Refugees in Azerbaijan: USCR Report / 2005

Azeri refugeesRefoulement/Asylum
According to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Azerbaijan possibly refouled a number of refugees. Under pressure from the Russian Federation, which alleged that Chechen ex-fighters used Azerbaijan as a safe haven, the Government deported ethnic Chechens, some of whom it may have suspected of crimes or militant activity, without notifying the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Authorities also deported an Iraqi to Iran and authorities there refouled him to Iraq. Azeri authorities arrested and detained him again when he managed to return but, after lawyers and UNHCR intervened, the Jalilabad District Court released him.

The 1999 Law on Refugees and Forced Migrants incorporated the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention) and its prohibition of refoulement. The Government denied deporting any refugees or asylum seekers. Asylum seekers could apply to Azerbaijan’s Refugee Status Determination Department (RSDD) which applied the 1999 Law and the procedures of a 2000 presidential decree. UNHCR monitored the process. Asylum seekers had a right to legal assistance, which the Government funded through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent lawyers. Border guards also screened asylum seekers on the merits of their claims, detaining those they either deemed not to be refugees or suspected of crimes. Their actions were reportedly monitored by the State Refugee Department, UNHCR, and NGOs.

UNHCR facilitated the resettlement of 316 refugees including 59 Afghans and 49 Russians. Some 200,000 ethnic Azeris who fled Armenia and 50,000 Meskhetian Turks from the former Soviet Union were eligible to naturalize and, as many had done so, USCRI considered them to have found a durable solution. Because Chechens were citizens of a fellow former Soviet Republic, they had informal visitor status in the country and had to register with the Baku police within three days of arrival. Chechens could receive a three-month visa but could not apply for asylum and were ineligible for residence permits. UNHCR considered them “persons of concern” and issued them protective letters of limited duration. USCRI counted them as refugees.

Caucasus: refugees mapDetention
Authorities detained 40 asylum seekers and police harassed and extorted money from undocumented Chechen men. The Department issued documentation to asylum seekers and the State Committee for Refugees issued refugee cards to grantees. The 1999 Refugee Law guaranteed refugees and IDPs access to courts.

Right to Earn a Livelihood
The 1999 Law stated that the Government would help refugees and IDPs find jobs but did not guarantee the right to freely seek work. Employers denied jobs to many refugees who did not have residence permits. The 1999 Labor Migration Law required foreigners to obtain work permits from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but it did not issue any. Most asylum seekers worked in bazaars, markets, and other informal jobs. Many Chechens ran shuttle businesses transporting goods to and from Chechnya.

Freedom of Movement and Residence
Asylum seekers registered with RSDD enjoyed free movement but the authorities restricted those without proper documents. The 1999 Refugee Law entitled refugees to international travel documents but the government had no procedure to issue them. Refugees could own residential property.

Public Relief and Education
Since 2003, all children of refugees and asylum seekers, including Chechens, could attend public schools. However, of 3,000 Chechen children, only 700 of them did so due to shortage of space and requirements to pay bribes. Chechen children attended Russian language schools in Baku. There were also five unofficial and independent Chechen schools in Baku. The Government housed many IDPs and refugees in educational facilities, requiring children—refugee, displaced, and local—to attend school in shifts and causing cancellation of classes. Healthcare was free, in principle, but providers often required side payments.

Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)
Despite a ten-year ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, about 528,000 of the 800,000 ethnic Azeris from the Nagorno-Karabakh region remained internally displaced. Continued instability prevented many from returning except to territories under government control such as Fizuli, Agdam, and Terter. About 154,000 lived in the capital, Baku. The Government was reluctant to integrate them lest others interpret it as acceptance of the permanent loss of Nagorno- Karabakh. The Government required IDPs to register their place of residence in a vestige of the Soviet-era propiska system and only allowed them to live in approved areas. IDPs could only receive assistance in the camps or settlements where the Government initially assigned them, limiting their ability to look for work.

The Government estimated that 63 percent of IDPs lived below the poverty line as compared to 49 percent of the total population. Many were from rural areas and found it difficult to integrate into the urban labor market. According to the International Organization for Migration, 40,000 IDPs lived in camps, 60,000 in underground dugout shelters, and 20,000 in railway cars. Forty-thousand IDPs lived in EU-funded settlements and UNHCR provided housing for another 40,000. Another 5,000 IDPs lived in schools. Others lived in trains, on roadsides in half-constructed buildings, or in public buildings such as tourist and health facilities. Tens of thousands lived in seven tent camps where poor water supply and sanitation caused gastro-intestinal infections, tuberculosis, and malaria.

In July, the President decreed food assistance, subsidies, tax exemption, and free utilities and public transportation for IDPs in order to move them from camps to newly constructed housing, spending $21 million from the State Oil Fund and receiving $34 million in foreign assistance for the program. A 2002 Law on Grants hindered humanitarian access by imposing a 27 percent tax on the wages of NGO employees and requiring notice of all grants. Many international humanitarian agencies reduced or ceased assistance for IDPs. In October, the World Food Programme reduced food rations and planned to halt food distribution to 140,000 IDPs altogether January 2005 due to a funding shortfall of nearly 50 percent.

(c) USCR 2005
see also: human rights, history, places, law on refugees, maps, summary, photos
A to Z of Azerbaijan / A dan Z ye Azerbaycan