Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
More Help Needed for Armenia's Yezidi Refugees
Adjusting to life in Armenia will take time. (Photo: Armine Martirosyan)
The Armenian government needs to provide more help for Yezidi refugees seeking sanctuary in the country, according to speakers at a recent IWPR round table.
More than a year after Islamic State militants began massacring Yezidis in northern Iraq, only a very few members of the minority group have claimed asylum in Armenia, which has a substantial indigenous community.
Yezidis speak a Kurdish language and follow a religion with pre-Islamic roots. Islamic State has made it its mission to wipe out non-Sunni faith groups and has targeted Shia Muslims and Christians as well as the Yezidis.
Over the summer, three families arrived in Armenia and were swiftly granted refugee status. (See our story Iraqi Yezidis Seek Refuge in Armenia.)
Boris Murazi, head of the Sinjar Yezidi National Union, said the incomers had been welcomed and their basic needs met by local Yezidis and others.
“Refugee families in Armenia don’t face any problems,” he said during an IWPR debate held on September 30. “The [Yezidi] community, the state and our Armenian friends have done all they can to ensure they had no problems with accommodation and food.”
Murazi said Armenia could easily accommodate more refugees and the government simply needed to process them properly.
Yezidis form the largest minority in Armenia. According to the 2011 census, there were more than 35,000, about one per cent of the total population.
“We decided to come to Armenia in the knowledge that Yezidis live here,” said one of the refugees, Haider Rasho Hamo.
Murazi said there were many empty houses in the more than 20 Yezidi-majority villages where the refugees could be accommodated. He said he was sure they would want to return to northern Iraq as soon as it was safe to do so.
“In Armenia, they could be provided with individual housing, while in Europe they would be put in tents in refugee camps,” he said.
Hamlet Smoyan, also of the Sinjar association, said the Armenian government had been initially unsure how to process the refugees.
“We first tried to contact the Armenian foreign ministry, but we were told that Yezidi refugees didn’t fall within their remit,” he said. “However, the state migration service quickly granted them refugee status.”
The three families that moved to Armenia in the summer were forced to leave about 20 relatives behind in Iraq as they lacked the proper documents. Refugees say corruption makes obtaining the right papers an expensive process. More money is needed for flights from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan to Yerevan, as coming in overland is impossible because they would need to come via Georgia, which requires Iraqi nationals to have visas.
Hamo said that although the Yezidi community in Armenia had provided for the group’s day-to-day needs, they still needed help from the government. They struggled to pay for basic services and found it hard to find work.
Hamo said that he and two other refugees had found 20 days of construction work at the Yezidi temple in the village of Aknalich, but this was not enough to support their families.
Nver Sargsyan, senior programme officer at the Yerevan office of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, said the main problem facing the new arrivals was the fact they did not speak Armenian. This hampered their own integration and their children’s education. Nor could they use banking services, since Armenian banks were not set up to service non-residents.
“There is also the problem of cultural integration, and appropriate media coverage so that Armenian public learns more about them,” Sargsyan said. “We are working with a number of partner organisations are helping integrate the Yezidi refugees and teaching them Armenian.”
Murazi said there was a need to explain cultural differences between the Iraqi incomers and the local Yezidis, not just ethnic Armenians.
“Initially, the refugees were placed in the border village of Araks. Local residents complained that they were hearing Muslim prayers. The fact is that they aren’t familiar with the traditions of Yezidis in Iraq – although I don’t think peaceful Muslims pose any threat,” he said.
Other speakers at the debate said the country was simply unused to dealing with an influx of newcomers.
“Armenia has very little capacity to take in refugees. We are assisting [Armenian] refugees from Syria and Azerbaijan. For the moment, we aren’t dealing with refugees from Iraq, but we have already been instructed to do so,” said Hripsime Kirakosyan, head of an NGO called Mission Armenia.
Kirakosyan noted that once provided with housing, refugees still needed to be given an allowance by an aid organisation. Sargsyan added that UNHCR was able to provide non-financial assistance, for example livestock to help them set up farms.
“In conjunction with the government, we are trying to assess the potential flow of refugees. Then we will have numbers from which we can develop programmes,” he said.