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Since the appearance of the first Armenian refugees in Artsakh, just over thirty years have passed. It is a considerable term, but the issue, which worried our compatriots then, are still relevant today.

 Every year on June 20, refugees and internally displaced people mark their day – the World Refugee Day endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2000. Why was June 20 chosen for this day? In 2000, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a special resolution expressing solidarity with Africa, containing a large number of refugees. And in 2001, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, the General Assembly decided to mark the World Refugee Day on the Day of African Refugees - on June 20.

In this regard, we interviewed Chairman of the NKR Public Organization of Refugees Saro SARYAN.

- The NKR Public Organization of Refugees was officially registered in August 2004, and since then you have headed it. What has your organization done for 14 years, and have any programs been implemented to support somehow this section of the population?

- The initiative group for supporting refugees in Nagorno Karabakh was formed on the wave of the first flows of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan. It was 1988 when Armenians from Sumgait, Baku, Kirovabad and other regions of Azerbaijan flocked to Karabakh. Later, people who survived after the infamous punitive operation ‘Ring’, also found refuge here. Initially, we mainly engaged in the resettlement of refugees, providing them with humanitarian assistance. A number of social projects were implemented - purchase of houses for refugees, provision of financial assistance and others. This activity was suspended, due to the war outbreak. I would like to note that from the first days of the war, the refugees took an active part in the defense of Artsakh. Thus, the refugees from Sumgait united into the group ‘Vrezh’ (commander - Yuri Harutyunyan), and former residents of Baku created the backbone of the defenders of Krkzhan (commander - Levon Galustyan). Unfortunately, many of them deceased, and some were heavily wounded. They fought with honor and courage and rightfully earned the respect of their compatriots. Having replaced the initiative group, the NKR Public Organization of Refugees has always focused on refugees’ problems. For 14 years, we have organized courses of the Armenian language and computer training, conducted psychological trainings with those who, due to the known events, suffered great stress (local psychologists and specialists from abroad, including New York, were involved in the work ), rendered assistance to vulnerable families, students, and patients leaving for treatment in Yerevan. In 2004, our organization initiated the adoption of the Law ‘On Refugees’, which is to date the only law of its kind that regulates the refugees’ problem. In accordance with the law, the refugees received reimbursement for the transportation of their things and for the moral-psychological damage. The organization has accepted 140 applications from refugees living in rented apartments, and it allocates monthly rent reimbursement to 46 families. The reception of applications is underway. Three families of refugees living in a hostel in Stepanakert were provided with apartments with improved conditions. At the solicitation and mediation of the organization, some unemployed refugees got job or received material or one-time assistance from our organization. The organization found a sponsor for the football youth team of Shushi. Young football players received new sport uniforms, shoes, and balls.

- Mr. Saryan, the main problem of our refugees is their lack of international status. In other words, Karabakh refugees are deprived of the status that other refugees have, including in Azerbaijan. Assistance to refugees is provided by such officially recognized structures as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, as well as refugees get donations from separate states, humanitarian organizations or individuals. Do our refugees get assistance from any international structures, organizations or benefactors?

- Yes, the most important issue is not resolved yet - the international status of refugees. It is not clear to our people why it is possible for Azerbaijani migrants to occupy Armenian homes and use Armenian property, and even to get a multimillion-dollar international humanitarian aid, while Armenian refugees, who suffered more, get nothing. Our common omission is that until now we do not have a clear concept on refugees, moreover, international institutions are poorly informed about the problem of Armenian refugees. We have repeatedly tried to draw the attention of international humanitarian organizations, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to our problem. We sent petitions to them, and even a meeting with a UNHCR representative in Yerevan took place. In this respect, we couldn’t achieve any significant progress, except for the confirmation of the fact of refugees’ existence in Nagorno Karabakh. And, surely, the main reason is the international non-recognition of the Republic of Artsakh. As for the donations, they are mostly one-time and done by individuals. For example, we introduced Armenian students and teachers of the Pilibos College of Los Angeles, who had arrived in Artsakh on an acquaintance visit, with two families of refugees who had missed their relatives during the April 2016 war. They did not only provide financial assistance, but also pledged to take patronage over these families. U.S. resident Anna Astvatsaturyan-Turcotte, a refugee from Baku, also provides all kinds of assistance to refugees.

- How can the issue of international recognition of refugees be resolved? Who and what should do for this? What role can the local mass media play in this?

- We must work hard towards the international status recognition, continue collecting the facts of persecution of people on an ethnic ground in Soviet Azerbaijan. We should be more active in cooperating with such state structures as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Office of the Ombudsman, other human rights organizations both in the Republic of Armenia and abroad. Alas, the interest towards the issue of refugees wakes up from time to time, usually in connection with some dates or events, and each time the resonance becomes weaker. The society seems to be tired of this issue, which journalists have caught. But, I cannot but note that your newspaper published very sharp articles about refugees, but again, they were all timed to a memorable day. In conclusion, I would like to say: yes, journalists are waiting for an information occasion, and when the situation drags on and nothing new happens in principle, they lose interest to the issue. Therefore, the NKR Public Organization of Refugees should be more active, raise the issue of refugees at all possible platforms, seek reimbursement by Azerbaijan for the moral and material damage and involve state structures and the mass media in these activities.