Azerbaijan: Displaced then discriminated against - the plight of the internally displaced population



'We don't exist, this is not a life. We are ready to live with the Armenians of Karabakh and we have not forgotten our historical home there. But we won't see peace for at least ten years, that's why we want decent living conditions now.'

-Internally displaced Azerbaijani man, Goranboy region.

'I don't need benefits, I'd rather have my compensation and integrate into society here in Baku. I'd gladly lose my status as a displaced person. The government should stop deceiving me that I'll be able to return. So many people have already died since being displaced - and they have nothing to leave to their descendents. It's my choice whether to return or not.'

-Internally displaced Azerbaijani man, Baku.

Displacement resulting from the territorial conflicts of the former Soviet Union is no longer news. Except for occasional ceasefire violations the conflicts of the South Caucasus region passed into post-violence phases in the mid-1990s, although peace processes have yet to offer much glimmer of hope for their resolution. Yet the legacy of displacement remains long after the international community has moved on to more current crises elsewhere on the planet. Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus has one of the largest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) per capita of any state in the world.(1) Some 600,000 Azerbaijanis have lived in internal displacement for over a decade as a result of the territorial conflict in and around Nagorny Karabakh between 1991 and 1994. These are the ethnically Azeri residents of the former Nagorny Karabakh autonomous region, whose Armenian population claims independence from Azerbaijan, and the seven Azerbaijani provinces surrounding it, occupied since the early 1990s in whole or in part by Armenian forces.

In the immediate aftermath of displacement the Azerbaijani government, with the assistance of international actors, provided emergency relief aimed at safeguarding minimum essential levels of basic human rights. However, in a context of protracted displacement Amnesty International believes that these measures are insufficient to guarantee the progressive fulfilment of internally displaced people's economic and social rights, as required by international human rights law. The progressive fulfilment of economic, social and other human rights requires the removal of a number of obstacles, such as limitations imposed by the internal residence registration system and the definition of all provisions for displaced people as 'temporary', currently obstructing displaced people's full participation in economic and social life.

Amnesty International is calling for action to improve the human rights standards enjoyed by internally displaced people in Azerbaijan. The central concern explored in this report is that a system of practices which in effect discriminate against internally displaced people is compounding the problems posed by displacement. Consistent violations of the rights to freedom of movement, adequate housing, health care and work inhibit internally displaced people's capacity to exercise these and other human rights, and stall the development of self-reliance. Despite legal guarantees of displaced people's equal exercise of human rights alongside other Azerbaijani citizens, Amnesty International is concerned that a set of discriminatory practices is serving to encourage the internally displaced population to accept its current situation as temporary, pending the conclusion of a peace settlement. This restricts their capacity to exercise a choice between return to their original homes, integration or permanent resettlement in another part of the country under conditions that respect their human rights. This in turn compounds displaced people's dependence on the state and their vulnerability to other pressures. In the words of an Azerbaijani journalist the internally displaced are 'hostages to peace', who must wait for a peace settlement before their human rights will be fully respected.

Amnesty International is publishing this report on internal displacement in Azerbaijan now because the reduced involvement of international actors has meant increased responsibility for the Azerbaijani state for the protection of the rights of displaced people. Compared to international actors states can be motivated by a different set of factors in dealing with protracted internal displacement, and this can have serious human rights implications for the internally displaced population concerned. National authorities' policies towards their internally displaced must therefore be the subject of careful scrutiny to assess compliance with human rights obligations. This is especially the case in cases of protracted displacement requiring more than protection of minimum essential levels of human rights.

A key aspect of Azerbaijan's policy on internal displacement since 2001 has been the re-housing of displaced people from emergency relief centres to more durable housing in new, purpose-built settlements across the country. While addressing immediate needs for improved housing for the displaced relocated from emergency relief camps, the resettlement policy has been marred by a lack of consultation with those being relocated, construction of settlements in economically unsuitable locations and insufficient infrastructure to support relocated communities. Urban IDPs have been relatively neglected by the state, and although they have more opportunities to find work in the urban economy, they are particularly vulnerable to housing shortages.

Although the new settlements are superficially impressive, Amnesty International is concerned that they cannot be considered as adequate housing for those in situations of protracted displacement. The new settlements are often located in remote parts of Azerbaijan, have poor communication links and are isolated from employment opportunities and health and education services. Furthermore, the housing units provided are often of very poor quality and Amnesty International has received reports of dangerous incidents related to structural failings. As such, the new settlements do not respect the right to adequate housing of IDPs and frustrate the efforts of displaced people to realise their rights to work, to health care and to an adequate standard of living. Azerbaijani human rights activists and internally displaced community leaders share these concerns, describing the new settlements to Amnesty International as 'open prisons' and a kind of 'reservation system'.

Urban IDPs have been relatively neglected in Azerbaijani state policy on displacement. Displaced people in the capital Baku and its suburbs told Amnesty International that they are ignored by the state and have to pay for various services they are entitled to receive for free under Azerbaijani law. Many eke out an existence in informal trading, while others work without a residence permit, forfeiting local access to a number of serves to which they are legally entitled, as they are unable to re-register.

The displaced are also penalized by the maintenance of an internal registration system that ties certain rights and benefits to a fixed residence. As the internal registration is notoriously difficult to change many displaced persons are forced move in search of employment without a legal residence permit. Many displaced families are broken up as a result, as husbands and sons move to urban centres while wives and children remain at the household's registered residence. Alternatively, displaced people must pay bribes in order to change their registration.

Other concerns addressed in this report include the absence of consultation of the displaced in decision-making processes directly affecting the exercise of their human rights, and different ways in which corruption diminishes the impact of state-run programmes to fulfil these rights. International human rights law confers on IDPs, as well as other citizens, the right to participation in public affairs and to be consulted in decision-making processes that have a direct impact on them. Amnesty International is concerned, however, at the absence of mechanisms allowing displaced people to fulfil these rights. For example, displaced people relocated to new settlements report not having been consulted on the location of the settlement in which they were re-housed. This lack of consultation amounts to a pattern of mass forced displacement, in violation of both the right to adequate housing and the right to freedom of movement and to choose a residence.

Displaced people confront corruption and bribery at virtually every level of their interaction with official structures. This also applies to other Azerbaijani citizens, yet the displaced typically have far fewer resources to offset the demands made on them by corrupt officials. Official structures reportedly extort bribes from displaced people for a wide range of services, for example in the form of so-called 'processing fees' for which there is no legal basis; by contrast during election periods displaced people report being offered bribes in order to vote for pro-governmental candidates. Amnesty International has also received reports of corruption in the expenditure of funds allocated to IDP programmes, resulting in a vastly reduced impact in terms of fulfilling the human rights of their beneficiaries.

Amnesty International does not take a position on territorial disputes, including that over Nagorny Karabakh. Regardless of the origins of the conflict or the outcome of negotiations, however, displaced people from both sides of this dispute, as in any other, remain entitled to a set of rights. These include the right to return to their original homes in conditions of dignity and security. They also include the rights to integration or resettlement elsewhere in the country.

Given the steps taken in recent years by the Azerbaijani government to relocate internally displaced people out of emergency shelter, this report focuses on the contexts of newly constructed purpose-built settlements for displaced people and displaced populations in urban environments, principally the capital Baku.

The information in this report was gathered on successive visits to Azerbaijan and research conducted in a number of different sites within the country. Interviews were conducted with civil society activists, representatives of displaced communities, state officials, representatives of international organizations, health professionals dealing with displaced populations and a wide variety of displaced persons. Numerous reports published by international and domestic humanitarian organizations and the Azerbaijani state were also referred to.

1. The Nagorny Karabakh conflict

The conflict over Nagorny Karabakh is one of several minority-majority conflicts contesting sovereignty between former federal units of the Soviet Union. Known in the Soviet Union as the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO, with Oblast signifying an administrative region in Russian), Nagorny Karabakh was a region populated by a local Armenian majority within Soviet Azerbaijan. With the onset of political liberalization in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh began to campaign for separation from Azerbaijan and union with Armenia.(2) The conflict escalated into a full-scale war in 1991, ending in 1994 with the de facto secession of Nagorny Karabakh from Azerbaijan. The Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh and Armenia portray this separation as the national self-determination struggle of a repressed minority. Azerbaijanis portray the separation as the result of aggressive Armenian desires to acquire territory.(3) A number of proposals have been put forward to resolve the conflict by the 'Minsk Group', a body created within the framework of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to mediate in the conflict, although no proposal thus far has been acceptable to all parties to the conflict. No state, including Armenia, has recognized the self-declared Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR).(4)

1.1. Mass population exchange

A key feature of the conflict was forced population movements. During the course of the conflict Armenians and Azeris suffered harassment, mass killings, forced expulsions and the expropriation of their property. Statistics on numbers of refugees and the internally displaced vary due to post-displacement movements (including return in some cases to recaptured territories) and logistical difficulties in collating data (see textbox). Overall, it is estimated that over 400,000 Armenians became either refugees from Azerbaijan to Armenia or were internally displaced in border regions contiguous to Azerbaijan.(5) Over 200,000 Azeris became refugees from Armenia to Azerbaijan, while the number of those internally displaced in Azerbaijan peaked in 1993 at some 780,000. At that time the Azerbaijani government announced the presence of more than one million refugees and internally displaced persons on its territory, a figure still regularly cited in official Azerbaijani sources. According to independent experts and international organizations the figure today is probably considerably lower, although most sources agree on the unreliability of data due to the absence of regular surveys of the internally displaced population.

The timing of the various waves of refugees and internally displaced in Azerbaijan is significant. The main influx of refugees from Armenia was complete by September 1990, by which time a total of 201,000 Azeri refugees from Armenia were registered in Azerbaijan. The main displacement flows resulting from Armenian military control of Nagorny Karabakh and the regions surrounding it took place three years later in 1993. Having arrived first and facing no realistic prospect of return to Armenia, Azeri refugees from Armenia were to a considerable extent integrated into Azerbaijani society. Indeed Azeris from Armenia, known in Azerbaijan by the (for some pejorative) term yerazi, became one of the leading political-economic clans in the country, displacing other previously prominent groups.(6) Those subsequently displaced by the occupation of territories surrounding Nagorny Karabakh faced less favourable conditions for integration.


(1) Internally displaced persons differ in legal terms from refugees in that they have not crossed an international boundary as a result of their displacement.

(2) Although conflict over ownership of Nagorny Karabakh has existed since the early twentieth century, the current phase of the conflict may be dated back to 1988. For accounts of the conflict see Thomas de Waal, Black Garden. Armenia and Azerbaijan through peace and war (New York: New York University Press, 2003); Michael Croissant, The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict: causes and implications (London: Praeger, 1998); Ali Abasov and Haroutiun Khachatrian, Karabakh Conflict. Variants of Settlement: Concepts and Reality, 3rd. ed. (Baku and Yerevan: Areat/Noyan Tapan, 2005).

(3) These views are reflected in different strategic definitions of the conflict. While Azerbaijan refuses to negotiate with the Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh and defines the conflict as an inter-state conflict between itself and Armenia, the Armenians of Nagorny Karabakh define the conflict as one between themselves and Azerbaijan.

(4) Different variants of the name Nagorny Karabakh are in use. Many sources, as well as the English language literature and insignia of the NKR, use the term 'Nagorno-Karabakh'. Since nagornyy ('mountainous') is a Russian adjective, this report uses the simplified formula 'Nagorny Karabakh' as one which complies with Russian linguistic norms. There is no difference in meaning between Nagorno-Karabakh and Nagorny Karabakh.

(5) This figure is cited by International Crisis Group, based on data provided by Arif Yunusov, a leading scholar of displacement in the Karabakh conflict. International Crisis Group, Nagorno-Karabakh: Viewing the Conflict from the Ground, Europe Report No.166, (Tbilisi/Brussels, 2005), p.2.

(6) Rasim Musabayov, 'The Karabakh conflict and democratization in Azerbaijan', in Broers, op.cit. ft.21, p.62.