Armenia: one of the most successful voluntary naturalisations in recent decades

Briefing Notes, 6 February 2004

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 6 February 2004, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

In one of the most successful voluntary naturalisations of refugees in recent decades, the number of refugees from Azerbaijan obtaining Armenian citizenship reached 65,000 by the end of January 2004.

The naturalised refugees were among the 360,000 ethnic Armenians who arrived in Armenia from Azerbaijan between 1988 and 1993 as a result of the conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. With no resolution in sight for the Nagorno-Karabakh situation, the government and UNHCR have focused on helping refugees integrate locally in Armenia. Local integration is, of course, one of the three main solutions that we seek for refugees the other two being repatriation or resettlement to a third country. Naturalisation became an option for the refugees in 1995 with the enactment of a citizenship law containing special provisions to make naturalisation much easier for refugees from Azerbaijan. UNHCR supported the process with financial and material assistance to regional government offices to help with administration and paperwork.

At first, relatively low numbers of refugees came forward, mainly due to a lack of awareness of the right to naturalise and of the necessary procedures. In 1999, UNHCR began an information campaign in conjunction with the government to better inform refugees of this option. In part thanks to this campaign, the numbers shot upwards, with nearly 8,000 naturalising in 1999. Another incentive for naturalisation came after July 2000, as former Soviet passports could no longer be used for travel outside of Armenia. Citizenship allows refugees to obtain an Armenian passport. The numbers nearly doubled in 2000, with more than 15,600 naturalisations, followed by another 16,300 in 2001. More than 17,400 others naturalised over the next two years, and the more than 300 new citizens in January, 2004 pushed the total to over 65,000 since 1995.

Other large-scale voluntary naturalizations of refugees in the past include over 8,000 Guatemalans in Mexico since 1996, and 36,000 Rwandans in Tanzania in 1980.