Life in Limbo: The Plight of the Displaced in Azerbaijan
by Afa Alizada
For many, violent conflict and its consequences go far beyond rhetoric or a loss of a symbolic homeland. For them it is a matter of existence. Uprooted and not entirely welcomed in their new homes, displaced persons – refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) – live with the daily reminder of the conflict and its consequences. Like most other violent conflicts, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has produced its own uprooted masses on both sides. As the conflict enters its 17th year of post-ceasefire stalemate, the displaced population in Azerbaijan has seen very little improvement in their lives. Their lives are suspended somewhere between the fond memories of home and the hope of going back one day.
Azerbaijan has about 600,000 IDPs and 250,000 Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia. The living conditions of IDPs are especially dire, since their resettlement and integration is more problematic for the government than that of the Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia. Many IDPs still live in make-shift homes, have little or no access to medical services, education, public transportation, and employment and reside in remote or dangerous (close to the line of contact) areas. Azerbaijan’s growing economy has largely bypassed them. While it is true that the lack of governance capacity and corruption has excluded many segments of the Azerbaijani population (and not just displaced persons) from the benefits of development, the reasons for IDPs’ exclusion go far beyond that. There are specific institutional/structural as well as political obstacles to improving the lives of the displaced and their integration into the society at large.
The biggest political obstacle to integrating the IDPs is the presumption that it would jeopardize their right to return home. The main objective of the Azerbaijani government, understandably, is for its IDPs to return home and regain their property. By creating favorable conditions for the displaced, the government fears that they would not want to return home when the opportunity presents itself. Furthermore, since the Azerbaijani government seeks to regain control over Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent districts, the government risks to be perceived as conceding to the status quo by integrating the IDPs from these regions. Persistence of dire living conditions of IDPs serves the government in seeking international support and sympathy. The Azerbaijani officials point to the IDP situation to emphasize the urgency of regaining its lost territories.
The lack of political will to integrate IDPs is accompanied by a variety of structural obstacles. Governance practices in Azerbaijan restrict IDPs’ free movement, land ownership, access to employment, and meaningful representation in the government. For example, despite officially abolishing the Soviet-era propiska system (residential registration), it is still informally in practice, creating difficulties for IDPs to establish residence in places other than what they were initially assigned to by the government. This means IDPs can’t easily relocate to areas for better employment opportunities. Similarly, although the government does not legally preclude IDPs from purchasing land or property, the system in place for such transactions requires them to give up their status as displaced persons. Giving up their status, however, is not an option for most IDPs, since many perceive it as giving up the hope of going back home and reclaiming their properties one day.
Furthermore, under the current system, IDPs are not represented by the local government of their current residence, but rather by the officials from their home districts now housed in central government structures. This means that many IDPs have to travel a great distance from their current location to find their local government representative if they need to voice grievances or ask for assistance. Such exclusion disconnects IDPs from their representatives, who in return do not necessarily feel accountable to them.
Given the above-mentioned limitations, there is understandable resistance to integration even among the IDPs themselves. Many believe that the only way to improve their lives is to return home. They live with the false hope that once they return, everything will magically go back to normal. Moreover, the government policies and regulations in place equate integration and improvement of IDP living conditions with giving up on their ancestral homes. However, do IDPs have to choose between improving their current situation and going back home one day? Are these two ideals mutually exclusive?
I would argue that these ideals are very much compatible. In fact, improving the lives of IDPs is very likely to encourage and aid their return home, if and when the opportunity presents itself. IDPs will go back to ruined communities that they will have to help rebuild. Without proper access to education and jobs, how are IDPs to gain skills, knowledge, and resources to rebuild their communities? By allowing them to fully participate in the social, political, and economic activities, the government will help the displaced to develop skills and acquire capital and other resources that are imperative to reviving devastated economies and contributing to the post-conflict reconstruction efforts back home.
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