At the end of 1998, nearly 229,000 refugees were living in Armenia. The majority, some 218,000, came from Azerbaijan – about 18,000 from the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Another 10,000 refugees reportedly came from the breakaway region of Abkhazia in Georgia, and about 1,000 from Chechnya, in the Russian Federation. In addition, roughly 60,000 Armenians remained displaced from villages bordering Azerbaijan. UNHCR recorded no new significant refugee arrivals or internal displacements during the year.

Since the May 1994 cease-fire between ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan government forces, some 43,000 refugees have returned from Armenia to ethnic Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh. Those remaining in Armenia, some 18,000, have refugee status, which authorities automatically grant to ethnic Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh.


Although Armenia signed the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol in 1993, the government was still in the process of adopting a legal framework to implement the Convention at the end of 1998. The Armenian government submitted a draft refugee law to parliament in December 1997. The law passed its first reading in parliament in 1998 and was expected to be adopted in 1999.

During 1998, UNHCR gradually transferred the responsibility for interviewing applicants and reviewing asylum claims to the Armenian government in anticipation of the government's making refugee status determinations. Although no formal status determination procedure existed at year's end, the government considered the applications of 10 asylum seekers from Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, and Iran. The government denied eight of the cases and two were pending at year's end.

(On March 3, 1999, Armenia's national assembly adopted the "Law on Refugees in the Republic of Armenia," providing a legal framework for making refugee status determinations. According to the law, asylum seekers have ten days to file an application with a "competent state body for refugee affairs" (not yet identified). Applications are to be processed within the one month, during which asylum seekers are granted provisional residence rights. Rejected applicants have the right to appeal to a "higher authority" (also not yet identified). Recognized refugees are entitled to many of the rights of Armenian citizens, and, in some cases, are eligible for citizenship.)


Faced with bleak prospects for repatriating ethnic Armenian refugees to areas of Azerbaijan outside Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian national assembly passed a law on citizenship in October 1995 designed, among other things, to allow ethnic Armenian refugees to acquire citizenship.

The government completed regulations to implement the law in 1998. Under the law, all refugees who have lived permanently in Armenia for three years may apply to the Ministry of the Interior to obtain Armenian national passports and citizenship papers. Many refugees, however, particularly those living in temporary accommodations, reportedly found proving "permanent residence" difficult because they lacked residence permits (propiskas). Consequently, UNHCR estimates that 50,000 or more refugees may be unable to naturalize.

Continued economic stagnation, high unemployment, low salaries, and an acute housing shortage also deterred refugees from seeking citizenship. Many refugees reportedly feared losing subsidized housing, conscription into the Armenian army (refugees are exempt from military service), or relinquishing property left behind in their homelands. By year's end, about 6,000 refugees – all ethnic Armenians – had become citizens.


Though the worst of the fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh ended in 1993, the status of the disputed territory remained in limbo throughout 1998, as both Armenia and Azerbaijan continued to claim ownership of Nagorno Karabakh.

In September 1997, the Minsk group – a subset of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) – proposed a "phased" plan whereby Armenia would withdraw from the seven occupied Azeri provinces, followed by discussions on the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. Although then-Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrosian reportedly supported the plan "with reservations," Nagorno-Karabakh rejected the plan.

In March, Armenia ousted Ter-Petrosian and elected Nagorno Karabakh's leader, Robert Kocharian, president of Armenia. The Minsk group proposed a new plan to make Nagorno-Karabakh an ill-defined "common state." Although President Kocharian and Azeri President Heydar Aliyev discussed Nagorno-Karabakh in September, little came of the meeting. By year's end, many regarded Nagorno-Karabakh as a tinderbox waiting to reignite.


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