Interview with UNHCR Representative

Mr. Bierwirth, could you please update us on the situation of refugees and displaced persons worldwide and in Armenia specifically.

Unfortunately today’s world is confronted with the largest displacement challenges since the end of World War II: at the end of 2013 more than 51.2 million people were forcibly displaced, 6 million more than the 45.2 million recorded at the end of 2012. While awaiting consolidated statistics the trend continued in 2014 as well as in early 2015 given new crises and worsening conflicts inter alia in Syria, Iraq, Central African Republic (CAR), Nigeria, Mali, Pakistan, South Sudan and Ukraine.

Armenia, having already received several hundred thousand refugees from Azerbaijan and over one thousand persons from Iraq, is presently in particular facing displacement from Syria and Ukraine. About 15,000 persons fleeing the conflict in Syria, primarily of ethnic Armenian background, have sought and found protection in Armenia. More than 100 persons from Ukraine have filed their asylum application with the State Migration Service, but the actual number of Ukrainians seeking refuge in Armenia is considered to be higher as many do not register, instead making use of the visa free regime. Moreover, Armenia also hosts smaller number of refugees from a variety of countries. While these figures sound small if compared to the over 1.4 million refugees hosted in Lebanon or about 750,000 in Jordan they constitute a significant challenge for a small country such as Armenia, which is still suffering from the unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, closed borders, isolation and a difficult economic situation.

UNHCR welcomes that the Government in principle has taken a receptive approach towards refugees and in particular has introduced a number of measures assisting persons displaced from Syria and offers them a variety of protection options, namely by way of (i) simplified acquisition of citizenship, (ii) accelerated asylum procedures or (iii) privileged granting of short, mid-term or long-term residence permits. It must be emphasized, however, that refugee protection must be offered irrespective of the ethnic background of a refugee.

Also most segments of society are generally receptive to the displaced and show understanding for their plight. Given the country’s history and the collective experience of thousands of Armenians having found admission and survival in many countries of the world, the institution of asylum is deeply rooted in Armenian society. However, given the geopolitical location of Armenia and the unresolved conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, security concerns understandably rank high and sometimes cause some undue reservations towards asylum-seekers who are not of Armenian ethnicity, in particular those of Muslim background. It is important that legitimate security concerns are addressed in a way fully compatible with international refugee and human rights law.

Moreover, within society, we observe some misperceptions of Syrian Armenians generally being rich, while UNHCR must note that persons fleeing the conflict in Syria and in particular those who left unprepared in consequence of intensified fighting in Aleppo or the fall of Kesab arrive in Armenia in an increasingly destitute situation. We therefore would like to call for differentiated perceptions and would also welcome more openness in the society vis a vis the rather small number of refugees of African descent.

Despite the strong engagement of the government, diaspora and faith-based organizations, NGOs and UNHCR and the introduction of a variety of assistance schemes, refugees and other displaced in Armenia still face a lot of challenges. It is difficult to find affordable housing and sufficient livelihood opportunities. Even when sharing a common language it is not easy to adapt to a different environment. The cultural adaptation challenge is bigger for those who come from Syria and who are used to life “in a very different world” than for those who fled from Azerbaijan, and who shared a common Soviet experience with the local population in Armenia. Such adaptation is even more challenging for those few refugees who come from Africa.

Integration is a gradual process and we would like to call for understanding, tolerance and empathy. One should not forget the pain many refuges suffer from, having been forced to leave their homes, to leave behind the graves of ancestors and their places of childhood full of memories, a familiar environment, friends and family members, often aggravated by the grief over lost beloved ones.

Please tell us about the global mandate and role of UNHCR and your organizations strategic priorities in Armenia?

UNHCR has received from the General Assembly of the United Nations a mandate to provide international protection to refugees and to assists states in finding durable solutions for displaced populations. UNHCR’s mandate has developed over time and now also includes the competence to engage in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons (IDPs) as well as in the prevention and reduction of statelessness.

In Armenia UNHCR is presently primarily engaged in three areas, namely:

  1.  Capacity building of the State Migration Service (SMS) and other authorities involved in the protection of displaced or stateless populations with a view to enhance Armenia’s asylum-capacities, to further improve the quality of decision making in refugee status determination procedures and to strengthen mechanisms serving the prevention and reduction of statelessness;
  2. Humanitarian response to address the most basic needs of refugees and persons in a refugee like situation, in particular of those who flee the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine and who recently arrived and are expected to continue to arrive seeking protection in Armenia;
  3. Efforts serving durable solutions for displaced populations, in particular by way of promoting their local integration in Armenia and facilitating the integration process through targeted assistance. 


What does this mean concretely? Which kind of projects and activities is UNHCR conducting in Armenia in 2015 and what were the key achievements during the recent years?

In the area of capacity building it must be noted that the initial institution building process has been concluded. Armenia is party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and many other international instruments relevant to UNHCR’s work. It has adopted national asylum legislation and important amendments bringing such legislation much closer to international standards have been prepared in 2014 by a joint SMS / UNHCR working group. The draft amendments were recently approved by the Government of Armenia and are now awaiting formal adoption by the National Assembly of the Republic of Armenia. A small reception facility for asylum-seekers is in operation in Yerevan and an Asylum Unit within the State Migration Service (SMS) is responsible for the conduct of status determination procedures.

The challenges are now: (i) to adjust capacities of the SMS to increasing needs, while maintaining quality of decision-making and  (ii) to bring the newly created integration unit into full operation. UNHCR will assist in the drafting of an integration strategy and a related action plan and contribute to its subsequent accommodation. Moreover, serving the implementation of UNHCR Armenia’s judicial engagement strategy we will continue our systematic training cooperation with the School of Advocates, seek training cooperation with the Justice Academy, operate a national legal network of lawyers and engage in strategic litigation.

In the area of humanitarian response UNHCR and its partners have started in 2014 and continue to implement in 2015 a broad range of projects which address the humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable among the displaced population - families with children, women, elderly and other people with specific needs – while complementing Government assistance schemes and which aim at mitigating suffering. Efforts include:

  1. a comprehensive system providing rental subsidies  under which in 2014 a total of 677 vulnerable families were assisted in finding and paying for housing; over 600,000 USD are available for this activity in 2015.
  2. a one-time winterization allowance helping to cover heating and utility costs
  3. one-time financial assistance to the most vulnerable in order to address exceptional needs and to help prevent school drop out
  4. provision of psycho-social support, medication and healthcare, which in 2014 served about 2000 beneficiaries;

To enhance cooperation among the different actors and to improve the referral system in 2014 UNHCR conducted a comprehensive mapping exercise on available services offered by NGOs and other, which allowed better mutual understanding of “who does what, how and where” and served as the basis for the development of a “yellow pages” service directory. These efforts will continue in 2015.

In relation to promotion of integration UNHCR focused on and continues to engage in livelihood activities. In 2014, a total of 180 persons of concern to UNHCR participated in start-up business development training organized by SME-DNC. Voccational training and soft skills for professional development courses organized by the KASA Swiss Humanitarian Foundation. These courses were attended by 270 displaced persons, and 109 participants benefitted from Eastern Armenian and Russian language classes offered within the framework of UNHCR’s project with the Center for the Coordination of Syrian Armenian Issues.

In order to translate the acquired skills into income 157 beneficiaries were provided with tool-kits serving income generation and self-reliance and 23 displaced entrepreneurs received micro-credits at preferential interest rates. These efforts were complemented by (i) the operation of an ‘integration soup-kitchen’ by the NGO Mission Armenia, which paired provision of food with information sharing and integration counseling and (ii) the innovative ’Adopt-a-Family’’ project initiated by the KASA Swiss Humanitarian Foundation, which has by now matched 90 displaced and local families, engaged them in joint learning experiences, cultural events and excursions. I am pleased to say that all these activities are continued in 2015.

A broad range of public information activities, such as the engagement of a UNHCR Armenia National Supporter, famous singer Zaruhi Babayan, media briefings, sport and cultural events involving displaced artists, have been undertaken in order to raise understanding for the plight of the displaced populations and to demonstrate how they can contribute to life in Armenia. 


Who are UNHCR’s primary government partners? Could you please also tell us more about the areas of your cooperation with the State Migration Service?

The State Migration Service is, indeed, our closest Government partner in Armenia and UNHCR and SMS staff at different levels are in daily contact with each other. Cooperation focusses on UNHCR’s supervisory functions under the 1951 Convention, technical assistance, training and coaching of staff, provision of country of origin information and legal advice on questions related to international refugee law and practice. In 2014 UNHCR has assisted in the upgrading of the SMS office with a view to establish better conditions for conduct of status determination interviews and a better work environment for SMS staff. Moreover, 10 training events were organized for SMS staff, four of which were conducted in the framework of the EU funded Quality Initiative for Eastern Europe. UNHCR also contributed to the drafting of amendments to the Law on Refugees and Asylum as well as of four Standard Operating Procedures guiding SMS staff.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is our primary partner on issues related to Armenia’s adherence to international legal obligations and Protocol matters. We are pleased about the progress made towards Armenia becoming a full member of the UNHCR Executive Committee (EXCOM) and to report that in 2014 following joint lobbying efforts by Yezidi NGOs, the UN Resident Coordinator, OCHA and UNHCR the Government of Armenia has, for the first time (beyond provision of free of charge office space), offered a financial contribution to UNHCR to assist displaced population from Sinjar Mountain in Northern Iraq.

UNHCR also continues to engage with the Ministry of Diaspora and is a member of the intergovernmental commission on Syrian-Armenian issues led by the Minister. A Memorandum of Understanding governing cooperation is presently negotiated.

It is also worth mentioning the close cooperation UNHCR has developed with the Border Guards: in 2014 several training events have served 75 participants and a systematic border monitoring system has been developed which also involves our partners from the Armenian Red Cross Society. These efforts, complemented by provision of technical assistance and equipment to the Border Guards at Zvartnots International Airport, have shown positive results. In 2014 no single violation of the principle of non-refoulement, the principle prohibiting the return of a refugee to the frontiers of territory “where his or her life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” had to be observed. Moreover, an increased number of cases of asylum-seekers has been identified by the Border Guards and was duly referred by them to the State Migration Service.

Contacts are also maintained on issues of common interest with the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Emergency Situations. Some small technical assistance will be offered to the Integrated Social Service established by the Ministry of Labour and Social Issues and the State Employment Agency. Moreover, UNHCR liaises with the Marzpets of regions hosting significant numbers of refugees and displaced families.

Cooperation with the semi-governmental actor, the SME-DNC relates to the provision of training on how to do business in Armenia, development of business plans, provision of micro-credits and preferential interest rates, and follow-up coaching for displaced entrepreneurs.


Do you also cooperate with NGOs and who are your partners?

Partnerships with NGOs are crucial for UNHCR, both when it comes to the implementation of specific projects serving persons of concern, but also in the broader context of assessing the situation and needs of refugees, of representation of their interests vis a vis the Government and UNHCR, as well as in forming advocacy partnerships serving the protection of the rights of displaced populations.

The NGO partners with whom project agreements have been signed in 2015 are:

Mission Armenia, focuses on humanitarian assistance, including rental subsidies, medical assistance and is also operating an “integration soup kitchen”

The Armenian Red Cross Society, which is heavily engaged in the provision of small business grants and related training, at the same time offering a variety of services, including psycho-social counseling and activities serving the prevention of and response to SGBV. They are also our partner in counseling asylum-seekers at the Reception Center as well as on border monitoring and provision of initial assistance to vulnerable asylum-seekers at borders.

The KASA Swiss Humanitarian Foundation engages in a broad range of activities serving integration such as vocational training, language and computer classes, cultural events and youth clubs. This NGO also implements the innovative “adopt a family” project.

Save the Children International addresses educational and integration challenges of refugee and other displaced children and juveniles. It will also renovate one kindergarten, enabling it to host a larger number of children from displaced Syrian families.  

Moreover, UNHCR closely cooperates with a broad range of operational partners, including NGOs representing the interests of persons displaced from Syria (such as the Center for Coordination of Syrian Armenian Issues and the NGO “Aleppo”, Compatriot Charitable Organization) or NGO’s strongly engaged in offering assistance to displaced populations such as the Armenian Caritas and Oxfam.  To secure advocacy alliances Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) were signed between UNHCR and the Human Rights Defender of the Republic of Armenia and UNHCR and the Civil Society Institute. 

The tri-partite MoU with OXFAM in Armenia and The Ani & Narod Memorial Foundation signed in early 2015 aims at enhanced cooperation in the field of addressing the housing needs of vulnerable families displaced from Syria.


How do you assess the integration potential of families displaced from Syria, seeking protection in Armenia: their emergency needs and prospects for integration in the country?

Most of the persons displaced from Syria have a good integration potential in Armenia, given the similar, though not identical cultural, religious and language background and the receptive approach of the Armenian society. Many of the persons displaced from Syria benefit from good, secondary and frequently tertiary education, sound vocational skills and often extended entrepreneurial experience, thus have the potential to significantly contribute to the future development of Armenia, its economy and society.

Many of those displaced from Syria, in particular families who arrived in or before 2013 have already integrated to a large extent. We observe a number of flowering small businesses operated by persons displaced from Syria, who often benefit from a well-advanced service and customer oriented business culture. A number of the displaced found good and properly paid positions in the IT sector or tourist industry. We are pleased to observe the high number of displaced juveniles who are successfully continuing or starting their studies in Armenia, benefitting from a generous assistance scheme offered by the Ministry of Diaspora with support from the educational institutions and diaspora organizations.

However, refugees have to integrate into the difficult realities Armenia is facing today, where large segments of society live below the poverty line and suffer from unemployment, low income, limited economic prospects and marginalization. The low level of salaries makes it most difficult to meet needs, considering in particular that most of the displaced have to rent living space, while the majority of the local population resides in privatized apartments. Many of the experienced Syrian Armenia businessmen, who left behind small factories and flourishing businesses, and in the past were used to exporting their products to neighbouring markets, are raising concerns about the business environment and the limited market opportunities available in Armenia. We cannot ignore a certain level of frustration.

Disappointment about the living conditions (mismatch of income versus living costs), about work and economic prospects in Armenia explains why quite a number of those displaced from Syria look for other options. An estimated three to four thousands of those who had arrived in Armenia at one stage have departed. They either moved on to other destinations, serving as migrant workers in the Gulf states or in other countries offering job opportunities or making use of family reunification options or, though rather rarely, seeking asylum elsewhere. Others have returned back to Syria, in order to look after property they left behind. For the same reason some, mainly male family members, move back and forward. These developments have resulted in new challenges as families have been split following departure of male family members, often leaving behind their wife and smaller children in Armenia, considered a safe location for them. 

Such cases of return or onward migration should not be perceived as a lack of respect or gratefulness vis a vis the Government or the Armenian Society and should not discourage further efforts to promote integration in Armenia, through enhanced self-reliance. Efforts must be maintained to secure that life in displacement can continue in dignity, that paths of education are not interrupted and that best use will be made of the knowledge, skills and experience displaced persons bring with them to Armenia. It is important to keep options open and to allow – one day, when the situation will permit – the displaced individuals to make a free and well informed choice, whether to stay in Armenia, to move elsewhere (where admitted)  or to return home if such is possible in safety and dignity.


What are the UNHCR Armenia future plans: its key areas of operation and directions?

UNHCR will continue its operation in Armenia addressing all the three areas explained above, namely capacity building, humanitarian assistance and integration support. As it is most unlikely that funding levels, which have significantly increased during the recent years from USD 600,000 in 2012, 700,000 in 2013, 1.8 million in 2014 and 2.5 million in 2015, will be maintained, we will have to gradually downsize our operation in the future. This will require a thorough review of the needs, as they develop over time, and a careful prioritization exercise.

The following key thoughts and directions will govern this exercise:

Core UNHCR mandate functions as related to supervision of Armenia’s adherence  to its obligations under the 1951 Convention and prevention of refoulement shall be continued as well as our support to the SMS to keep its refugee determination procedures, its asylum and integration units in effective operation. Humanitarian assistance efforts will be gradually reduced, while at the same time, within the available resources, increased attention will be given to the promotion of durable solutions, primarily by way of local integration. Vocational and business training and other integration measures shall be retained. The revolving nature of the funds provided to SME-DNC will permit continuation of the micro-credit scheme even if no major new funding will become available for this activity.

To mitigate the impact of reduced UNHCR assistance we will continue to advocate for full integration of displaced populations in the Government assistance schemes and the improvement of such schemes. Moreover we will promote the engagement of other actors with their own resources in the provision of rental subsidies and other avenues serving to address the housing needs of the displaced. While beyond UNHCR’s particular expertise and funding potential, more options shall be assessed in relation to durable housing solutions, such as social housing, donated housing for most vulnerable, housing grants or housing credits at preferential interest rates.

In addition, UNHCR will continue to advocate for the mainstreaming of displaced population into strategies, plans and activities of the Government, our UN partner agencies and other actors engaged in the economic and social development of Armenia.

The geo-political context and potential hazard in the Caucasian region requires me to also devote some words to emergency preparedness and contingency planning. While we all hope that the cease-fire agreement will be adhered to by all sides and progress will be made by the Minsk Group in their conflict resolution efforts UNHCR was very concerned about the developments in Tavush region in Summer 2014 which resulted in temporary displacement of over 100 persons. It is in the very nature of UNHCR’s work to keep an eye on unresolved conflicts and on potential developments which may cause displacement. Hence an update of our contingency planning is on our “to do list” for 2015.  

In conclusion I would like to emphasize: while it is primarily for the State to provide protection to refugees and it is UNHCR’s role to assist the states in this respect and to secure that obligations under the 1951 Convention are respected and the rights of refugees and other displaced persons are protected, it is for the society - for every member of it - to make refugees and other displaced feel welcome and to give them a genuine chance to find a new home and a future. While some members of society should self-critically ask themselves whether it is appropriate to increase requested rental fees if a tenant comes from Syria or whether the particular situation of a refugee has been properly and fairly considered when engaging in business partnerships or negotiating salaries, many others should be praised for their humanitarian engagement, helping hands offered and philanthropic measures taken. I would not like to miss the occasion to thank the latter.

Read more at: http://smsmta.am/upload/Newsletter_English_N8.pdf              http://smsmta.am/upload/english2015.pdf