Guest Post – The unheard voice of Armenian Refugees from Azerbaijan: Have media companies acted in an irresponsible way?

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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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5 thoughts on “Guest Post – The unheard voice of Armenian Refugees from Azerbaijan: Have media companies acted in an irresponsible way?

  1. Dear Oksana Musaelyan, first I would like to thank you for the very interesting article you shared with us on this blog. This subject really appeals to me.

    Sharing the same culture, but not being able to feel yourself safe or at home? To feel yourself an outcast in the country that should take care of you when you are in dire need. I could never imagine myself feeling this way, but it seems it is still a sad truth in Armenia.

    I share the opinion that the mainstream media focus on superficial reporting of what is happening and not really want to dig deeper on the context of the refugee issues. I would like to make a comparison with another crisis that is currently happening. At this moment, in the aftermath of the Syrian refugee crisis, we see the same thing happening in Western Europe. Everyone remembers Angela Merkel’s famous words, said in 2015 amidst the refugee crisis: “Wir schaffen das!”. She wanted to show the world that Germany could handle the number of refugees that were entering Europe. This statement has been used by right-wing parties (in Europe) ever since as a message that Germany (or any other European country) cannot handle the refugee crisis and that the European borders should be closed. One of the reasons that so many Europeans find it easier to follow this right-wings view is because of the statements of the mainstream media. When the war in Syria began, the media already covered a lot of stories about the problems housing all these refugees. The sexual assaults that happened in Germany during New Year’s Eve of 2015 changed a lot of the citizens views, for the media reported that most assaults were committed by immigrants. From this moment on, you could see the increasing power of the right-wing parties in European countries as they obtained a lot of votes. This of course doesn’t help the immigrants that had to flee their home country and have no home anymore.

    Whether it is the lack of information or the politically coloured way of information, the media plays a major role in both cases (the Armenian refugee crisis and the Syrian refugee crisis). As been said in the article, we need mainstream media that cover these matters with a larger focus on the human rights of these individuals, as the reports of small media houses just don’t reach enough people.

    1. Dear Matthias Vertommen, thank you very much for your comment! I would like to refer to the tenets of Giorgio Agamben, who has suggested that only when “the citizen has been able to recognise the refugee that he or she is – only in such a world is the political survival of humankind today thinkable.” Obviously, every person may become a refugee in the precarious life we are living in, and there seems to be a high time to start reforming a national system to address the needs of an individual behind a figure of a refugee… Both the decision-makers and the media are responsible in this process, which should result in helping refugee to try to reconstruct his life in a new place.

  2. Dear Oksana Musaelyan,

    To be honest, I was not aware of this situation concerning the Armenian refugees whatsoever. I can blame it on the lack of media coverage or maybe because it happened before I was born. Regardless of this, I would like to thank you for such an insightful and interesting post that appeals to our humanitarian sides.

    My first contact with the world of ‘refugees’ was with the so-called “refugee crisis” or “migration crisis” in 2015/16, where millions of refugees and migrants were arriving at European shores, after fleeing from the war in Syria and poverty. Sadly, a few years later, this is still a very present issue in today’s society. According to the UNHCR, the number of people that are forcibly displaced is almost 80 million people – how ridiculous! In such a “globalized” world, it is so shocking to know that there are still millions of refugees and stateless people who have been denied access to basic human rights, such as a nationality or even a place that they can call ‘home’.

    Contrary to the Armenian case, it is safe to say that the media coverage during this crisis was widely spread and very present. Maybe it was the picture of the lifeless body of the little boy being carried away by a Turkish police officer that shocked the world, or maybe it was the news of the shipwrecks of the diverse smuggler boats that called the attention of Europeans to what was happening in their own shores and seas. Regardless of what it was, I can safely say that the media coverage was so vast and heartbreaking that it soon got the attention of the governments, politicians and European publics to take action. In this situation, the media was able to do their basic job in emergency situations, which was to communicate what was happening.

    However, as good as a job they were doing by updating the public, there was also a dark side. During the 2015 crisis, the media started giving the false impression that the crisis was a problem that landed suddenly upon the Europeans. As mentioned in the article, refugees were often blamed for their own situation. They failed to properly and effectively tell the story of these refugees and failed to provide detailed and reliable information about the crisis. The lack of well-informed journalists that are able to provide such an in-depth and sensitive reporting is huge. As you said, reporters are not prepared to cover refugee issues. Moreover, another issue with the amount of coverage this crisis got was that it often led to hate speech and unethical journaling. It often led to the stereotyping and the discrimination of the migrants, refugees and other minorities. In many instances, cultural diversity was non-existing. In order to prevent negative press, there is a need to monitor the media coverage on such sensitive topics such as these. Furthermore, I suggest that all journalists should receive equality and diversity training concerning migration issues and the problems of hate speech.

    1. Dear Danica Dawes,
      Thank you for your comment! I very much agree with your analysis of the refugee situation in the world and possible solution for the media to become savvy in refugee topic. I would just add that, unfortunately, in the Armenian context, we have no developed national strategy on how to work with refugees to integrate them in the society, which limits their activities and general understanding of the problem. Neither does media have any clues to ‘transcript’ the trauma the refugees survived and continue to survive to improve their coverage to amplify the whole spectrum of issues, while showing also compassion and empathy toward refugees. All these results in non recognition of the refugee figure as it is, who though being ethnic Armenian, yet lost his life in the other place, where he was born and grown up, and Armenia was a new country for them…This difference is not recognised and sadly, but often causes antagonism and lack of tolerance.

  3. Dear Oksana Musaelyan, thank you for the interesting, thought provoking article you shared with us on this blog.
    I couldn’t agree more. The media has an important roles on the lives of refugees and their level of integration into society and their acceptance by society. While no undue restrictions should be placed on freedom of expression, the media has a responsibility to portray accurately the situation of refugees and reflect the positive contribution they make to the society in which they live. The media also has a responsibility to avoid stereotyping these persons, which can contribute to discrimination, racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance in society, including anti-Semitism, Islamophobia along with others.
    On the other hand, investments in CSR activities that are inadequately communicated to consumers are likely to have poor returns. Communication via social media since then has become more transparent, alleviates interest group skepticism and enables companies to educate interest groups in CSR, which engages them in socially responsible activities. We all know that social responsibility is a reciprocal obligation. A business firm can discharge its social responsibility only through an efficient instrument which is Media. It is often seen that customers favor those companies which are considered as less self-regarding. It may be a complete psychological understanding but somehow people find companies with social responsibilities easier to approach and access. Apart from this, the media can also act as a conscience keeper by constantly reminding corporations about the need to give back to society and to ignore profits. The media can also take a critical view of the CSR programs that a corporation claims to run and it can ensure that the corporation pretends to follow CSR but in reality does not do so.

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