By Sara Rajabova
Azerbaijani diaspora organizations have organized an event to highlight the situation of the Azerbaijani refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) in the European Parliament.
The Brussels office of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) and The Association of Young Azerbaijani Professionals in Europe (AYAPE) organized a historic roundtable to commemorate UN World Refugee Day on 20 June - the only event in the European Parliament to recognize this date, AzerTag news agency reported.
The discussion, hosted by German MEP Hiltrud Breyer (Greens), focused on the ongoing plight of the estimated 875,000 Azerbaijani IDPs and refugees - the victims of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding regions.
Azerbaijani Ambassador to the EU, Fuad Isgandarov said at the event that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the most serious situation affecting Azerbaijani society.
He said the Azerbaijani government pays enormous attention to improve living conditions of Azerbaijani refugees and IDPs.
Camps are spread across all 76 administrative districts of Azerbaijan. Some 300 million manats (£224.9m) was spent on improving the livelihoods of the refugees and IDPs from the coffers of the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan (SOFAZ) in 2013.
Isgandarov urged the young Azerbaijanis to raise awareness of the continuing plight of Azerbaijan resulted from the illegal occupation by Armenia.
"It is our responsibility to keep the topic fresh in the minds of those working in European institutions. The rights of these people continue to be violated, and the European Parliament has passed resolutions condemning the occupation, yet it continues to do nothing. We want to create a better future for ourselves and for Armenia, our neighbor," Isgandarov said.
Former Deputy-General of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Centre, Pascal Heyman who is now in charge of Security Affairs of Belgian Foreign Ministry, examined the social problems arising from the conflict.
"According to Azerbaijani statistics, poverty amongst IDPs and refugees reduced from 75 to 18 per cent during the past decade, although they still fare worse than the remainder of the population. For OSCE, displacement has always been a concern, as it always leads to instability. The OSCE Minsk Group recognizes the right of populations to return to their former places of residence. However, there are limitations on what can be done, as the conflict remains unsettled and the situation cannot be resolved," Heyman said.
Ambassador of the Organization of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) to the EU, Arif Mammadov said the OIC has passed more resolutions in support of Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh than any other organization.
He said when the conflict is resolved, it is hoped that refugees and IDPs will be reintegrated into society, and the EU has instigated projects to assist with their education. Mammadov added there are also some EU projects for Azerbaijani-Armenian mixed families.
"It is unacceptable for those who committed these crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh to rise to the highest levels in the Armenian government. The international community should examine this situation more carefully. Azerbaijan has developed many state programs for IDPs and refugees, but they still want to return home. I am hoping the European Parliament will pay more attention to this situation, and will punish those that are responsible for this suffering. I am hoping the EU will work more closely with OIC, particularly on this issue," Mammadov said.
Meanwhile, Azerbaijani Ambassador to NATO, Khazar Ibrahim said the Azerbaijani refugees and IDPs must return to their lands. He also noted that there is always a risk of radicalization amongst the dispossessed, but this is not the case amongst Azerbaijani IDPs and refugees.
Political advisor from the Office of the EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the Crisis in Georgia, Atanas Baltov said the EU remains committed to resolving such crises and enabling refugees and IDPs around the world to return their homes, noting however, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is being dealt with through the OSCE Minsk Group format.
"There is an opportunity for Azerbaijan to use EU mechanisms to improve the quality of education for the affected population. It has also recognized that Civil Society programs such as the European Partnership for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh (EPNK) could be effective and that the status quo is unsustainable," Baltov said.
Principal advisor from TEAS, Former Director, European Commission, and Professor of Political Economy, Zaragoza University, Manuel Arnal stressed that one of the problems is the composition of the OSCE Minsk Group. "There have been discussions throughout the past two decades without any result. The IDPs and refugees are the victims of the conflict and the military occupation of nearly 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory," Arnal said.
AYAPE Board Member, Yalchin Mammadov said: "I am an IDP - I was born in Aghdam, a small Azerbaijani town in Nagorno-Karabakh. It was devastated during the conflict. The UNHCR recently released its report that states that 51m people have been driven from their homes since the end of the Second World War. The proportion of IDPs and refugees in a country the size of Azerbaijan is very significant. No-one is an IDP or refugee out of choice and the people who escape and survive are heroes."
Head of TEAS Brussels office, Roman Huna said TEAS is always aiming to organize meetings on 20 June to raise awareness about this situation. "The refugee and IDP crisis has a global dimension. The populations in Azerbaijan cannot return home without settlement of the conflict, but after 20 years of ceasefire and negotiations, nothing has been achieved. I hope the new European Commission will turn the focus towards this conflict. International organizations such as the EU and OSCE have a major role to play. The main objective is for these people to be able to return home." Huna concluded.
Armenia captured Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts from Azerbaijan in a war that followed the Soviet breakup in 1991. More than 20,000 Azerbaijanis were killed and nearly 1 million were displaced as a result of the war.
Large-scale hostilities ended with a Russia-brokered ceasefire in 1994 but Armenia continued the occupation in defiance of four UN Security Council resolutions calling for immediate and unconditional withdrawal.
Peace talks mediated by Russia, France and the U.S. have produced no results so far.