YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres backed on Tuesday Armenia’s efforts to attract donor funding for the provision of adequate housing to thousands of Armenians who fled Azerbaijan over two decades ago.
Guterres appealed to international donor agencies and governments as he attended an international conference on the issue held in Yerevan.
The Armenia government hopes that the conference will help it attract $45 million in assistance which it says is necessary for building or buying new homes for about 1,200 refugee families that still live in miserable conditions.
More than 350,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan took refuge in Armenia following outbreak of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988. Hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis were similarly constrained to flee their homes in Armenia and Karabakh in the following years.
Most of the Armenian refugees were hastily settled in Soviet-era hotels, worker hostels and other temporary shelters in 1988-1990. Many of them subsequently emigrated to Russia and other former Soviet republics in the face of difficult socioeconomic conditions, while others managed to find decent housing, either on their own or with government support.
According to the State Migration Service, 1,175 families still huddle in single rooms lacking basic amenities.
Speaking at the conference, Guterres recalled a 2006 visit to some of these families. “I was moved by the extreme difficulty of their conditions, which inevitably affect the physical and mental conditions of those people,” he said.
“There is a solution to this situation, there just need to be funds,” added the UN official, who held separate meetings with President Serzh Sarkisian and Prime Minister Tigran Sarsyan.
More than 80 families living in a rundown hotel in Yerevan’s Nork-Marash district, all of them former residents of Baku, have been waiting for such solution for more than 20 years. Gayane Zakharian has shared a room there with her mother and daughter since 1989.
“We very much hope that something will be decided at that conference,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “We were told that donors are coming and they may provide some of the money needed for building new homes for us.”
“Every year they promise that this will be the last year of hardship but nothing is being done in practice,” Zakharian added skeptically.
“We don’t believe anymore,” said Anya, a single elderly woman. “We have lived here for 22 years.”
The Armenian government pledged in 2004 to provide all needy refugees with new homes in the next few years. It stopped allocating funds for that purpose with the onset of the global financial crisis in 2009.
“Of late, political tension, military conflicts and natural disasters in various regions have displaced more people,” Tigran Sargsyan told the conference. “The international community’s attention to the needs of people in those new crisis-hit areas is natural.”
“But we expect that the international community will not disregard older problems, including the problem of Armenian refugees,” he said.
“We want to solve this problem as soon as possible,” the prime minister said in separate comments to RFE/RL’s Armenian service.
The only immediate pledge of assistance at the conference came from the government of Brazil. The Brazilian Embassy in Yerevan said it will contribute $50,000 to the housing program.
Whether the government can raise much larger sums from heavyweight donors like the European Union remains to be seen. “At this stage we have no funds allocated for addressing housing problems directly,” the head of the EU Delegation in Yerevan, Raul de Luzenberger, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service.