Internally Displaced Persons: The Case of Azerbaijan


One of the first and most comprehensive studies on the internally displaced persons (IDP) population in Azerbaijan was conducted by Human Rights Watch in 1994, right after the cease-fire was signed between the belligerent parties. The Nagorno-Karabakh war resulted in the deaths of an estimated 25,000 soldiers and civilians and the displacement of one million others on both sides (Human Rights Watch [HRW], 1994, par. 1).

In view of building a new state after the collapse of the Soviet Union, war-torn Azerbaijan had to deal with the results of the conflict. Along with the economic crisis, the war generated an IDP crisis in Azerbaijan. Damaged infrastructure, a weakened economy and the IDP crisis were causing the newly independent state much trouble. Due to the large number of IDPs, the government was unable to fulfill a primary task of providing them with food and shelter. At this point, the Azerbaijani government started receiving assistance from the international community. A number of relief organizations became closely involved in managing IDP issues. Turkey had helped set up camps for more than 50,000 people. Iran, in order to keep from being deluged by Azerbaijani refugees, built a series of giant tent cities that housed more than 100,000 people just across the border with Azerbaijan (Uhlig, 1994, p. 51).

International Aid

Established in Azerbaijan as early as 1992, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has conducted numerous activities and implemented several projects in close collaboration with other humanitarian organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including Oxfam and Relief International. From the beginning of its activities in Azerbaijan, UNHCR has provided enormous help to the IDP population in terms of providing food and shelter and also assisting with improving water and sanitation (Deck, 1997, p. 79).

As of 2000, UNHCR implemented a number of programs assisting more than 97,000 IDPs in providing material assistance to help with integration processes. It has helped to increase involvement of the government bodies in the provision of assistance and capacity building (Lockwood, Mniszko, Everts, & de Klerk, 2000, p. 2). UNHCR aims over time to reduce the dependency of IDPs on external assistance, to bring their living standards up to those of the host community, and to find durable solutions through local integration. UNHCR is carrying out some highly effective legal protection work, despite the weak government structures and systems with which it has to work. UNHCR has been successful in helping the Azerbaijani government to develop appropriate IDP laws, and has helped with status determination procedures (Lockwood et al., p. 3).

Despite the vast needs on the ground, the international community has been progressively reducing its attention to IDPs. Lack of donor support has been a problem, for instance, obliging UNHCR to cut much needed support to urban IDPs at the end of 2002 (Norwegian Refugee Council [NRC], 2003b, p. 15). However, it is extremely important that UNHCR continues to implement its phase-out strategy at the current pace, reducing its presence gradually according to the initial arrangement, because it is crucial for UNHCR to ensure that the government and its institutions are able to take over and provide necessary support to handle the question of humanitarian aid themselves.

Major Challenges

As of 1998–2000, the international community had classified over 40 percent of the IDPs in Azerbaijan as “extremely poor” (NRC, 2003a, p. 62). IDPs constantly face challenges starting from very basic ones like daily food and finding basic clothing to quite serious and long-term ones such as educating the youth and finding jobs for adults.

Citizens of Azerbaijan must register their residence as part of an internal registration system, the so-called “propiska” regime. Most IDPs lost their documents during their flight (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre [IDMC], 2009, p. 2). Without residence registration, IDPs face particular difficulties accessing employment, housing, medical services, education, pensions, bank loans, and government assistance for IDPs (IDMC, p. 2.). Access to these services and entitlements without residence registration is possible but typically requires the payment of bribes, which IDPs cannot afford financially.



Around 200,000 (40 percent) of the IDP population in Azerbaijan are children, and one of the primary concerns is their education (NRC, 2003a, p. 71). Under the soviet system, a citizen could only attend school in the area indicated in the resident certificate. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rule was kept intact in Azerbaijan, but because most IDPs had either lost their certificates or fled to an area different from the one designated on their certificate, they were unable to attend schools and access employment opportunities (Parseghian, 2006, p. 83).

The IDP children face a number of problems: the lack of educational infrastructure, inability of IDP families to purchase school supplies, and distance from schools. Most schools in IDP settlements are in bad shape, and the ones that are in more or less good condition are far-off, which combined together with the inability of the IDP families to cover the transportation costs inevitably leads to poor attendance.

Additionally, more than 20 percent of the displaced families do not send their children to school, especially girls (NRC, 2003a, p. 54).  This is due to the fact that the majority of the IDP community is from rural areas where community does not usually place much value on education for women but rather raises them as well-behaved future wives. Gender inequality is vividly observed in the rural areas of the country: boys are mostly encouraged to be educated, while girls are usually provided with only elementary or secondary education and then are forced to get married, sometimes against their will. Also, the shortage of funds and lack of awareness make education even less of a priority in IDP communities.

In the early years of independence due to the conflict, Azerbaijan has lost more than 700 educational institutions, including kindergartens, schools, colleges, and institutes; thus, access to education, not just for the children of IDPs, but for all Azerbaijani children, has been restricted (Mardanov, 1999, p. 78; NRC, 2003a, p. 54). Some IDP children were placed in local schools close to their communities, but the burden of additional students has imposed a great pressure on those schools, bringing the level of overall education a step lower. This created a major problem as schools refrained from accepting IDP children because they feared their system might downgrade. However, the Azerbaijani government has recognized education as a high priority for the IDP community and over the years has taken key steps to guarantee that IDP children are not ignored given their lives in temporary shelters. Thus, by 2007, the government had maintained 699 secondary schools in IDP communities, with 90,000 students and 12,000 teachers. Moreover, in recognition of the strained economic circumstances for IDPs, a 2003 presidential decree exempted IDP students from tuition fees at state higher educational institutions and specialized secondary schools (IDMC, 2007, p. 77).

Although this helps improve the overall situation, there are still some issues that need to be addressed. For instance, some IDP children, whose settlements are in close proximity to a town, are sent to local, fully active schools and are integrated into the school community together with other children. On one hand, this type of integration has benefits as it gives opportunities for those children to step outside of their IDP settlement on a daily basis and attend better schools and interact with children from local communities. But this has a drawback effect as well, because poor income levels among IDPs, represented in differences in the quality and price of clothing and school accessories, makes it difficult for children to fit in with their local peers. A large number of IDP children stopped attending schools due to the constant mockery and lack of acceptance within local communities, which has created a dilemma of having to decide whether to educate together or separate from the local community children. According to the World Bank, 60 percent of the displaced are being taught in special classes segregated from the general population (IDMC, 2008, p. 7). Local authorities in the Xatai district stated that displaced children were educated in schools separate from the host population. It was suggested that doing so facilitated the children’s adaptation to their displacement by educating them with other children in a similar situation. However, in a situation of displacement lasting several years, it also segregated them from the local population, and thereby impeded the process of integration, because they had very little interaction with the resident community (NRC, 2003a, p. 56).


Another problem faced by the IDP population is unemployment, which is exceptionally high as only 20 percent of the displaced are employed and earn regular wages (Asian Development Bank [ADB], 2003, par. 6). As most of the IDPs were from the rural areas, they had skills and experience to work as farmers or at factories, but given Azerbaijan’s economic conditions in the post-war situation, factories were shut down and IDPs were settled in areas where the soil was not adequate for agriculture. For almost a decade, they depended on the financial aid received from the government and international organizations because war-torn Azerbaijan was unable to provide adequate work for them. Unemployment also affected refugees from Armenia, including some well-educated professionals, due to a lack of jobs in the transitional economy of the early 1990s. It is extremely difficult for the IDPs to find jobs on the labor market, as they have no access to information on vacancies and lack the skills in demand in cities, due to their mostly rural background (NRC, 2003a, p. 6). The provision of employment to IDPs is of great importance. It is estimated that 300,000 out of 400,000 able-bodied IDPs are without work (NRC, 2003a, p. 59). If those IDPs continue to remain unemployed and try to live on small payments issued by the government, the risk of them turning to illegal ways of earning money is very high. The United Nations’ new representative for refugees and IDPs in Azerbaijan has warned international donors that people still displaced by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict may lapse into despair if they do not receive more help in finding work (Institute for War and Peace Reporting [IWPR], 2009, par. 1).


After the war, Azerbaijan had the largest internally displaced population in the region, and, as of 2006, had the highest per capita IDP population in the world (United Nations Department of Public Information [UNDPI], 2009, par. 3). The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict had a tremendous impact on Azerbaijan’s economy. In the aftermath of the conflict, the Azerbaijani government faced an overwhelming problem of providing normal living conditions for the internally displaced. Although the IDP population is much better off now than it was ten years ago, only a very small portion has been able to secure a normal living standard.

Despite a number of supportive programs launched both by the international community, UNHCR in particular, and the Azerbaijani government, most IDP families are still dependent for their survival on the assistance received from the government and humanitarian organizations. But in the light of the protraction of the conflict, the international community is approaching a manner of timely withdrawal, trying to enhance the necessity of the government to take over and provide for the IDPs by itself. The Azerbaijani government comes to face somewhat of a challenge in managing the IDP-related problems on its own.

Although the international community is decreasing financial aid and Azerbaijan seems ready to take over and implement programs of sustainable development on its own, it is important that the international community continues to provide technical assistance through training and capacity building programs. This need is due to the lack of institutional capacity in the country, the presence of highly corrupt structures, and the reluctance of some of the government bodies to reintegrate the IDP population with a demand to further push for their return. In this regard, the international community should help in creating adequate organizational entities to ensure normal living standards of IDPs and guarantee fulfillment of the strategies set forward until the displaced population is self-reliant and independent.

The international community should assist the Azerbaijani government and the IDP population by designing skill development and retraining programs. A number of international organizations and NGOs have responded to this need by funding programs that give start-up loans and training to IDPs wishing to establish small businesses, which helps to create sustainable opportunities for the future. The international community should continue to help improve living conditions of IDPs, particularly in urban areas, by providing assistance in constructing individual houses and the inclusion of IDPs in the process of privatization of accommodation capacities (NRC, 2003b, p. 15). The international community could also help the Azerbaijani government by establishing centers in IDP settlements to provide consulting regarding issues that concern IDPs the most.

Ever since the IDP problem emerged in Azerbaijan, the local population was largely sympathetic and helpful in terms of providing food, donating clothes, and hosting them in their homes on a temporary basis. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people in the country struggled with social and economic problems themselves, including lack of employment, low standards of living, and corruption. In this regard, IDPs somewhat exasperated locals because they were regarded as a burden that the local population was forced to deal with (Guliyeva & Yazdani, 2009, par. 17). This was especially the case with the IDPs that settled in urban areas, as their settlements in cities and towns created a clash between their lifestyles and that of the local urban culture.

Despite the Azerbaijani government’s commitment and that of various UN agencies to alleviate the problematic situation, and some improvement in living conditions for thousands of IDPs, the challenges are still overwhelming and the lives of these people will not improve overnight. There is still more to be done both on the part of the Azerbaijani government and international organizations, especially with schooling, health services, and job opportunities, until the IDPs will be able to secure a normal standard of living in their new houses or return to their prewar homes in and around Nagorno-Karabakh (UNDPI, 2009, par. 13).


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