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Oksana Musaelyan, Founder of the Refugee Voice Advocacy and Rights Protection NGO, contributes to today’s guest post:
Approximately 360,000 ethnic Armenians arrived in Armenia from Azerbaijan from 1988 to 1993 as a result of the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. In Armenia, however, economic instability and pressing issues of democracy, during a transition period, impacted qualitatively on the generally minor capacity of the state to incorporate, accommodate and re-insert the refugees into the whole spectrum of life. With no resolution in prospect for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Government of Armenia (GoA) and the UNHCR in Armenia focused on the process of naturalisation. Although the majority of the Armenian refugees acquired Armenian citizenship, these refugees still feel like aliens and unsafe at all levels of society. This is due to an apparent lack of commitment of the Armenian Government to recognise and solve the problems of refugees, of which housing problems and the lack of integration are the most widespread and troublesome.
Within such grim scenario, it appears that media companies behaved and continue to behave irresponsibly as they seem to be not interested in providing a consequent reporting, since, obviously, journalists only occasionally report on refugee issues. Specifically, coverage of refugee issues focuses mainly on the tragedy they survived three decades ago, rather than their stories of subsequent survival in Armenia.
Lack of refugee integration: the root of the problem
Refugees were temporarily placed in improvised residential locations such as boarding schools, dormitories, and basements throughout Armenia. These places usually entail inhumane living conditions and blocked the potential development of both first-generation refugees and the generations who were born and grown up here as the “temporarily” placement continued for as many as 30 years.
Therefore, the reception system that proved to be dysfunctional for refugees created a unique situation, when being ethnically Armenian was insufficient to feel safe in Armenia, and with the time passed, they became outcasts in their own homeland.
According to the ECRI report on Armenia with regard to the priority housing programme adopted for persons forcibly displaced from Azerbaijan, ECRI mentioned that during the years 2005-2008, 718 families became owners of apartments. Since 2009, no funds have been allocated from the state budget for that purpose, and the cases of 903 families still considered as beneficiaries of the programme remain unsolved.
Regarding the GoA measures, up until the present time, the department of migration, responsible for refugees as a governmental delegated body – failed to give an adequate response to any of the integration issues, while responding to the refugee crisis as a temporary challenge.
Meanwhile, the body has neither implemented any specific projects nor introduced regulation concerning refugee integration and settlement policy. Studies were never carried out, either on the settlement issue and its progress, or assessment of the short and long-term integration process.
As a result, the extent of this process remains invisible, while the lack of settlement policy mechanisms resulted in attributing refugees with a devalued position, transforming them into vulnerable, misrepresented, unimportant and dysfunctional actors in the labour market, on the periphery of society.
After the law on citizenship of the Republic of Armenia was adopted in 1995, the process of “voluntary” naturalization of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan began. They were granted citizenship, which gave them the right to be elected to public office and to vote, as well as the right to travel. Yet, 30 years later, according to Migration Service, the number of those, who retained refugee status counts by thousands, but there is no official exact figure, proving this fact.
Among those who were naturalized – some 85,000 refugees – many seem to be convinced that the naturalization process was forced upon them. Although they were hopeful that acquiring citizenship would radically change their social and economic situation, it seems that this was not the case. Both naturalized citizens and those who have retained refugee status remain the poorest, most marginalized and vulnerable segments of the population.
Political will to help refugees is rightly considered to be crucial. However, insurmountable challenges caused by the trauma of displacement and the lack of integration have not been addressed by decision-makers through specially designed projects, and this lack of policy solutions resulted ultimately in a well-organised policy of silence.
Voicelessness in the press – invisible refugees
Undoubtedly, the media could play a key role in focusing attention on refugee issues in Armenia. Meanwhile, as the solution has been delayed for three decades, it is never too late for any stakeholders to realize and recognize the scope of the problem and the repercussions of political negligence. The media, however, seems to be not interested in providing a consequent reporting, since obviously, journalists only occasionally report on refugee issues. Coverage of refugee issues focuses mainly on the tragedy they survived during the pogroms of Armenians in Azerbaijan back in the late 80s and early 90s. However, the direct victims, who survived the pogroms and moved to Armenia have rarely had the chance to tell their stories of subsequent survival, as the media continually failed to provide detailed and reliable information about the challenges they faced relating to short-term and long-term integration processes in Armenia. There are some notable exceptions, with some stories displaying careful and sensitive journalism that has shown empathy for the victims, taking a broader and more nuanced approach and focusing on the humanitarian aspects of the crisis and the refugees’ point of view. However, these stories are rarely told and do not represent the mainstream media.
Any voice of refugees trying to express their frustration with the leadership of Armenia, which has been reluctant to attempt to find a durable solution to their problems, including a lack of recognition in society, fell on deaf ears, with an apparent lack of interest on the part of the vast majority of the media, making them invisible subjects.
Evidently, this editorial vacuum remains in place not because they are restricted by the government or by the fear of falling into disfavour with the authorities or public, but particularly because of limited editorial perception and a lack of specialist reporters, with too many journalists not prepared to cover refugee issues, without the expertise to provide in-depth and sensitive reporting. As a matter of fact, the media pays scant attention to the context of refugee issues, and publications usually demonstrate passive attitudes, which do not explore the issues in depth, thereby better informing civil society and do not hold state bodies to account. Naturally, no media attention whatsoever is given to the failure of the political system to deal with the longstanding humanitarian situation. Government officials have rarely been questioned by journalists and rare coverage of the horrifying impacts of this humanitarian crisis never focused on holding to account those with political influence.
These publications lack impact, and, if anything, make the situation even worse, as the feedback from wider audience sometimes results in blaming the refugees themselves for their miserable situation, and implying that the sufferings they experience do not uniquely relate to refugees, but to the whole society. Such attitudes, while superficially looking at society through the same lens, instead segregates the society into ‘us’ and ‘them’ , opening the way for possible discriminatory reporting or no reporting whatsoever, since the refugees lack recognition.
Apparently, the media have never initiated systematic training for their staff on how to cover sensitive issues, and the coverage of the issues related to refugees was inevitable, interacting with the above-mentioned popular opinions. Amongst other arguments, the most common is the rejection of the mere fact that refugees are present in the country, and also social antagonism and even abusive attitude, as these stories are seen beyond the narrative, which describes Armenia as a holy land for its people, rather than a place where its refugees could suffer maltreatment.
A great deal more media coverage is required with a better perspective on refugee rights and balanced and fair reporting. It is necessary to radically re-think how we understand the media’s responsibility towards refugees, which requires the media to be more proactive and exercise their professional duties to try to change the society’s perception of refugees and increase pressure on the government to address their issues. The international community and respective international bodies on human rights and refugee protection could have a contribution to facilitate the country’s media and decision-makers potentials and provide the expert counselling on the challenges associated with protracted conflict-induced displacement and marginalization to try to change the way they see the protracted refugee crisis. This will help to raise awareness of the media on their responsibility to consequently report and deeply examine the situation while putting a focus on refugees and their stories and bring the officials on account to improve the lives of people.
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