Thousands of Armenians from Armenia and Azerbaijan fled to Turkmenistan in the 1990s, following the war in the Caucasus and the economic crisis in Armenia. After the authorities in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat introduced a visa regime with all the former Soviet republics in 1999, many of these Armenians found themselves in Turkmenistan with no legal status, many have sought to return home.
ARMENIANS IN TURKMENISTAN
Armenians living in Turkmenistan fall into three groups: ethnic Armenians who are Turkmen citizens, Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan and the enclave of Nagorno Karabakh, and Armenian citizens from Armenia itself.
According to Aram Grigoryan, the Armenian ambassador to Turkmenistan, those in the first category constitute the majority of Armenians in the country. According to some estimates, they number more than 30,000. The total population of Turkmenistan is some 6.5 million.
As for the second and third categories, Grigoryan explained to IRIN that a well-established Armenian diaspora in the country dating back to Soviet times prompted their relatives in Armenia and Azerbaijan to come to Turkmenistan more recently.
Given their illegal status, there are no official statistics on the number of Armenian irregular migrants in Turkmenistan. According to the Armenian embassy, they could number between 2,000 and 4,000.
CONSEQUENCES OF THE VISA REGIME INTRODUCED IN 1999
Although the embassy is dealing with these irregular Armenian migrants, and had sent several hundred Armenians back to Armenia before Ashgabat's June 1999 announcement of a visa regime with all former Soviet republics, the situation became more complicated after that.
"This [visa regime] made these people victims of the situation. Most of them never knew what a visa regime meant... They thought they would continue to live as they had been doing and that it [the trouble] would pass," Grigoryan said.
It turned out that thousands of Armenian nationals were living in Turkmenistan without an entry visa, thus staying illegally and breaking the visa regime. "These people are formally speaking without proper documents at this point, but many of them told us they were actually afraid to register. They were afraid that they wouldn't get the [required] status and as foreigners would be obliged to leave the country. So this is a very specific migration issue," Zoran Milovic, head of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Ashgabat, told IRIN.
Upon the establishment of the visa regime, these migrants had a chance to leave the country without a visa. This was done for those who were not ready to pay for a visa to stay. Such visas cost US $41 for each month of stay in the country.
"And you can imagine what a huge burden $41 would be for anybody here in Turkmenistan, except for Westerners who come on business," Milovic said. The average monthly salary in the energy rich country is no more than $65.
Some migrants left, but most remained. "From a technical point of view, everyone who didn't have a place of residence and Turkmen citizenship and failed to register after 1999 became an irregular migrant," Milovic explained.
According to the IOM, in some cases Armenian migrants had documents issued by the old Soviet government or issued by the Armenian government, while others had lost their papers. But it proved virtually impossible for them to get new documents, because in order to get a new passport they had to have the original papers from Armenia. "You cannot get them unless you travel there and you cannot travel because you don't have travel documents. It was a catch-22 situation," the IOM official noted.
In an effort to organise the voluntary return of those willing to go home, the IOM has assisted the return of more than 200 Armenian nationals over the past two years, supported by the Norwegian, Dutch and British governments, coupled with the cooperation of Turkmen authorities.
"When it came to the issue of logistics, of organising their transport, we indeed had excellent cooperation from both the Ministries of Interior and of Foreign Affairs, and with the customs and border guard service." Milovic said.
One of the most problematic aspects related to the issue of Armenian irregular migrants is that of mixed marriages between them and local ethnic Armenians who are Turkmen nationals.
Turkmenistan adopted a law defining the conditions for the registration of marriages between Turkmen nationals and foreigners in 2001. According to the law, every foreigner who wants to marry a Turkmen national is supposed to pay US $50,000 to a state fund, which is supposed to take care of abandoned wives and orphans.
But very few people from the former Soviet Union have $50,000 to pay for registering the marriage. "Then you have the situation when the marriage exists in reality, children exist in reality. But in terms of formally recognising this marriage union and then registering the place of residence and approving certain rights that come with that, it is not possible and this becomes a huge problem," Milovic stressed.
"We had many cases in which one of the spouses was an Armenian national while the other was a Turkmen national. They usually encounter problems with visas, registration, residency permits and so on," Ambassador Grigoryan said.
Although they cannot register their marriage officially, they usually marry in church. "But when they have children, they cannot register them, they can't be issued with IDs, which creates big problems for their education," a local analyst told IRIN in Ashgabat.
The issue of mixed marriages was quite problematic for the recent group of repatriates who flew to Armenia in late January. Many of the repatriates left behind children or wives in Turkmenistan, the Armenian media outlet ArmeniaNow.com reported, quoting some returnees.
Nune came to Armenia with her daughter, leaving behind in Turkmenistan her husband and son - both Turkmen nationals. "Since I have a Soviet passport I hope to get myself a new Armenian passport here and then to return to my family by invitation," she said.
Gagik, who worked in Ashgabat, said his wife and his child were still in the country. "My wife has Turkmen citizenship, so if I bring her to Armenia she will have the same status here as I do there," he said, adding that he didn't know what to do.
No statistics or estimates are available on the number of mixed marriages. "People are afraid to contact either the Armenian embassy or anybody else, including Turkmen government institutions. So, it is very hard to estimate their number," Milovic said.
The IOM official urged the Turkmen and Armenian governments to address this very specific issue. "Although we can say that they are irregular migrants, this is an example of a very specific migration issue that I hope the Turkmen and Armenian governments might be able to resolve in a different way so that we do not have the cases of divided families," he said.
Turkmen law stipulates that those foreign nationals who violated migration and registration requirements are banned from entering the country for five years, making it very hard if not impossible for the Armenian spouses to return to Turkmenistan legally.
MANY REMAINING ARMENIANS SEEKING RETURN
Although some Armenians left the country with assistance from IOM, the Armenian embassy in Ashgabat or on their own account, the majority remain in the country, most of whom are said to be seeking repatriation as they have no jobs, social protection or other rights.
According to some analysts, given their illegal status, most of the Armenian migrants live in constant fear of being discovered, questioned by the police, detained and possibly deported. There have been unconfirmed reports of migrants being harassed by the police, suffering extortion for money or evicted from their homes.
"Many people are detained and kept at detention facilities for violating the visa regime. Unfortunately, in Turkmenistan the law on deportation hasn't been worked out and we've developed a middle-way solution in cooperation with the Turkmen authorities. We send these detained people back home. It means that the Turkmen side stamps visas, we find money for an air ticket, and we look for relatives or sponsor money. Dozens of people have been sent back home in such a way," Ambassador Grigoryan said.
Between 1996 and 1999 when the visa regime was introduced the Armenian embassy repatriated some 700 Armenians.
"I am sure there are still people who want to go home and many of them have heard about [such repatriation efforts] it, but we cannot announce them via radio or television. Should that happen there wouldn't be a spare space on this street as many will come," the Armenian envoy explained.
ETHNIC ARMENIAN REFUGEES FROM AZERBAIJAN
Another group of ethnic Armenians living in Turkmenistan, namely refugees from Azerbaijan, is in a more difficult situation. "As for the [Azerbaijani] refugees, the situation is more complicated. Unfortunately the office of the UNHCR provides little helps to them although it is their direct responsibility," Grigoryan complained to IRIN.
We spoke to the UNHCR mission in Turkmenistan, and they said that donor countries that fund humanitarian assistance to refugees put some conditions, namely that in a given country, for example Turkmenistan, only those people who directly came from their former homeland, that is Azerbaijan, could be considered refugees, he explained.
"These people are deprived of many rights. But it is not the fault of Turkmenistan, which accepted all of them. It is the fault of circumstances that made them leave their countries and homelands. But they cannot return there because there are now big problems between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Nobody will accept them there," Grigoryan said.
According to the Armenian embassy, the estimated number of Azerbaijani refugees of Armenian origin living in Turkmenistan is between 1,000 and 3,000.
Those refugees who came from Azerbaijan directly and can prove that with documentary evidence are receiving assistance from the UNHCR. They get a special document which gives them the opportunity to work and some other rights.
"But those who before coming to Turkmenistan were in other countries - for example in Armenia and got their refugee status there, but got into that difficult situation of the early 90s and came here - they are deprived of assistance. I think it's nonsense," Grigoryan said firmly.
As of April 2004, there were 100 Azerbaijani refugees registered with the UNHCR office in Ashgabat who are receiving assistance from the UN refugee agency. "But there are probably others who didn't register. We don't know about them," Narasimha Rao, a protection officer for UNHCR, told IRIN in the capital.
"We believe that the majority of them who have refugee claims, which means those who fled because of the conflict have already approached us and registered with us. Those who came for migratory reasons don't fall under our mandate and as a result we cannot assist them," Rao explained.
UNHCR pointed out that it was general international practice not to encourage refugees to move from one country to another. "To discourage and dissuade that practice we have a policy of not assisting the irregular movers in the third country. It does not mean that we do not care for these refugees. They continue to enjoy legal protection from UNHCR," Rao maintained, adding that the policy applied not only to Azeri refugees but to any refugee who moves irregularly and arrives in a third country of asylum for reasons other than personal safety.
UNHCR maintains the best long term answer to the situation of Armenians in Turkmenistan should be sought in their country. "When it comes to durable solutions we encourage that person [refugee] to go back to that country [of first asylum] where he or she came from and seek appropriate durable solutions there depending on the local situation," Rao said.
Officials talk about getting Turkmen citizenship for those who qualify and assisted voluntary repatriation for others.
"I do hope we will have the chance to discuss with the Turkmen government the situation of those who are still here. Especially those who are indeed cases of mixed marriages or those who have been in the country for more than seven years and thus, according to Turkmen legislation, would have the right to apply for Turkmen citizenship. I hope that the Turkmen government might be willing to consider some of these cases, some of these issues in a way that might enable people to have a choice," Milovic said.
Meanwhile, those who are happy to return but do not have necessary resources are awaiting further organised repatriation efforts by the IOM, provided that donors release the funds needed for a more comprehensive repatriation programme. The programme is expected to include some elements necessary for sustainable return as many of the people in the first group of returnees who were repatriated in late 2002 later went abroad, either to Russia or the US, as they couldn't support themselves in Armenia.
The Armenian ambassador urged donors to continue their help in repatriating Armenians. "There is nothing more noble than to help people to return home," he said.