United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
The core mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the protection of refugees. Governments normally guarantee the basic human rights and physical security of their citizens. But when people become refugees as a result of war or persecution, this safety net disappears and the refugees find themselves in a very vulnerable situation. They have no protection from their own State - indeed it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them.
UNHCR’s primary purpose is, therefore, to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees, by striving to ensure first and foremost that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum from persecution as set out in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Asylum, when granted, serves the dual purpose of providing a predictable and structured framework for the international protection of refugees whose life or liberty is at risk in their country of origin, while at the same time ensuring that lasting solutions to the problems of refugees are achieved by way of voluntary repatriation when conditions in the country of origin permit, local integration in countries of first asylum or resettlement in third countries.
The United Nations General Assembly has, over the years, authorized UNHCR’s involvement with other groups in need of the organization’s protection and assistance. These include former refugees who have returned to their home country, internally displaced people and stateless persons.
UNHCR in Armenia
UNHCR established its presence in the Republic of Armenia in December 1992 in response to a request from the Government to assist with the mass influx of approximately 360,000 ethnic Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan. Since the end of 2004, Armenia has also received hundreds of ethnic Armenian refugees from Iraq and small numbers of asylum-seekers and refugees from other countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
In the early years of its presence, UNHCR’s work concentrated on meeting the vital assistance needs of the refugees from Azerbaijan. Once the emergency phase was over, UNHCR was supporting the refugees to achieve self-sufficiency and self-reliance by implementing a number of activities in the areas of shelter, health care, water supply, micro-credit funds and rehabilitaion of schools. Between 1994 and 2010, UNHCR expended some USD 32 million in operations in Armenia, of which USD 19.5 million was for shelter activities.
In recent years, UNHCR has been focusing more on helping the Government to develop and strengthen its legislative framework and the procedures and capacities for a refugee protection system fully in line with international standards. This remains UNHCR’s primary objective in Armenia.
UNHCR co-operation with the Government
The Republic of Armenia was one of the first republics of the former Soviet Union to ratify the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, in 1993. It has also signed both the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
The Republic of Armenia has taken and continues to take its obligations to refugees seriously. It has adopted a comprehensive asylum legislation which is generally in line with international standards, save for a few areas where improvements will need to be made. UNHCR was actively involved in the development of the new Law on Refugees and Asylum which was adopted in November 2008 and entered into force in January 2009.
UNHCR’s present co-operation with the Govenrment of Armenia is underpinned by the pursuit of two overarching goals: (i) ensuring effective protection of refugees; and (ii) promoting the integration of refugees.
Ensuring effective protection of refugees
Effective protection of refugees involves determining who it is that is in need of protection, what the content of that protection should be and how to identify the beneficiaries of protection.
The internationally agreed legal definition of who is a refugee is set out in Article 1 of the 1951 Refugee Convention as amended by Article I of the 1967 Protocol. The Convention also enumerates a wide range of rights and benefits that refugees coming within its scope are entitled to without any discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin. In many respects, the Convention rights are the basics only and Contracting States are generally expected to provide a higher standard of treatment commensurate with their abilities.
This is then the premise and context in which UNHCR works with the authorities to ensure that the interpretation and application of the national legal framework meet the requirements of international legal obligations towards refugees and asylum-seekers. This includes assisting the authorities to substantially strengthen their refugee status determination procedures so that they respond simultaneously to the twin imperatives of fairness and efficiency. With financial and technical assistance from UNHCR, the Government has established reception facilities for asylum-seekers that generally meet international standards.
For UNHCR, ensuring effective protection also implies monitoring and promoting respect for refugee rights and the standards of treatment of refugees, particularly in relation to social, economic, civil and political rights. Furthermore, UNHCR works with a number of local NGO partners in the implementation of projects aimed at the provision of basic health care and social assistance to particularly vulnerable refugees.
Promoting the integration of refugees
A good progress has been achieved in the local integration of the refugees from Azerbaijan, with over 80,000 of them having acquired Armenian citizenship through a simplified naturalisation scheme (only about 2,300 still waiting to be naturalised). Hundreds of ethnic Armenian refugees from Iraq have also been naturalised. UNHCR hopes that a similar generosity can be shown to refugees from other countries.
It should of course be recognized that integration is a two-way process, implying responsibilities as well as rights on those to whom it is offered. Local integration is ultimately an organic process by which diverse communities and cultures intermingle, adapt and change for their common enrichment.
Certainly, the social and economic problems hampering the local integration of refugees in Armenia are generally the same problems faced by the local population and are of a long-term development nature. The role of UNHCR in this area is essentially a catalytic one, to advocate for the needs of these refugees to be included in the national development programmes of the government, and international development agencies and financial institutions. In other words, refugees’ integration needs should be mainstreamed into existing State services and facilities to the extent possible.
One recent new initiative of UNHCR to support refugee integration in Armenia was the launch of the Community Technology Access (CTA) programme. The CTA project, backed by key UNHCR corporate partners Microsoft and Pricewaterhouse Coopers, aims at giving refugees access to computers in a bid to open up education and livelihood opportunities to them. The CTA business model is founded on the principle of long-term operational and financial sustainability wherever conditions are conducive to income-generating activities.
The CTA programme in Armenia was piloted at two sites, Darbnik and Kasakh, and targeted refugees from Iraq and Azerbaijan and the local population. A third site has recently been opened in the Nork-Nork district of Yerevan.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
14 Petros Adamyan St.
Yerevan 0010, Armenia
Tel.: (374 10) 56 47 71,
(374 10) 58 48 92, (374 10) 54 59 35,
(374 10) 54 59 36, (374 91) 41 53 87
Fax: (374 10) 56 78 17