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Azerbaijan's Eternal Refugees

Although welcoming financial and material incentives to return to their homes, Azerbaijan's refugee population appears unwilling to give up their temporary status and return to Nagorny Karabakh.
By Irada Guseinova

The reluctance of Nagorny Karabakh refugees to return to their homeland has hit the headlines in the Azerbaijan media this week. Such reports have emanated in particular from Goradiz in the Fizulin region, immediately to the south of the disputed enclave.

But to many in Azerbaijan, the reports barely qualified as 'news'. Talk of refugees not wanting to return home has become commonplace, not least among the refugees themselves.

The Fizulin region has, for a long time, been sheltered by an umbrella of international organisations, including the United Nations and the Islamic Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

In Goradiz houses have been rebuilt, schools repaired and a new electric power sub-station opened -- an improvement much envied by the residents of the capital Baku, who often spend days and nights working by kerosene lamps.

To help the refugees get back on their feet, the UN High Commission for Refugees has promised refugees in the Fizulin region a one-off support payment of $100. In addition the head of each family, depending on the extent of material loss and the number of dependents, is to receive a non-returnable payment of between $1,000 and $10,000. Finally, each family will receive a cow.

The refugees are, of course, keen to take up these offers of financial help. One Fizulin resident, Barat Mamedov, admitted that he would be heading back to his hometown to collect his $100 and cow.

"My house was almost untouched, so I doubt I'll get anymore. I'll take what's offered, sell the cow, which will be in demand on the eve of Eid and then come back," Mamedov confessed. "Two of my sons have bought apartments here. One of them travels to Kazakhstan to earn his money, the other has bought a kiosk for $300 and sells all sorts of stuff - bread, biscuits, dried milk, cigarettes, macaroni, sometimes even the contents of humanitarian aid packages. We're more or less getting by, there's nothing to go back to, and we're fine here."

Migration from the rural areas in and around Nagorny Karabakh to Baku was already evident before the war. People came to study and find work in the city's factories and workshops.

Although no longer planning to return to their original villages, many refugees will not openly reject the idea. Rather they nurture plans to use their country homes as 'dachas' or holiday retreats when the situation stabilises. These refugees have no intention of relinquishing their refugee status.

And herein lies the paradox. The refugees do not want to return to their homes, but neither do they want permanent residency elsewhere. They have become accustomed to their status as displaced persons, a status, which can affords them many advantages.

A relaxation on the restrictions governing the purchase of property has enabled refugees to buy apartments in Baku, a privilege previously limited to permanent residents. Refugees are entitled to free higher education and health care, and are exempt from tax and other social payments.

Unemployment is high among the refugee community and a dependency culture is prevalent. Rather than waiting for "pay-day", many refugees wait for support payments from the government and other humanitarian aid handouts. Government payments are small, about $5 a month. But donations from humanitarian organisations provide a supplementary income, if only through the resale of such goods on the open market.

Of those refugees who do wish to return home, many are still afraid to do so. Nizami Guseinov, from Goradiz, explained that he was forced to go home seven years ago, but "when the Fizulin region was taken, 60 of the inhabitants of my village were killed." Guseinov is reluctant to repeat the experience.

One thing, however, almost all refugees are demanding from the government and, especially from the president, are guarantees for their safety. The leader of the Azeri Popular Front, former president Abulfaz Elchibei, believes these demands are justified because the refugees voted overwhelmingly for the current president, Heidar Aliev.

Zarduzht Alizade, leader of the Social-Democrat Party, argues on the other hand that the refugees are not so much concerned with their safety, but with the fear that the government will simply forget about them should they return home.

"Here, while they have the status of refugees, they can put forward some demands. There, they will be left to fend for themselves. And they know that not only their own [government] will forget them, but also the others, that is to say the international organizations," Alizade said.

Alizade also points out that life back home would be difficult. There is little employment and the influx of foreign agricultural imports has all but killed off opportunities to make a living through commercial agriculture. The refugees know this only to well.

Underpinning all of this is the reality that it is not, perhaps, even in the government's interests to offer the guarantees of security and safety that would encourage refugees to return to their homes. Without the presence of refugees, the whole "industry" that has blossomed around providing for their needs would die. The various humanitarian agencies, commissions for refugee affairs, trade establishments and related government sub-organisations would be robbed of their raison d'etre. And by providing shelter to around one million refugees the Azerbaijan government holds an "ace" at the international negotiating table, one it plays frequently in efforts to secure financial and other material assistance.

Irada Guseinova is a correspondent for Monitor Magazine in Baku.

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