by Yuliya Aliyeva
Yuliya Aliyeva is a Senior Program Manager at the Caucasus Research Resource Center, Azerbaijan. This blog post is based in part on the publication she co-authored last year for the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, “‘Can you be an IDP for Twenty Years?’ A Comparative Field Study on the Protection Needs and Attitudes towards Displacement among IDPs and Host Communities in Azerbaijan”. The report co-author, Tabib Huseynov, is the Caucasus Program Manager for Saferworld.
The ongoing conflict with neighbouring Armenia over Azerbaijan’s predominantly Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh produced one of the largest flows of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) seen during the deterioration process of the former Soviet Union. Today, some 595,000 people—or seven percent of the total population—remain internally displaced in Azerbaijan. While the two states continue their posturing about the future of Nagorno-Karabakh, hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijani citizens await durable solutions to their displacement and continue to face major housing and property concerns in particular.
The conflict started in 1988 as Armenians demanded incorporation of Nagorno-Karabakh into Armenia. As the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, leaving a huge power vacuum behind, inter-communal clashes escalated into a full-scale undeclared war between newly independent Armenia and Azerbaijan. As a result of the fighting, which left some 25,000-30,000 people dead on both sides, Armenian forces gained control over Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts that together make up 13.6 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory. A cease-fire was signed in 1994, which has largely held until today, although the parties have been unable to resolve the political dispute regarding the status of Nagorno-Karabakh.
As IDPs fled the conflict areas, they were temporarily settled throughout Azerbaijan. Some of them settled in administrative buildings, schools, unfinished buildings, dormitories and sanatoriums. Others were placed in IDP camps, railway cars, dugout shelters and other sub-standard emergency shelters in rural areas. The housing conditions for some IDPs have improved over time and are now similar to those enjoyed by the general Azerbaijani population. However, for the majority of IDPs, proper housing is still only a dream.
Today, according to official statistics, 86 percent of IDPs in Azerbaijan live in urban areas (mainly in Baku and Sumgait). According to a recent World Bank study, 42.5 percent of IDPs live in one-room accommodations, compared to only 9.1 percent of non-IDPs. As a result, IDP families have an average of 36 square meters of living space compared to 74 square meters for non-IDP families. That being said, there is some diversity among IDP populations and their housing situations. Overall, the IDPs can be divided into four categories based on housing conditions.
The vast majority of the displaced population (more than 400,000 according to official government statistics) continues to live in old Soviet-era public buildings, such as schools, kindergartens, dormitories, sanatoriums, hostels and administrative buildings. The housing situation of IDPs occupying such buildings in rural and urban areas is considered to be much worse than those of IDPs who now live in purpose-built homes.
In the vast majority of the cases IDPs live in dilapidated and overcrowded conditions, and in rooms that were not even designed to be lived in. Usually an entire family occupies a single room that serves as a bedroom, sitting room and kitchen all in one. Because these buildings lack functioning bathrooms, those living there must bathe inside their rooms as well. Some of these buildings have only two toilets on each floor, serving some 25 families. Many IDPs complain about the lack of privacy and a need for a living space for their teenage and adult children.
The second largest group of IDPs in Azerbaijan consists of 21,600 families (107,000 people), who have been relocated in recent years to special purpose-built houses, mainly in rural areas. Since 2001 the government has built some one million square meters of housing and has established 70 settlements for IDPs, which provide improved housing conditions. In part as a result of this effort, Azerbaijan had closed the last of its IDP camps by the end of 2007.
The housing conditions of IDPs in this group are largely similar to those found among the local population. For example, along with the houses the government has constructed basic administrative and social facilities, such as schools and health care facilities. IDPs, however, complain that these settlements are located in remote or isolated areas, hindering access to labor markets and sometimes leading to further population movements. In most of these instances, the newly built houses also lack bathrooms, which is another point of dissatisfaction among IDPs.
Additionally, IDPs do not enjoy full property rights over their houses in the newly constructed settlements. The government has provided them with the houses for “temporary use,” pending their return to their places of origin, which restricts IDPs in terms of their rights to inherit and sell this property.
The third category involves a smaller number of displaced persons—some 6,000 IDP and refugee families, mostly in Baku—who live in normal houses and flats, which they occupied at the outset of their displacement and continue to live in today. The majority of the dwellings occupied by these IDPs were previously owned by ethnic Armenians who fled during the conflict, while others were simply new apartment buildings that did not yet have occupants. However, some of these apartments do have local owners, a fact that raises legitimate security of tenure concerns for the IDPs living there and important property questions for the rightful owners.
In a number of cases, property disputes became a matter of judicial consideration, including before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). On the whole, the Azerbaijani government attempted to provide legal support for the arbitrary seizures of empty flats and houses in the 1990s. In one example, a presidential decree in 2004 declared that IDPs would not be evicted from any premises they occupy that they had settled in between 1992 and 1998, regardless of the ownership of the property.
In 2007 ruling Akimova v. Azerbaijan and subsequent similar rulings, the European Court of Human Rights upheld a claim by the owner of an apartment in Baku occupied by an IDP family, ruling that the Azerbaijani government practice was in violation of its citizens’ property rights and established that the government should restore the property rights of the legal owners and provide IDPs with an alternative residence. Following that 2007 ruling, the ECHR announced another 10 judgments on similar cases, including the two most recent ones on May 3rd, 2012.The government has either settled these disputes in a friendly manner with the legal owners (as in the case of Akimova v. Azerbaijan, for example), or has not yet enforced the judgment.
The fourth category of IDPs includes those who have managed to build houses for themselves or buy apartments. However, the exact number of such cases is unknown. One reason for the uncertainty is that the majority of these IDPs registered their houses or apartments in the names of the local relatives as the owners in order to retain their official IDP registration status in the public buildings and all social benefits associated with it.
The majority of IDPs living in Azerbaijan are still facing two major obstacles: lack of both proper housing options and security of tenure. The first issue is gradually being addressed by the government’s investments and IDPs own efforts. The housing conditions for some IDP families nowadays do not significantly differ from those of the local communities and the government continues the construction of the new settlements in both rural and urban areas to relocate the IDP families most in need.
However, the second issue—security of tenure—remains unaddressed, as the return of IDPs to Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent occupied territories has been viewed by the government as the only preferred long-term solution. The government’s concern is that provision of the IDPs with their own private houses may render their return to their original homes in and around Nagorno-Karabakh as less likely in the future, thereby weakening Azerbaijan’s claim to sovereignty over these territories. In addition, because the IDPs do not own the property they live in and have no confidence as to whether they will remain on the land or in the homes they presently occupy, they continue living in a suspended state of uncertainty and are apprehensive about making investments into their future livelihoods where they currently reside.
Resolving the HLP issues of Azerbaijan’s IDP community will require a multi-pronged approach where local integration and resettlement elsewhere are given equal weight alongside return as possible durable solutions—a realization the past 20 years make look unlikely to be adopted in the near future.
 The World Bank Report No. AAA64-Az, Azerbaijan: Building Assets and Promoting Self-Reliance: The Livelihoods of Internally Displaced Persons, October 2011. The numbers of IDPs are disputed. Azerbaijani government says in addition to this number, which reflects IDPs from Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent areas, there are over 100,000 people displaced near border with Armenia and along the Nagorno-Karabakh frontline, which brings the total number to nearly 700,000 people. Interview, State Committee for Refugees and IDP Affairs (State committee), Baku, October 2011.
 Ibid. p. 43.
 Ali Hasanov, head of the State Committee for IDPs said the government relocated 100,000 refugees and IDPs to new flats and houses, adding that some 400,000 continue to live in “hard conditions” and government will continue to relocate them gradually. Speaking November 2010.
 Interview with the official of the State Committee, Baku, October 2011.
 Order of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan of 1 July 2004 on Approval of the State Program for Improvement of Living Conditions and Increase of Employment of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons.