The choice between refugee and citizenship may decide the fate of Artsakh


The choice between refugee and citizenship may decide the fate of Artsakh

The Armenian government has decided to grant forcibly displaced Artsakh residents temporary protection status, which is equivalent to refugee status. The authorities believe that this status allows the complete protection of the rights of Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh, although it limits to a certain extent the rights of people of Artsakh in the same Armenia. To avoid these restrictions, the authorities propose that the Artsakh people accept Armenian citizenship, although they have already been issued a passport identical to that of an Armenian citizen.  

Text: Armine Martirosyan
Images: Zhenya Yengibaryan

Who is “temporarily protected” in Armenia?

The status of “temporary protection” was automatically granted to all forcibly displaced persons with Artsakh residence registration who were on the territory of Armenia or outside it. Moreover, an essential condition for granting the status is the place of last registration —  Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as residence there permanently and the fact of registration as forcibly displaced by the Migration and Citizenship Service of Armenia after 19 September 2023.

Thanks to this new status, the residents of Artsakh will be better protected in Armenia and other countries," said Arpine Sargsyan, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of Armenia.



Due to their "temporary protection" status and the RA law on "Refugees and Asylum," the Artsakh people are recognized as refugees and receive international convention mechanisms, including the 1951 Convention regarding Refugee Status. As a result, they are under international protection in Armenia and abroad.


What is "temporary protection" and where to obtain it?

Article 61 of the RA Law "On Refugees and Asylum" provides for temporary protection for groups of foreign nationals and stateless persons who, due to being forced to leave the country of their citizenship and a stateless person — the country of their former permanent residence, as a result of total violence, external aggression, internal conflicts, mass violations of human rights or other serious events disturbing public order, have left the territories of the states neighboring the Republic of Armenia and found themselves in the territory of the Republic of Armenia.

The term "temporary protection" appeared in international law after the wars in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, with the adoption of the EU Directive of 20 July 2001 on minimum standards for the provision of temporary protection in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons and on measures to promote a balance of efforts between EU Member States to receive such persons and responsibility for its consequences. Moreover, each country can determine the time limits of the status and the types of support.

The Armenian government has granted temporary protection status for one year, after which it may be decided to extend it. If this does not happen, Artsakh residents will have to apply for citizenship, said Nelly Davtyan, spokesperson for the Migration Service of Armenia.
There are no special procedures for obtaining "temporary protection" status labeled "refugee", according to Davtyan. By government decision, all 151,000 citizens of Artsakh have been granted "temporary protection" status. A plastic card confirming the status can be obtained at any passport and visa office in Armenia. For this purpose, the displaced persons only need to register at the address of their actual residence.


Photo: Armine Martirosyan

Refugee status: rights and limitations

When refugees are granted "temporary protection" status, their rights become limited in some areas. For instance, in Armenia, refugees can legally reside in the country and own movable and immovable property. However, owning land is off-limits — only Armenian citizens and foreigners with a special residence permit have this right.

Refugees have the right to work and do not need to apply for a work permit like other foreigners. They get a work permit automatically, but refugees can't work in state and local government positions.

They can get social security and medical care. Furthermore, like Armenian citizens, they should get state benefits, unemployment benefits, financial assistance, and free medical care and services.

Refugees can't vote in parliamentary elections, can't join political parties in Armenia, and can't be elected. They don't have to serve in the Armenian army.



Artsakh's residents rights expansion through the Armenian citizenship

Armenia offers Artsakh displaced people the opportunity to acquire citizenship to bypass restrictions on certain rights. 

Acceptance of citizenship documents from Artsakh residents began on 6 November. The authorities clarified that Armenian passports issued to them earlier were merely travel documents. If, under regular circumstances, applications for citizenship are processed within 90 working days, this procedure has been made simpler for residents of Artsakh.

The package of required documents has also been simplified. The application form is filled out on the spot at the passport and visa department. The list of documents includes a birth certificate (with a notary translation if necessary), a certificate of "temporary protection" (refugee) status, a marriage certificate (if any) with a copy of the document, documents confirming certain changes in personal data, six color photos and a receipt for payment of the state duty, which is 1000 drams. However, this simplified process does not encourage Artsakh residents to hurry to acquire Armenian citizenship.


Armenian citizenship in exchange for Armenian citizenship

Since all residents of Artsakh have the same blue passports as Armenian citizens, a legal conflict has arisen. The only difference between Artsakh residents and Armenian citizens is the code 070.

“I have a passport of the Republic of Armenia. How can I change the citizenship of the Republic of Armenia to the citizenship of the Republic of Armenia?” says Asmik Arushanyan from Artsakh.

“There is chaos in this sphere, you can't understand anything. I used to think, with this passport, I was an Armenian citizen. Now, we are told that this is not the case. And I don't know whether I should change my passport or not. At this stage, I will probably refrain from making any decisions. Let's see what the RA Government's decision will be. But if there are economic restrictions, if we lose various opportunities because of this, then, perhaps, I will change my passport,” says Sarik Galstyan, a former resident of Stepanakert in Artsakh.

Blue passports were issued to Artsakh residents only as a travel document. They are identity documents, but not citizenship documents, said Armen Ghazaryan, head of the Armenian Migration Service.

The Ministry of Justice refers to the 1991 agreement between the Ministers of Internal Affairs of Armenia and Artsakh on issuing passports with code 070 to residents of Nagorno-Karabakh for traveling abroad.

On the other hand, Vardan Ayvazyan, Head of the Department of Constitutional Law at Yerevan State University and Associate Professor, believes that Artsakh residents with blue passports are de jure citizens of the Republic of Armenia. He believes “it is incorrect to call a blue passport a travel document.”


Political consequences of obtaining citizenship

Armenian citizenship does not deprive Artsakh residents of any international rights as refugees, says Nelly Davtyan, spokesperson for the RA Migration Service. According to her, the Armenian government, by its decision to take the Artsakh people under temporary protection, recorded the fact of their traumatic forced displacement.

Artsakh lawyer and associate professor Avetik Harutyunyan is concerned that if the Artsakh residence address is replaced with a new de facto address in Armenia when the passport is issued, Artsakh residents could be considered foreign citizens if they return to Artsakh with this passport, which would be "absurd."

International law specialist Siranush Sahakyan sees many risks in acquiring Armenian citizenship by Artsakh residents.

Sahakyan believes that measures should be taken for refugees to resolve the situation and ensure their return. Refugees have the right to return to the country of their former habitual residence. However, having become citizens of Armenia, Artsakh residents will retain only property rights. If Azerbaijan does not undertake to return them, it will only be able to pay compensation for lost real estate and other property.

Thus, upon their return to Armenia, the residents of Artsakh who have been granted Armenian citizenship will lose their ability to exercise their political rights. Specifically, the rights to Artsakh and the issue of Artsakh will only be a territorial matter.

The authorities have decided to destroy the Artsakh problem as a political issue, both inside Armenia and in the international arena. Artsakh is, at best, a humanitarian issue for the current generation of Artsakh Armenians, who will receive some humanitarian/social assistance and nothing else, says Rachya Arzumanyan, an expert on military and national security issues.

Nikol Pashinyan's choice to give citizenship of Armenia to Artsakh Armenians prevents them and the Armenian people overall from discussing the future of Artsakh. Pashinyan decided for all future generations of Armenians to give up Artsakh, Arzumanyan noted. 

Furthermore, according to Arzumanyan, Armenians and Armenia are neglecting the Armenian cultural and spiritual legacy in Artsakh. “While there may be declarations and “international outrage,” the Artsakh heritage risks suffering the same fate as the Western Armenia and Nakhichivan heritage. It could either be destroyed or become Turkey's heritage, like Portasar, now called Lele-Tepe. My efforts to comprehend who would approve of eliminating the political aspects of the Artsakh issue have brought me to the judgment that this resolution aligns with the goals of the Russian-Turkish strategic alliance, which Nikol Pashinyan supports,” stated Arzumanyan.



Mistakes of the past

Armenian citizenship will mean that these people are no longer refugees, but at the same time, their reasons for being in Armenia do not disappear, says Armenia's first Ombudsman, Larisa Alaverdyan. They should position themselves as forcibly displaced persons under the threat of Ongoing genocide.

She considers the government's decision to recognize Artsakh passports as travel documents unreasonable: “But we have what we have”.

Many displaced Artsakh residents are concerned that the new passports will record temporary addresses once citizenship is accepted. Alaverdyan suggests that the Armenian government should decide to issue state-form inserts with the new passport. This will include details such as the person's specific address in the Republic of Artsakh and their forced displacement. Upon arrival in Armenia, individuals are registered at reception centers in Goris or other places and are given the status of genocide survivor.

“This insert can be used in the future to solve humanitarian and social issues and political problems. The Armenian government's refusal of such a decision will mean that it fully agrees with Azerbaijan's policy and sees no way to preserve the status of the Republic of Artsakh, which has existed since 1992,” the human rights activist noted.

The Foundation Against Legal Arbitrariness (Alaverdyan’s organization) and other organizations sought assistance from the former authorities for the refugees from Azerbaijan in the 1990s. Per her statements, the authorities decided to take action but never put it in motion to keep the political aspect intact. The issue concerned about half a million Armenians expelled from Soviet Azerbaijan and their compensation for property.

Lawyer Avetik Harutyunyan believes that, on the one hand, the Armenian government should take steps to internationalize the status of Artsakh refugees, on the other hand, it should create favorable conditions both for the residence of Artsakh residents in Armenia and for their return to Artsakh under international guarantees.


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