Yulia Gureyeva-Aliyeva and Tabib Huseynov
Azerbaijan has one of the highest rates of displaced persons per capita in the world and has been grappling with internal displacement for nearly two decades. These facts raise questions regarding how the vulnerabilities and protection needs of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) have changed over time and how their needs compare with those of the general Azerbaijani population.
This study examines the vulnerabilities and protection needs of IDPs and their neighbors in both urban and rural contexts. The findings of the study are largely based on field research and numerous interviews with IDPs and host communities in two urban contexts (Baku and Ganja) and two rural areas (Tartar and Agdam districts), as well as with state officials and relief organizations.
The study finds that the vulnerabilities and protection needs of IDPs in Azerbaijan are highly situation- and case-specific. In the last two decades some, but not all IDPs in urban settings—and to a lesser extent in rural areas—have carved out livelihoods in their places of displacement. As a result, the experience of IDP communities in Azerbaijan has not been homogeneous, nor have outcomes been the same for host communities. In some instances, IDPs may be faring better than members of host communities on certain criteria (such as access to social benefits, preferential treatment when applying for state controlled jobs), yet remain vulnerable on other criteria (such as housing). In some areas visited during this study IDP communities had better access to water than host communities or were benefitting from land belonging to others that they had occupied. In other instances the improvement of one protection need, such as housing, caused deterioration in other needs, such as access to land or livelihood opportunities. For example, one IDP settlement was built on open land previously used by IDPs’ livestock for grazing.
Another important finding of the study is that smaller IDP communities who live in remote villages and have no access to land are the most vulnerable and in need of protection. These are the communities which are often off the radar screen of both the government— including on the local and national levels—and relief organizations. They consistently fare worse in comparisons with local host communities, particularly in housing, access to livelihoods and land, and access to healthcare and documentation.
The government has taken demonstrable steps in recent years to improve the living conditions of IDPs. One major success was the elimination of the notorious IDP “tent camps” by the end of 2007. Today the Azerbaijani government spends a greater portion of its national wealth on IDP needs than any other country dealing with a displacement crisis. However, the government still has much to do to relocate the bulk of the IDP population to better housing conditions from the public buildings they currently live in, which are often dilapidated and characterized by overcrowded conditions. Furthermore, the government’s IDP assistance strategies do not facilitate the alleviation of the social marginalization suffered by IDPs and at the same time create resentment among the local population. Due to widespread socio-economic problems, local communities largely view the government’s support policies towards IDPs as unfair. They believe their own livelihoods are not significantly better than those of the IDPs.
There is considerable ambiguity over the concrete vulnerabilities of IDPs in comparison with host communities. In many instances, IDP protection needs have been satisfied at the expense of the local non-IDP population’s rights. This is particularly true in the context of property rights. At the time of displacement many IDPs in urban and rural areas arbitrarily seized houses and land, which belonged (or were assigned later) to local residents. According to executive decrees, IDPs cannot be evicted from their places of residence—even those which they do not legally own—unless they are provided with alternative living arrangements. This has led some homeowners to take their cases all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, which questioned the existing government practices as a violation of property rights. To avoid similar cases in the future, the government needs to accelerate the process of finding alternative housing solutions for IDPs occupying the lawfully-owned properties of local residents, or alternatively, compensate the latter for their unused property.
Some rural communities living near the frontline, which marks the dividing line between Armenian and Azerbaijani controlled territory, include both IDP and non-IDP communities. Both groups have special assistance needs that should be addressed by the government and international relief agencies. Due to their proximity to the frontline, these populations are particularly vulnerable to escalations in confrontations along the frontline and indiscriminate firing from almost daily cease-fire violations. The government recently responded to these needs by building protective walls to shield the civilian population from stray bullets.
The frontline communities also have to take risks to maintain their livelihoods. Because of land scarcity, people in these frontline areas—IDPs and locals alike—graze their cattle in areas close to “no-man’s-land” exposing themselves to the deadly risks of landmines and enemy fire.
Due to their location near the frontline and because a large part of their cultivation and grazing lands are under occupation, land privatization efforts carried out elsewhere by the Azerbaijani government have not been conducted in these frontline villages. Land has been divided provisionally among the local population and IDPs instead, essentially putting the local population on the same footing with the IDPs in that without formal deeds, bank loans and other credit mechanisms remain out of reach.
The government lacks a consistent assistance policy towards these frontline communities. For example, in one frontline village (Ahmadagali) the government responded to local needs by extending IDP status—with all the corresponding benefits—to the non-displaced population. The government however did not extend the same benefits to another frontline village in a similar situation (Gapanly). The lack of consistency could be an additional cause of frustration among the villagers in the frontline areas.
The examples above, as elaborated in the study, show that the old blanket approach of the government, in which IDPs are treated the same, does not allow for the efficient use of limited state funds. Over their twenty years of displacement IDPs have become quite a diverse group with various degrees of well-being, government policy should change to better target IDPs based on their individual vulnerabilities in the context of a general policy for combating poverty.
There is a need to further study the narrowing differences between the IDPs and the general poor population and carry out regular surveys in order to better assess their vulnerabilities. This would facilitate a more informed policy aimed at designing tailored strategies to address the protection needs of both communities.
The government should recognize the differences within the various IDP communities and employ a differential policy approach targeting the most vulnerable groups of IDPs and local residents. Integrated assistance to IDPs and host communities, particularly in impoverished rural areas, such as access to irrigation and potable water for these communities, could improve livelihoods among these communities and increase the self-reliance of IDPs, thus easing the financial burden on the government.
There is room for improvement in the performance of the targeted social assistance program for IDPs through ensuring transparency at all stages and providing clear documentation and guidance to vulnerable households irrespective of their status.
The government, international donors and civil society need to closely monitor the effectiveness of state programs aimed at improving livelihoods throughout Azerbaijan and enact changes to ensure that both groups—IDPs and local residents—equally benefit from them.
The government should refrain from the resettlement of IDPs in close proximity of the frontline and should develop an emergency evacuation plan for the population living in these risk-affected areas.
The government also needs to establish clear consultation procedures on resettlement that would ensure that IDPs’ voices are heard and taken into account when constructing new settlements. This should not be limited to the physical location of the residence but should also include the conditions of the housing provided.