The United Nations World Food Program says it has been forced to cut its aid to displaced Azerbaijanis due to scarce funding. The agency's decision is likely to make life much harder for the tens of thousands of civilians in the country who depend heavily on such foreign aid. But the WFP's assistance to displaced persons in the country is just one aspect of the problem. Thousands of others -- refugees from recent wars in the Caucasus and elsewhere -- are also living in Azerbaijan, and in even worse conditions.
Prague, 15 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has decided to reduce food rations for tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Azerbaijan.
The agency says it is still looking for almost half of the money it needs to finance a three-year operation that started in January 2003.
Donations collected so far from the United States, Japan, Luxembourg, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland amount to only $11 million.
Rahman Chowdhury, who is the WFP's country director in Azerbaijan, told RFE/RL that both financial constraints and a shortage of food supplies are responsible for the decision to cut assistance to Azerbaijan's IDPs. "We have not received enough food during the last couple of months, and our in-country stocks of food commodities are such that we cannot provide rations to all the IDPs that we are assisting now," he said. "So we decided that we would halve the rations of wheat flour and that rations for other commodities -- such as sugar and oil -- would remain as [they are]."
Up until now, WFP food rations amounted to 6 kilograms per person per month.
There has been no official reaction from Baku. In private, however, government officials lament the WFP's decision, saying the UN program should continue running in full until all IDPs are able to return home.
Azerbaijan witnessed the largest forced migrations that accompanied the breakup of the Soviet Union.
First came thousands of Azeri refugees from Armenia, as tensions between Yerevan and Baku flared up in the late 1980s. Later, after Armenian separatists took control of Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, tens of thousands of Azeris were forced to move into areas controlled by Baku.
Joined by tens of thousands more Azeris, Kurds, and others, they were later forced farther into exile as Armenian troops pushed east, progressively occupying Azerbaijani territories bordering Karabakh.
As the Russian Army gradually broadened its operations to reassert Moscow's control over Chechnya, thousands more civilians fled the breakaway republic through Daghestan and sought refuge in Azerbaijan.
Baku-based nongovernmental organizations believe the Karabakh war has driven an estimated 800,000 people into exile -- roughly one-10th of Azerbaijan's current population. In addition, they say some 70,000 refugees from Chechnya, Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq have found shelter in the country in recent years.
The Karabakh conflict was suspended in 1994. Yet Azerbaijan's IDPs cannot return to Armenian-occupied territories and have been living in the same wretched conditions for the past 10 years. The $10 monthly stipend they receive from the government does little to improve their situation.
In the makeshift camps that surround the central towns of Saatli and Sabirabad, families are crammed into one-room, mud-brick huts. Elsewhere, people live in abandoned railway wagons and dugouts. About one-third of children of IDPs reportedly suffer from malnutrition.
Chowdhury said the WFP's decision to halve food rations may have serious implications. "The consequences are quite tough because the winter is coming and that will aggravate their hardships in the coming months," he said. "We are aware of this, but because we don't have enough food commodities and because we didn't get enough contributions from our donor countries in the last three months, we had to resort to this [measure]."
The UN food agency is only assisting 145,000 IDPs it considers most in need, and is not dealing with Azerbaijan's refugees.
Vusal Rajabli is president of Hayat (Life), a Baku-based NGO that provides humanitarian aid to refugees and IDPs across Azerbaijan. He said refugees are much more vulnerable than IDPs because, unlike the latter, they depend almost exclusively on foreign aid.
"Unfortunately, the assistance the government offers refugees is scarce -- I would even say it is extremely small. It covers only 5 to 10 percent of their needs. The government says it has just enough resources to take care of its internal refugees. Therefore, all the government can afford goes to IDPs. This makes the situation of refugees much, much worse. Refugees are taken care of by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and our organization in partnership. The UNHCR offers them financial support, giving each family that meets its criteria between $60 and $80 per month. But [those families] represent only 30 percent of all refugees," Rajabli said.
Most refugees live in appalling conditions, squatting in deserted buildings or -- for those who get financial help from the UNHCR -- spending their meager subsidies on rooms or small apartments that have neither heat nor running water.
To add to their hardship, Rajabli said most immigrants live in administrative limbo and are scarcely protected by the temporary refugee status offered by the UNHCR. "Most refugees live how they can and where they can because the government does not help them find a roof," he said. "It must be said in its defense, though, that there is not a single free public building, not a single free dormitory left because the IDPs have occupied all of them. Yet the government does not allocate any funds to build temporary refugee camps."
Another problem facing refugees who arrived after the breakup of the Soviet Union is the reluctance of Azerbaijani officials to consider their applications for citizenship. "I haven't heard of many cases when those refugees managed to obtain citizenship," Rajabli said. "I would say they are 10 or 15 at most. But even these estimates are questionable."