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Winter looms for Nagorno-Karabakh’s (already forgotten) refugees

‘Needs are huge, ranging from access to food… and shelter to essential services like healthcare and psychological support.’

Pictured are rows of beds inside a gymnasium. Rebecca Topakian/TNH
Displaced families from Nagorno-Karabakh have found temporary shelter in this sports hall set up for them by NGOs in Artashat, near Yerevan. They don't know how long they will have to stay here.

Over the course of just a few weeks, the exodus of over 100,000 ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh has gone from top international headline to mainstream media afterthought.

Given developments in Israel and Gaza, this is unsurprising, but local and international aid groups are concerned the lack of attention may translate into inadequate funding to address the pressing needs of a newly displaced population as the harsh winter sets in.

“We see that the needs are huge, ranging from access to food… and shelter to essential services like healthcare and psychological support,” Zara Amatuni, the International Committee of the Red Cross’s spokesperson for Armenia, told The New Humanitarian. “Part of our concern is also… that we’re going into winter right now, which of course adds an additional layer of complexity.”

Azerbaijan seized control of Nagorno-Karabakh on 19 September. Located inside Azerbaijan’s borders but populated by ethnic Armenians, the enclave had existed as a de facto independent republic for over 30 years – since the fall of the Soviet Union – and had experienced several rounds of bitter and bloody conflict between Azeri and Armenian forces.

During the two weeks after Azeri forces took control, nearly the entire ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh – estimated at around 120,000 – fled to neighbouring Armenia. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has recorded over 100,600 refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh in Armenia.

Many have gone to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, or remain in Syunik – the border region with Azerbaijan where they first arrived. Others are spread throughout Armenia, a country of 2.8 million people with an unemployment rate of over 25%.

“One of the challenges is just the state of the world right now, which is placing a massive strain on international solidarity and the capacity to secure the kind of funding that is needed for this humanitarian crisis,” Christine Weigund, UNICEF’s representative in Armenia, told The New Humanitarian.

The government has opened shelters to house people, but the majority have found temporary housing in often-crowded rented apartments or homes, or they are staying with relatives or friends. The UN’s migration agency, IOM, is expecting people to potentially move again as they search for longer-term housing and employment.

Armenian volunteers and civil society groups have mobilised to try to meet immediate needs, and the UN has launched a $97 million funding appeal to help support the refugees and the host community.

Securing longer-term housing, employment, and enrolling children in school are high priorities, as is securing access to healthcare and mental health support for a population grappling with the trauma of rapid displacement on top of three decades of conflict. The speed at which people left Nagorno-Karabakh also means they were only able to pack the bare essentials. In many cases, they didn’t have enough time or space to pack warm clothes for winter.

“They came without clothes, without anything they held dear to their heart,” Weigund said. "We're just getting into winter right now, and the government has already told UN member states and civil society they will require support in grappling with the obstacles this presents.”

Heating, housing, and distrust of government support

Pulling on lessons from previous emergencies, international humanitarian organisations have already begun rolling out voucher schemes for warm winter clothing, bedding, and blankets, something successfully trialled during the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflicts of 2020 and 2022, according to Weigund.

Heating also poses a significant challenge. In line with a general rise in the cost of living, energy bills have soared dramatically across Armenia. Russia, the country’s primary supplier, hiked prices following its invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

“Electricity and gas, that’s something to be really concerned about during the winter season, simply because the costs are just so high,” the ICRC’s Amatuni said. “It’s particularly worrying in those areas notable for freezing winters, with so many places across Armenia being at high altitude.”

People sit inside a medial tent.
Rebecca Topakian/TNH
In Kornidzor, Armenia, close to the border with Azerbaijan, the ICRC set up tents to welcome and register refugees coming by car and bus from Nagorno-Karabakh in late September and early October.

The issue of finding long-term housing is also a major challenge. Armenia has been facing a chronic housing crisis, dating back decades, which has deepened since a large number of Russian expats moved to Yerevan after the war in Ukraine began.

The Armenian government is encouraging refugees to find accommodation outside of the capital to try to prevent rental prices from soaring even further, according to one Armenian source, who spoke to The New Humanitarian on condition of anonymity.

UNICEF’s Weigund said the lack of affordable housing in and around the capital may eventually push refugees into more rural, impoverished parts of the country where rents are lower but services, infrastructure, and job prospects are also weaker.

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s government has said it will, “by all means possible”, provide support to refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh to help them find housing and cover basic expenses as well as provide support to Armenian communities hosting refugees.

It has already introduced two financial support schemes for former Nagorno-Karabakh residents: a one-off bank transfer equivalent to around $250 for each refugee; and a monthly rental and utilities subsidy of around $125 per person in each household for the next six months. A third scheme is expected to be announced soon.

Many refugees, however, feel Pashinyan’s government abandoned Nagorno-Karabakh, allowing it to be seized by Azerbaijan, and they are deeply sceptical of having to rely on his administration for substantive, long-term support.

“I know people who so distrusted Pashinyan they would rather have a home in Karabakh under Azeri rule than be homeless in Armenia,” 44-year-old Pargev Agababyan, who left Nagorno-Karabakh with his wife and two children at the end of last month, told The New Humanitarian from Goris – a town close to the Armenia-Azerbaijan border that served as the main gateway for refugees escaping Nagorno-Karabakh.

This is a map of Armenia and Azerbaijan. There are three highlighted regions. In orange: Nagorno-Karabakh. In burgundy red: Nakhichevan autonomous region. In green: The Syunik province and within it there are four locator dots: Goris, Kornidzor, Yerevan, Baku and Stepanakert.

“[The government] is saying they will provide us with compensation; we’re asking for the cash but they’re saying no, that they will check we have found somewhere [to live] first, then pay [the rent] on our behalf,” Agababyan said.

“I have no hopes for the Armenian government. They are only lying to us,” he added. “Billions of Armenian dram [equivalent to millions of dollars] have been donated by Europe, and I pray the money does not come only to the government to give it to us. They’re cheats. They will just steal it and put it in their pocket.”

Between the distrust of Pashinyan’s administration and the difficult conditions expected this winter, some aid workers believe that some refugees will choose to leave Armenia. Typically, those leaving try to reach countries with a large Armenian diaspora such as France, the United States, or Russia.

“Worst-case scenario, we might see increased rates of migration. People are already starting to look elsewhere, to third countries,” said Shushanik Nersesyan, a communication manager for the NGO People in Need.

Old wounds, new fears 

Beyond their immediate needs, the refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh are also carrying the effects of 30 years of conflict and a 10-month siege by Azerbaijan that preceded its seizing of the territory.

Bella Avitsyan is part of a team of local volunteers at the Arch of Cooperation, a homeless shelter in Goris. “There was one elderly gentleman here who had nothing. His two sons had been killed and the Azeris had burnt his wife alive,” she said, adding that it was difficult to tell at what point during the decades-long conflict these events had taken place because the man was crying so much.

Since the first refugees began crossing into Armenia following the 19 September attack, Arch of Cooperation has been providing shelter to people escaping the enclave. When The New Humanitarian visited at the beginning of October, the vast majority of people had already moved on to the central part of the country around Yerevan. Those who were left behind were largely either elderly, disabled, or without relatives in Armenia who could help provide them with assistance.

Two women sit with bags of duvets near them.
Rebecca Topakian/TNH
Refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh gathered in the main square of Goris in late September and early October, waiting for relatives, direction, or a place to go.

“The blockade played a very significant role in the deterioration of their health,” David Mashuryan, director of the Goris Medical Clinic, said of people who had arrived across the border.

While it was cut off for 10 months, people living in Nagorno-Karabakh experienced rolling blackouts and fuel shortages so acute that ambulances were seldom able to transport people to hospitals. A lack of medicines made it difficult for hospitals to perform even the most basic procedures, and food was so scarce that Luis Moreno Ocampo, a former prosecutor with the International Criminal Court, issued a report in August calling on the global community to formally recognise the blockade as an act of genocide.

Many people who arrived at the clinic in Goris were suffering the effects of the siege. “Most of the cases were of malnourishment, dehydration, people who’d been unable to take prescriptions because they simply didn’t have access,” Mashuryan said. “Staying on the road for two or three days in a car – all of this contributed to a huge share of people having health problems far worse than might otherwise have been seen in a number of this size.”

Mashuryan added that clinic staff also observed evidence of abuses committed against patients, including bullet wounds, broken limbs and bruises consistent with beatings, and hundreds of cases of shrapnel injuries – some which required amputation.

Those living in the border region, as well as refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh, are also concerned about the potential for further conflict.

Emboldened by its victory, some analysts believe Azerbaijan may look to capitalise on recent momentum – and the international community’s preoccupation elsewhere – by launching a military operation to seize the Zangezur corridor, a strip of land that would connect Azerbaijan to its exclave of Nakhchivan.

“My personal belief is that [the Azeris] indeed have their eye on us,” Mashuryan said. “We must be prepared for what may come, to struggle until the very bitter end. This is the fate of our nation.”

Additional reporting by Norayr Iskandaryan in Yerevan. Edited by Eric Reidy.

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