2015.


By Luna Atamian

The Huffington Post

The Syrian refugee crisis has been the subject of widespread debate around the world and in particular in Europe. While European countries agree on promoting European principles and values, the level of solidary action diverges drastically from country to country, and the subject is often transformed into cold questions of refugee quotas and political bargains.

In the meantime, unbeknownst to many, Armenia, a country of the size of the state of Maryland, with its 3 million inhabitants, has been welcoming refugees flying from war and persecution. In fact, according to the Economist, Armenia has welcomed the third largest number of Syrian refugees as a proportion of total population.

Since the start of the conflict, 17,000 Syrians have migrated to Armenia, according to UNHCR, translating to 6 Syrian refugees per 1000 inhabitants. The Syrian refugee exodus has reminded Armenians of their own tragic history which explains the moral and historic duty of the country to open its doors and offer a safe place to those fleeing war and persecution. The majority of these are descendants of Armenians who escaped the Genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks in 1915, and were given refuge in Syria. Other minorities such as the Yazidis and the Assyrians have also found refuge in Armenia. Anahit Khosroeva, Assyrian community activist, leading researcher at the Institute of History and former professor of Chicago University says in an electronic communication: “We were told by the migration service authorities that the Assyrians would be helped and protected in Armenia just like the Syrian-Armenian refugees.”

As a result, the Armenian government is working to address the urgent humanitarian needs by offering a wide range of emergency assistance and integration projects. To name a few, the government offers free health insurance as well as scholarships, has put into place a simplified naturalization and accelerated asylum procedure and has facilitated residence permits. Moreover, through the “adopt-a-family” project, refugees are matched with Armenian host families who help them integrate into the social, legal and cultural life of Armenia. To further integrate migrants, the Armenian government established a micro-credit scheme in collaboration with UNHCR to help refugees create startups.

Nerses Sargisian, a relief effort coordinator from Aleppo who recently traveled to the United States for a series of lectures regarding the plight of the community explained that “healthcare for Syrian-Armenians is free in Armenia, the administration procedures have been simplified, fees removed, scholarships and educational funds allocated.” Finally, the Strengthening Protection Capacity Project (SPCP) is also helping to build up the capacity of the government and civil society to protect refugees in the country, and accelerate durable solutions for refugees and naturalized refugees.

Armenia’s efforts led UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to thank Armenia for the steps taken to provide refugees from northern Iraq and Syria with safe haven.

Yet, given the country’s socio-economic situation and the lack of substantial foreign help, the wave of migration to Armenia represents a considerable challenge for the government. Armenia has a GDP per capita ten times smaller than the European Union average. With its 17% unemployment rate, the professional integration of the newly arrived labor force has been problematic. The existing programs do not appear sufficient to satisfy a large number of new arrivals and are simply not able to adequately meet the needs of the socially disadvantaged, making the integration process difficult for multiple newcomers, especially when it comes to labor.

Contrary to other neighbors such as Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, Armenia has not been receiving the financial and operational assistance needed to pursue its humanitarian efforts. A report released by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) in 2015, compared the UNHCR’s per capita allocation of Syrian refugee assistance to Armenia with the amounts provided to countries including Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt. Taking into account differences in each country’s GDP and the number of refugees accepted, Armenia’s figures were among the lowest. “Armenia should be receiving a level of U.S. and international aid at the very least on par with the per capita aid that Jordan and Lebanon receive per refugee in order to help those most at-risk to become self-sufficient,” explained ANCA Communications Director Elizabeth Chouldjian.

As a response, grassroots efforts have been undertaken to revive further assistance. For instance, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) recently kicked off its FY2017 appropriations campaign outlining its request to allocate “at least $10 million in emergency aid to help Armenia settle the nearly 20,000 thousand people who have fled to Armenia from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.” “The Syrian Armenian Relief Fund, a coalition of Armenian American community organizations working together to address the humanitarian tragedy facing the Syrian Armenian community, recently raised over $1.2 million during a telethon televised in California and streamed worldwide.”

The international community should provide Armenia the financial assistance necessary to continue to receive and integrate refugees. A condition that would be helpful for such global cooperation would also be Armenia’s fight against corruption and transparency in the political and economic system.

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