The Number of Asylum Seekers Increases Every Day
[July 9, 2007]
The Mesropyan family immigrated to Armenia from Basra, Iraq on August 14, 2006. They live in a rented apartment on Kuznetsov Street in Yerevan. Artsrun and his wife Zebyur and their children Shahen, Salbi and Nora are all unemployed. Artsrun is a highly qualified accountant who worked for years at an insurance firm in Basra. Shahen, 32, is an electrician. He had a job with a British company. Because of this, local extremists threatened and even tried to kill him. Salbi, 29, has a degree in management, and Nora, the younger daughter, is a programmer. None of them has found work in Armenia; their applications, which indicate that they do not know Russian, are invariable turned down.
“Our ancestors immigrated to Iraq from Western Armenia in 1924 and established the Havrez community. My family lived in that community, but in 1956 I moved to Basra, got my education, and started a family. There were about 250 Armenian families in Basra, and now there are about twenty or twenty-five families left. We adhered strictly to our traditions, had a flourishing Armenian church and an Armenian club, but they are closed now. Throughout all those years, there wasn't a single case of an Armenian girl or boy marrying a foreigner, despite the fact that we were living on their land. We meticulously stuck to our religion, language, and church.
The Mesropyan family brought nothing with them from Basra; they weren't even allowed to sell their house and car. They only managed to bring some money, which they now spend on rent and food. “We had a very nice apartment, a nice car. Our situation there was good. Most importantly, we were important there, our family was very respected. But the extremist Shiites in Basra didn't care about that. The last two years they were threatening all Armenians, forcing them to leave. Our daughters were afraid to go outside alone. In the end, the situation got so bad that we left our house, our property and came to Armenia. Of course, we are happy that we are in our homeland, that there is nothing to threaten us here, but we can't survive here for long without jobs or a housing. Our situation has to improve somehow, “ Artsrun said.
Things are similar for Sedrak Simonyan and his family. They immigrated to Armenia in 2005. In Iraq, they lived in Baghdad, where Sedrak owned a brick factory. They, too, came to Armenia nearly empty-handed and are now living on their savings. Sedrak, his wife Mariam, and their two young daughters rent housing in the Arabkir district of Yerevan. “We had very serious problems related to our daughter's health, but we didn't know the laws and didn't know who to ask for help. Fortunately, Mission Armenia started working on our problems, and their social worker helped us overcome this ordeal.”
Sedrak's older daughter has suffered from epilepsy from early childhood and was under constant medical supervision in Baghdad.
“Sedrak and I started collecting the necessary documents and visiting the respective organizations, “ said Arusik Sargsyan, a social worker and psychologist. “ Sometimes there were problems and even hostility, because many government structures weren't aware of the rights of asylum seekers, but we would inform them about judicial acts and decisions, and that would somehow solve the problem.” Silva was granted the status “disabled from birth” and she is on the list at a relevant medical facility and receives free medication. However, serious hurdles exist for Silva to receive a disability pension, which according to the law, asylum seekers are not eligible for in Armenia.
In addition to unemployment, difficult living conditions, unfamiliarity with the laws, the language barrier and other challenges, Iraqi Armenian refugees face another extremely urgent problem. Their passports will expire soon, and there have been recent changes to Iraqi passports. The Iraqi Armenians have to obtain new passports, but they cannot go to Iraq, for financial reasons, and because they don't want to risk their lives. There is no embassy of Iraq in Armenia to help them. “With our assistance, the temporary council of the Iraqi Armenian refugees in Armenia has sent a letter to the Iraqi Embassy in Moscow, asking to take care of this problem. The embassy gave a positive answer, noting that the passports can be sent and extended or renewed without the presence of the owner. We also asked the Armenian Foreign Ministry, so that it could implement this process via the Armenian Embassy in Moscow, hoping that this approach would provide a long term solution to the issue,” said Tanya Dashyan, head of the social and healthcare department of Mission Armenia.
There are currently over 300 Iraqi Armenian asylum seekers in Armenia, who have immigrated because of the unstable political situation in Iraq. But their situation is little better in Armenia, because there is no clearly defined legislation in Armenia addressing the problems that asylum seekers face here. There are several NGOs working on this issue, although they cannot be responsible for dealing with it alone.
From June 1, 2006 to June 1 of this year with the help of the Danish Refugee Council, a program was implemented to help deal with eh main problems the asylum seekers face. The program was implemented by three NGOs – the Armenian Red Cross, Mission Armenia, and the Armenian Sociology Association. The goal of the project was to alleviate residency and other problems, and to raise awareness of the issue of asylum seekers. The project has been completed, but Mission Armenia continues to provide social services to over 300 Iraqi Armenians – psychological counseling, information about their rights and Armenian laws, consultation on making use of the social security system, coordination with state and non-governmental organizations, as well as cultural and other tours.
“The work being done now and in the future by NGOs will obviously help alleviate the needs of temporary asylum seekers and solve of some of their problems,” Tanya Dashyan said. “But solving their main problems, such as unemployment, ignorance of Armenian laws and human rights, language barriers and the necessity to adapt to different socio-economic conditions, requires assistance from the government and a clear legal framework, especially now, when the number of immigrants to Armenia is increasing,”