Azerbaijan's IDP Burden
Azerbaijan's IDP Burden
Podcast / Europe & Central Asia

Azerbaijan's IDP Burden

In the 1990s, the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia generated one of the world’s largest populations of internally displaced persons, or IDPs, when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris fled their homes in the face of Armenian forces. Lawrence Scott Sheets, Crisis Group's South Caucasus Project Director, discusses how IDPs have fared and the prospects for a deal that could permit their return.

In this podcast, Lawrence Scott Sheets discusses how IDPs have fared and the prospects for a deal that could permit their return. CRISIS GROUP

You can find below a transcript of this podcast.

Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I’m Ben Dalton, Communications & IT officer, here in Crisis Group’s Tbilisi office.

In the 1990s, the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia generated one of the world’s largest populations of internally displaced persons, or IDPs, when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azeris fled their homes in the face of Armenian forces. I’m speaking today with Lawrence Sheets, Crisis Group’s South Caucasus Project Director, about how those IDPs have fared in the nearly 20 years since the war. Crisis Group has a new report out on Azerbaijan’s IDPs, available on

Lawrence, what was the Azeri government’s initial response to dealing with this massive influx of displaced people in the 1990s?

Before the ceasefire took effect in 1994, there were roughly 600,000 people who became IDPs, from Nagorno-Karabakh, but most of them coming from the seven occupied districts around Nagorno-Karabakh. Hundreds of thousands of people who literally--some of them overnight--were forced to flee. At that time, Azerbaijan was in complete chaos, both in terms of its military and in terms of its political leadership, and was a country which did not have any money, despite the fact that, today, it’s become a much richer country because all of this oil has been discovered and is being exploited, and the government coffers are filling up. 

There was no government response initially, because there simply was no institutional capacity to deal with this problem. It was also viewed as a temporary problem, and the government did not want to do anything to make it appear that it was acquiescing to the conquest, or occupation, by ethnic Armenian forces and Armenian forces of the seven occupied districts. There was a combination of institutional incapacity, a lack of resources, and lack of political will. And many of these people lived for years and years in tents, in abandoned railway cars, sometimes very close to the front line areas, before the government started to take the problem more seriously. 

So, over time, did the government develop a strategy for assisting IDPs?

There was a change, partially due to international pressure, but also due to the fact that the government realized that it was dealing with a long term problem. 

In the early 2000s, the government started to devise a strategy about how to deal with this extraordinarily large group, roughly 600,000 officially now, of Internally Displaced Persons, or IDPs. It started making laws about the rights of IDPs. It started allocating much more money. That was also possible because of the country’s growing oil wealth. By 2007, we started to see a major improvement. 

The tent camps, which were notorious in Azerbaijan, where many people had lived for years, were closed--keeping a government pledge to close those camps by the end of 2007. There was much more progress between 2008 and 2011, when the government started to actually confront the existence of IDPs and their needs much more seriously. If you look at 10 years ago, the poverty rate among IDPs was close to 75%. Today, it is, depending on which figures you want to use, somewhere between 11% and 25%, which is not that much higher than in the overall population in Azerbaijan and which is obviously several times lower than it was a few years ago. 

The government especially focused its efforts on new housing for IDPs. There were 108,000 units constructed between 2008 and 2011, with additional plans to build 115,000 spaces for IDPs between 2012 -2015. It’s expending a tremendous amount of its own money on IDP needs.  Azerbaijan now spends 3% of the state budget per year on IDP needs, which is also one of the highest percentages, if not the highest percentage, in the world. So there has been remarkable progress. 

Unfortunately, there are still a lot of concerns. Obviously, there are 400,000 people, according to the government’s estimates, who are living in substandard housing. And the main thing is that people still cannot go home.   

What is the status of negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan on the return of Azeri IDPs?

Unfortunately, negotiations are at a complete standstill. There is hostile rhetoric continuing from both sides. There is the tremendous arms buildup. There’s the absence of any organized negotiations format, in the sense of activity. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, continues to host the Minsk Group peace talks format, but this has been reduced to a sort of shuttle diplomacy where the two presidents have met only once during the last eight months and we don’t see any progress. 

If an agreement were magically signed tomorrow, these people also would have very little to go back to because their homes and their towns, some of them as large as 60,000 people, were systematically dismantled by Armenian forces. You had whole towns basically carted away for scrap. Building materials, telephone poles, electricity cables, any sort of metal which could be exploited, telephone wires, any sort of household item were looted systematically, and methodically these towns were turned into nothing. It will take years, even if something were agreed to today, to rebuild these places and make them habitable for IDPs to come back.

Briefing 67 / Europe & Central Asia

Tackling Azerbaijan’s IDP Burden

As negotiations between Azerbaijan and Armenia to resolve the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh stall, the Azerbaijan government has improved living conditions for the internally displaced (IDPs), though return to the occupied territories remains by far the preferred solution.

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I. Overview

Azerbaijan has made significant progress in recent years in caring for roughly 600,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who were forcibly evicted from Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts by ethnic Armenian forces nearly two decades ago. Though many still face precarious existences, the state has been investing heavily in new housing and increasing benefits. But while some IDPs have fully integrated, many more are still in limbo. The government and most of the displaced favour return to their original homes. That the stalled peace process with Armenia means this is not an immediate prospect should not preclude IDPs from being full participants in Azerbaijan’s political and economic life. Yet, their unresolved fate is one of the main reminders of the conflict – and, without a peaceful settlement, puts pressure on the Azerbaijan leadership to prepare for the possibility of a new war.

Related Content

2011 was a lost year for the peace process, as seven years of talks on a Basic Principles agreement meant to lay the foundation for an eventual comprehensive peace deadlocked. Baku and Yerevan are in the midst of a major arms race and exchange increasingly militaristic statements, while sporadic clashes along the front lines kill about 30 persons annually. Beyond some possible confidence-building measures (CBMs), there is little likelihood of progress for the coming year, with Armenia, Azerbaijan and the OSCE Minsk Group co-chair countries (France, Russia, U.S.) all entering electoral cycles. Earlier Crisis Group reports have explored the threat of resumed fighting and suggested ways to move toward resolution of the conflict. A forthcoming report will again analyse the diplomatic and security situation. This briefing, however, concentrates on a too often ignored human consequence of the crisis.

The Azerbaijan government has begun to expend significantly more resources to improve the lot of the displaced, who are 7 per cent of the total population – one of the highest rates in the world. 108,000 were moved into new housing over the past two years, with space for 115,000 more slated to be constructed by 2015. Some complain, however, of poor construction and infrastructure, lack of community participation in planning and limited access to land or job opportunities in the new communities, all areas that need additional attention and improvement.

Azerbaijan’s IDPs benefit from free or low-cost education, health care and energy and have some special employment opportunities, though their ability to express their interests is limited by inability to elect municipal representatives. The some 40,000 from Nagorno-Karabakh are in principle represented as a group by the Azerbaijani Community of Nagorno-Karabakh Social Union, but its leadership is not fully popularly elected, and the 560,000 displaced from the occupied districts around Nagorno-Karabakh are not well represented. The political voice of IDPs thus remains weak. They should be more effectively integrated into decision-making about housing, services, and other community needs, as well as contingency planning for emergencies and confidence-building measures (CBMs).

This briefing includes a section on conditions for those approximately 128,000 IDPs and permanent residents living in close proximity to the 180km-long line of contact (LoC) that marks the 1994 ceasefire between the opposing forces. It does not address the plight of the Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan and vice versa who fled the initial violence in the late 1980s, as the overwhelming majority of them have been largely integrated into their respective new countries. Regular exchange of fire between trenches, snipers, mines and a lingering threat of renewed full-scale hostilities make living conditions near the LoC particularly precarious. A small (six-person) monitoring team from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has virtually no resources, meaning it provides inadequate oversight and inspires little confidence among the contending sides or civilians.

To facilitate greater IDP engagement in policies relevant to their lives, the Azerbaijan government should:

  • increase transparency; involve IDPs as much as possible in housing decisions; and streamline processes for reporting incidents of corruption or violations of state law regarding IDP issues; and
  • allow IDPs, while their villages and towns remain occupied, to vote for municipal councils in their places of temporary residence.

To protect IDPs and other civilians along the LoC, the Azerbaijan authorities should:

  • agree with the Armenian government and the de facto authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh to an expanded interim OSCE monitoring role, to an OSCE proposal to remove snipers from the LoC and to set up an incident investigation mechanism, as well as to immediately cease military exercises near the LoC and advancing trench positions; and
  • create an inter-ministerial task force, including the National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA), to design a strategy to increase the safety of communities near the LoC, including more civil defence training, while refraining from resettling additional IDPs there.

The international community, in particular the co-chairs of the Minsk Group (France, Russia, U.S.) facilitating efforts to reach a comprehensive peace, should:

  • facilitate the creation of an incident investigation mechanism, including the operation of a hotline between the sides to discuss ceasefire breaches, and otherwise protect the civilian population living near the LoC; and
  • develop more on-the-ground CBMs to create an atmosphere of trust, including promoting civil society meetings between the ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh and the ethnic Azeri population expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh and the occupied territories.

Baku/Tbilisi/Istanbul//Brussels, 27 February 2012

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