Repatriates from the Middle East

This section offers a critical appraisal of policies implemented by the current government of Armenia, and specifically by the Ministry of the Diaspora, in promoting the repatriation of diaspora Armenians. It focuses not only on state policies and public debates, but also on the experience of those who have repatriated, their experience and their opinions.

Even though Armenian dispersion dates back centuries, beginning with organized Armenian communities in many remote areas such as Europe, the Middle East, India, the concept of repatriation is more recent in Armenian political thinking. It is closely linked to the emergence of a collective identity as a nation in exile, or a diaspora. Though the definition of the term is debated, the notion of diaspora as a nation in exile started to be used in the Armenian press outside Soviet Armenia in the early 1930s. It reflected the collective awareness of a people who lost their historical homeland in the 1915 genocide. Whenever the genocide was remembered, the loss of the homeland was mentioned along with the 1,5 million victims.

Awareness of diaspora implied the notion of organizing dispersed Armenian communities worldwide. Meanwhile, the diaspora created institutions that would preserve Armenian identity, including schools, churches and community centers, all oriented toward an eventual return to the homeland. This narrative applied to all sectors of the diaspora, notwithstanding political divides with respect to ideological perspective, strategic alliances or power struggles in community politics.

The dominant myth of massive return to homeland as a goal giving meaning to diaspora existence persisted even as a third post-genocide generation came of age by the 1970s. Indeed, with political advocacy for the Armenian cause becoming globally active after the 50th anniversary of the genocide, the myth of return to homeland became even more assertive. However, as we have not seen a pronounced return to the homeland since independence in 1991, the idea of a collective return has proven to be more of a myth than reality.

The early years of Armenia’s independence saw massive emigration, mostly for economic reasons. Following the ability to obtain Armenian citizenship and become dual citizen, repatriation started to be debated as a policy option along with the creation of the Ministry of Diaspora. The debate continues even as different programs are still being implemented on a trial-and-error experimental phase.

Today repatriation is a necessity for Armenia on demographic grounds. Since 1991, the rapid decline of the country’s population has been a critical area of concern. Multiple studies have shown that difficult social and economic circumstances contributed to the mass wave of emigration; yet 20 years after independence, effective migration policies have yet to be adopted to stem the tide.

Systematic problems have presented severe obstacles to repatriation during the past twenty years. Along with the local population, potential repatriates or returning migrants are faced with a lack of job opportunities, shortcomings in education and health care, corruption, high cost of living in relation to income, monopolies impeding market competition, and a deep lack of faith in the country’s future. Returning Armenians also face deep cultural differences, language issues (i.e. eastern vs. western Armenian), an unfamiliar business environment and practices, and complicated taxation and customs laws that are constantly susceptible to corrupt practices.

Upon the legalization of dual citizenship in 2007, many presumed that a high percentage of diaspora Armenians would take advantage of this new right. In reality however, a relatively small percentage of diaspora members have become dual citizens of the Republic of Armenia; even fewer have actually repatriated.

A healthy inflow of people from both the traditional diaspora and from those who emigrated from Armenia following independence could create the conditions for a reverse in population decline. Understanding the reasons behind diaspora reluctance to return to Armenia, and offering policy solutions to the factors identified, is vital for the nation’s future.

The study sample in this section focuses on repatriates from the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria and Iraq):


Politics, policies and practices of repatriation since 1991

Despite the unprecedented Armenia-diaspora interaction from 1988 to 1991, repatriation did not become an issue on the political agenda of the newly independent state as readily as some had hoped and believed it would. Armenian state policy in the early years after independence did not envisage repatriation as an important policy issue (though diaspora investment was welcomed). In late 1990s, Armenia started to pay attention to repatriation.

Public debate about dual citizenship became intensive beginning in 2005, when a referendum for Constitutional reform took place, and the Law on Citizenship was signed in March 2007. The institutionalization of diaspora-Armenian relations through the Ministry of Diaspora and its active involvement in repatriation initiatives coincide with two critical situations: first, the increase of emigration from Armenia due the 2007-2008 global financial crisis and internal political crisis in the country; and second, the present Syrian conflict that has greatly affected the local Armenian community. The most visible aspect of the Ministry’s involvement in fostering repatriation was the easing of the bureaucratic procedure to obtain citizenship, with its important consequences for Syrian Armenians caught in the middle of armed conflict. It is still too early to conclude how significant the level of repatriation will be, but increasing demand for citizenship might be a signal.

From dual citizenship to repatriation

Despite the warm welcome that the dual citizenship law received, diaspora Armenians did not immediately rush to submit applications. The law needed regulation, which was not introduced until April 2008. As well, the complicated and unclear application process did not encourage diaspora Armenians to start the process of becoming citizens. There is no indication that Armenian diplomatic representatives have received clear instructions to promote dual citizenship or have been trained on how to advise prospective applicants. In fact, amendments to simplify the application procedure and remove bureaucratic obstacles (e.g. now requiring only basic proof about the applicant’s Armenian origin) were introduced in April 2010, partly due to intervention from the Ministry of Diaspora. According to the Armenian Ministry of Diaspora, the number of people who were granted dual citizenship in Armenia 2012 totaled 15,000.

Three factors explain the increase in interest and applications for dual citizenship in 2011-2012. First, the Ministry of Diaspora was created and became active in facilitating dual citizenship and promoting the debate on repatriation. The Ministry became highly visible in the Syrian Armenian refugee issue by opening a special secondary school and by facilitating these immigrants’ access to health care and university education, among other initiatives.

The second factor consists in the current government’s eagerness to engage diaspora members in the Armenian economy. The deterioration of Armenia’s economic performance in 2011 and 2012 made the renewal of diaspora engagement crucial. Thus, the Fourth Armenia-Diaspora Conference in September 2011 (on the 20th anniversary of Armenia’s independence) became an opportunity for the government to send a strong message to diaspora investors.

The third factor is the situation of the Armenian communities in the Middle East following the Arab revolts in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon (and against the background of the Armenian government’s failure to ensure successful repatriation of Iraqi Armenians in 2006-2007).The Syrian civil war hit the Armenians of Aleppo, Damascus, Deir Zor and other Syrian cities and regions very hard. Eventually the highest demand for dual citizenship came from Syria; and with the flow of Armenians escaping the war in the summer of 2012, the government decided to make a further exception to standard procedure by handling dual citizenship documents in Armenian embassies. The measure was later extended to Lebanese Armenians applying for dual citizenship, probably as a preventive measure in case of expansion of the conflict from Syria to Lebanon. Armenia offered a number of privileges to Syrian-Armenians, and according to the Ministry of Diaspora, dual citizenship was granted to over 5000 Syrian Armenians during the last six months of 2012. There is a possibility to further improve the coordination of the welcome policy for diaspora Armenians based on the experience of Israel (by guiding repatriates through the whole process of repatriation starting from the moment when they wish to do so).

Focus group responses from repatriates

Focus group discussions were organized with a total of 22 repatriates from Armenian diaspora communities of the Middle East in order to understand the main factors that motivated them to repatriate, and ones that would encourage their relocation to be long-term or permanent. A large majority of the participants repatriated prior to the conflict in Syria, although five of the interviewees repatriated as a direct result of the war.

Although the study looked at creating opportunities for business investment in Armenia, several participants in the study were students or those with professional backgrounds working in different organizations in the country. Reflecting the fact that Middle Eastern Armenian communities have a long tradition of entrepreneurship and a significant number who are craftsmen/artisans, several in the sample also belonged to the service sector.

Features of the 22 interviewees included:

Several core areas of inquiry were defined for the interviews, the first of which was employment:

The second area explored was the respondents’ motivations for repatriation and the circumstances of their relocation:

The third area of questions concerned respondents’ views of the integration process:

The fourth area of interview questions concerned sustainability and business opportunities:

In their general comments, respondents said they believed that new opportunities for a better and more prosperous country would materialize once cultural differences dissipated. Most said that the homeland needs the diaspora as much as the diaspora needs the homeland. Others complained about corruption and the lack of a clear economic policy by the government. Some said that the country has become service-oriented (restaurants, cafes, hotels, retail chains) at the expense of industries with the potential to create more jobs. The tax system was also noted to be a serious burden to businesses; instead of easing taxes to encourage new diaspora investment, the government is increasing taxes, making it very difficult to start a new business.

Toward successful repatriation

Repatriation should be thought of as both a social trend and a state policy. On the one hand, there must be the political will to repatriate; on the other, there must be supportive conditions created for people willing to move to Armenia and start a new life there.

The experience of Middle Eastern repatriates interviewed for this chapter shows that the main reason why people take the decision to repatriate is the view that Armenia is the homeland of Armenians (and not, for instance, instability in their previous countries or an expectation of better living conditions). The decision is not purely emotional, however, since most of the repatriates rationally conducted research before moving to Armenia. The idealist component in the decision to repatriate is underlined by the fact that the overwhelming majority of those who return express no intention to leave and would advise other Armenians to follow their example.

The first recommendation, therefore, is the need to reinforce the concept of homeland as the main reason for diaspora Armenians to settle in Armenia. At the same time, however, the state must facilitate the process for those who decide to repatriate and help them to implement it.

Understandably, Middle Eastern repatriates did not find the language barrier (eastern/western Armenia) a difficulty for their integration. On the other hand, job opportunities and better salaries are mentioned as conditions for the sustainability of their choice to live in Armenia. The fact that the majority thinks that Armenia was sustainable to a second generation could also reflect hope that the conditions of better salaries and job opportunities will become a reality. As for their general complaints, the burden of taxes, corruption and the lack of a policy of industrialization are seen as major difficulties.

The second recommendation is therefore that the state must promote repatriation by identifying as top priorities the tasks of solving problems of housing, decent salaries and employment. It must also aim to ease the burden of taxes, create a better business climate and promote value-added economic sectors.

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