Support for Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh

In February this year, I visited Armenia for the first time. I was struck by the beauty of the landscape, the impressive architecture, and the ancient religious heritage sites. However, it was the meeting that I and my parliamentary colleagues held with Armenian refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh that will be permanently etched into my mind.

To provide context for those unfamiliar with the region, Nagorno-Karabakh – also known as Artsakh – is a mountainous enclave within Azerbaijani territory, historically home to a large number of ethnic Armenians. On 19th September last year, following a 9-month blockade by Azerbaijan, an emboldened Azeri military launched a violent assault on the territory.

The shelling began at 12:30pm. Schoolchildren, confused and terrified, cried out for their parents. The elderly and infirm sheltered in their homes. Civilians scrambled to pack up their belongings. In the panic that ensued, family members were separated.

So began the exodus. Or, perhaps the more appropriate word would be expulsion.

Over 100,000 of Nagorno-Karabakh’s civilian population became refugees overnight. They fled to Armenia, with the 40km journey taking three days due to continued bombardment and obstructive bureaucracy at the border. Lack of access to water meant that many, in particular the elderly, did not make it.

These refugees – distressed, displaced, and demoralised – are now desperately trying to rebuild their lives in Armenia. However most have one simple wish: to return home.

In response to this crisis, the UN launched a $97 million Emergency Appeal to provide urgent humanitarian aid to the refugees and those hosting them in Armenia. This vital support, however, is due to run out this month, and these refugees face an uncertain future.

Following the military assault, France announced an additional €15 million in financial assistance to Armenia to help with relief efforts (rising to a total aid contribution of €27.5 million by the end of 2023), and Germany has increased its aid by €3 million. The UK has so far pledged £1 million – a welcome financial contribution but one which must be scaled up.

In order to release vital additional funds for the refugees of Nagorno-Karabakh – and many other displaced and desperate people across the globe – the UK Government must reverse its devastating reduction to the international development budget, which it slashed from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5% in 2020. Indeed, it cannot claim to be a global leader in the provision of targeted development assistance, whilst simultaneously enacting such a punitive aid cut to the world’s most vulnerable.

It is not only in critical aid delivery where we see an abdication of moral and ethical responsibilities by this UK Government, but also in the commercial sphere. Just six weeks after the region of Nagorno-Karabakh was ethnically cleansed of its Armenian inhabitants, Foreign Office officials met with British business leaders and encouraged them to capitalise on Azerbaijani President Aliyev’s rebuilding agenda in the region.

Such discussions underscore the hypocrisy and lack of scruples of this UK Government. Whilst rhetorically, they have condemned Azerbaijan’s “unacceptable use of force” in the region, they are, behind closed doors, condoning and legitimising such aggression. It seems that in this case, the profit motive may have overridden concern for human suffering.

Of additional worry is the role Russia continues to play in the region. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, has insisted that Russian peacekeepers do not bear blame for September’s forced expulsion, stating that there was “no direct reason” for the exodus of Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh, merely that “people [were] willing to leave.”

Not only is this clear distortion of the facts disturbing, but such an example of non-intervention by peacekeeping forces charged with protecting civilian life sets a dangerous precedent that international humanitarian law can be breached without repercussions. It also opens up the risk of future Azerbaijani incursions into Armenia, e.g. to secure a path to its exclave of Nakhchivan.

The situation on the ground remains critical. Whilst I welcome the joint statement issued by the two countries’ presidents on 7th December aimed at securing a lasting peace, we must all recognise the fragile nature of such progress.

As we speak, one in every 30 people in Armenia is a refugee from Nagorno-Karabakh. It is imperative that these refugees’ tragic stories are told.

The UK Government must do everything in its power to foster dialogue in the region and press for a robust and durable guarantee of peace. Only then, will these refugees feel safe to return home.

Carol Monaghan MP

Carol Monaghan is a Scottish National Party (SNP) politician who was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Glasgow North West in 2015. She currently undertakes the roles of Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), and Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology).