Refugee Draft Exemption Controversy

Armenian refugees’ children struggle to assert their right not to serve in the army.
By Sara Khojoyan in Yerevan (CRS No. 528, 21-Jan-10)
Exactly 20 years have passed since Soviet troops moved into Azerbaijan to halt bloody attacks on ethnic Armenians, yet the children of those Armenians displaced by the violence still have problems enforcing their one right – to avoid serving in the army.
In the late 1980s, Armenia demanded that Nagorny Karabakh – mainly populated by Armenians, but part of Soviet Azerbaijan – be joined to Armenia. That angered Azeris and caused the pogroms, leading more than 300,000 Armenians to flee Azerbaijan at the end of the communist period.
Karabakh is now run by Armenians, who have unilaterally proclaimed independence, but is claimed by Baku. The issue has poisoned ties between Azerbaijan and Armenia and stopped refugees from both sides going home.
Until February 2009, when Armenia adopted new refugee legislation, children could receive refugee status providing one of their refugee parents applied for it before the child turned 14. That meant the children did not have to serve in the army.
Although the new law removed that right, the country still has a group of young men registered previously who are entitled to the exemption from military service but who say they are having trouble exercising the right.
Many refugees, often those in rural areas, did not even know they had the right to be exempted and were called up like any normal young Armenian man.
Martin Babajanyan, 19, has served in the army for more than a year and a half. He lives with his refugee mother in the village of Kasakh near Yerevan. But even living close to the capital, he did not know he could avoid military service.
“I did not know I had the right to receive a refugee’s card and not serve in the army, which is why I am now serving in the Hadrout region of Nagorny Karabakh. In the recruiting office they told me I am a resident of Yerevan and cannot refuse to serve,” he said.
“In a sense I feel betrayed, because I had that right. It is terrible that they do not inform us of our rights. I am glad, however, to serve my homeland.”
By law, refugees in Armenia can vote only in local elections – not in those for parliament of the president – and they cannot own land. The only advantage they do get, therefore, is their sons’ right to avoid military service, since humanitarian aid was stopped years ago.
Even those who know they have the right to exemption, however, do not always succeed in enforcing it.
The case of 20-year-old Aram Qaramyan, the son of a couple from Kirovabat, has spent two years in the courts. He was born two months after arriving in Armenia and his parents are trying to prove that he has the right to refugee status.
“Of course, two years is not a small amount of time, but I am prepared to fight for my rights. Let them tell us about the law and then we can decide for ourselves whether to decline military service or not, and whether to reject Armenian nationality or not,” Qaramyan said.
Gagik Yeganyan, head of the government’s migration agency, the only state department that deals with refugees’ problems, brushed off suggestions that refugees’ children were being denied their rights, and said everyone born in Armenia was treated equally.
“If a child is born to parents lacking citizenship then he automatically becomes a citizen of Armenia. And since a refugee from Azerbaijan does not have citizenship, then this part of the law affects him,” Yeganyan said.
“Apart from this, refugees’ children, or those who were born in the family of refugees, cannot be considered refugees, since they do not meet the definition of the word. A refugee is someone who faces persecution in the country of his citizenship or that of his permanent residency. For a refugee’s child who was born in Armenia, Azerbaijan cannot be considered the country of his citizenship or his permanent residency.”
He said the appeals court had upheld the government’s point of view twice in cases concerning refugees who wanted to avoid military service. Mary Khachatryan, a lawyer from the Sakharov Human Rights Centre, said many parents were trying to exploit the rules so that their children avoided the army, but the government was not being entirely fair.
“It is clear that the authorities are tougher in relation to young men. The migration service gives girls refugee cards, even if they are born in Armenia,” she said, adding that there had been a number of cases when refugees born in Azerbaijan had failed to avoid military service, since they had apparently failed to “re-register”.
“The migration service forces refugees to undergo ‘re-registration’ every four years, and they lose their status if they do not do so. Therefore in Armenia there are officially many fewer refugees.”
Sara Khojoyan is a journalist from Armine Harutiunyan, a student at Yerevan State University’s journalism faculty, contributed to this report.