Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Return to the “Homeland”: Syrian Armenian Refugees in Armenia

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Return to the “Homeland”: Syrian Armenian Refugees in Armenia

Article excerpt

SITUATED IN THE south Caucasus is the small nation of Armenia. Once part of the Soviet Union, and only a fraction of historical Armenian lands, the republic has become the "homeland" for the global Armenian diaspora.

Speaking at an Oct. 12, 2017 World Affairs Council event at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC, Armenia's Ambassador to the U.S. Grigor Hovhannissian said that about 25,000 refugees have been admitted into Armenia since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011. Many of these refugees are Syrian Armenians, but Yazidis and Assyrians have also entered Armenia. According to the UNHCR, in October 2017 there were more than 5 million registered Syrian refugees, most of them living in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. By comparison, 25,000 refugees may seem like a small number; but given Armenia's population of no more than 3 million, it means that the nation has let in more refugees per capita than most others.

For the Syrian Armenians, the conflict serves as a reminder of how a large portion of the Armenian community came to settle in Syria in 1915 as a result of the Armenian genocide. For centuries, Armenians lived throughout Anatolia-today's Turkey-but during World War I, many were forced out of their historical homeland and forced to march south to the desert. Syria and Lebanon became a refuge and new home to the Ottoman Armenians, who joined the small historical Armenian communities in cities such as Aleppo. The marches and massacres resulted in the death of 1.5 million Armenians, and the collective memory of these massacres has become intertwined with Armenian identity. In his talk, the Armenian ambassador also mentioned the effect that genocide has had on Armenian identity.

The diaspora has hoped to one day return to the homeland, and the formation of the Republic of Armenia, while much smaller than was promised in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, gave the Armenian diaspora a homeland to support.

However, moving back to the "homeland" is not a perfect picture. The Republic of Armenia faces its own challenges, most notably the frozen conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. That conflict is a consequence of the Soviet use of the "divide and rule" tactic: the region is majority Armenian but was placed within the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, which led to a violent conflict once the U.S.S.R. fell. This resulting conflict is about both land and history, as Turkey continues to deny that the Armenian genocide occurred and supports Azerbaijan.

Hovhannissian admitted that issues exist, explaining that Armenia believes that refugees need to be taken care of, but the country's economic situation prevents the government from taking care of them in the way they deserve. Given that "limited capacity, I think we've done quite well," said Hovhannissian, who prior to joining the Armenian foreign service worked for the United Nations, including serving as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Yerevan.

According to the World Bank, Armenia's GDP in 2016 was about $10.5 billion; its GDP per capita was about $3,600-making it the poorest of the three south Caucasian republics (the other two being Georgia and Azerbaijan). Further, Armenia's unemployment rate as of June 2017 was 17.8 percent. …

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