Can you be internally displaced for twenty years? Housing issues and protracted displacement in Azerbaijan

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.[1] 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).[2] 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.[3] As a result, IDP families have an average of 36 square meters of living space compared to 74 square meters for non-IDP families.[4] 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[5]) 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.[6] In part as a result of this effort, Azerbaijan had closed the last of its IDP camps by the end of 2007.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.

Conclusion

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.


[1] 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.

[2] The World Bank Report No. 52801-AZ, Azerbaijan Living Condition Assessment Report, March 2010.

[3] The World Bank Report No. AAA64-Az,Azerbaijan: Building assets and promoting self-reliance: The livelihoods of Internally displaced persons, October 2011, p. 42.

[4] Ibid. p. 43.

[5] 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.

[6] Interview with the official of the State Committee, Baku, October 2011.

[7] Natalie Tagwerker, “Azerbaijan closes last of emergency camps,” 7 February, 2008.

[8] ‘В Азербайджане около шести тысяч семей беженцев поселились в пустовавших домах’, December 23, 2010 (http://news.day.az/politics/art244927.html)

[9] 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.

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8 responses to “Can you be internally displaced for twenty years? Housing issues and protracted displacement in Azerbaijan

  1. Pingback: Upcoming guest postings by the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement | TerraNullius

  2. This post, and the example of internal displacement in Azerbaijan more generally, raises some interesting questions about protracted displacement and the achievement of durable solutions for IDPs in terms of housing, land and property. Can IDPs achieve a durable solution if they cannot return and/or claim or have restored their property left behind? How can political buy-in be mustered to ensure access to adequate housing (including tenure security) for IDPs outside of their original place of residence? Given that IDPs in protracted displacement are usually living in urban areas, how can their access to adequate housing be improved in cities? It is commendable that the Azeri government has been building new houses for IDPs, but with hundreds of thousands of IDPs to attend to and most living in urban areas, it seems market-supply housing solutions should be considered in addition to supply-side solutions.

  3. Thanks Nadine! (for readers’ info, Nadine has the last word on durable solutions at IDMC and has guest posted here on TN: http://wp.me/pNZgJ-rb) In fact, there are lots of protracted displacement cases in Azerbaijan’s neighborhood that raise similar questions and may provide some of the answers.

    For instance Georgia and Serbia have both developed terminology that allows local integration in a manner that rhetorically belies its potential permanence and thereby keeps the focus on future return (e.g. “improving living standards” or “interim integration”). However, both countries have also gone further than Azerbaijan at a practical level by facilitating outright ownership of homes acquired ‘in exile’ by IDPs (through subsidizing purchase of rural homes in Serbia and by privatizing state owned collective centers virtually free to their residents in Georgia). Over the longer term, it is hoped that such measures will provide both enhanced tenure security and assets that IDPs can invest in and get more value out of, increasing their resilience and therefore the likelihood that return will be viable if ever it becomes feasible.

    Possible message to Baku: the more you facilitate IDPs’ choices in the present, the more you empower them to sustainably return (or if need be integrate) in the future?

  4. Thank you for your comments. In our report one of the key messages to the government was to stop protectionist approach towards IDPs and provide them with a freedom of choice over the durable solutions for themselves, including return, local integration or resettlement elsewhere within the country. However, for more than 20 years the governmental policies are based on the assumption that the only possible solution to the problem is return and restoration of the property left behind on the occupied territories. This approach is blind towards the changes that have happened within the past 20 years, as some of the IDPs have managed to create for themselves (even by-passing sometimes the governmental policies) conditions that are not different from those of the host community.
    The government is investing now large funds towards the improvement of the housing conditions for IDPs both in rural and urban areas. It is building not only IDP settlements with private houses in the regions, but also apartment buildings within towns and cities, including Baku. The issue is again that it is government who decides on where and into which type of the dwellings people should be relocated (although relocations in the majority of the cases happen within the same geographical area). But we were hearing concerns of people that their families have expanded and they would like to have larger living space now and, if the government would have given them money invested into the house/apartment, they could have build larger houses or buy bigger apartments by adding to it their own savings. These examples show the lack of the clear consultation procedures on resettlement that would ensure that IDPs’ voices are heard and taken into account when constructing new settlements.

  5. Pingback: Beyond restitution: New book explores property rights and durable solutions for the displaced | TerraNullius

  6. Pingback: New Publications on Statelessness; Europe; and Climate/Disaster/Environmental Displacement | Refugee Archives Blog

  7. Pingback: Upcoming guest postings and recent HLP resources | TerraNullius

  8. Pingback: Sargsyan and Chiragov: The Strasbourg Court takes aim at frozen conflicts? | TerraNullius

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