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UNHCR increasingly concerned for refugees fleeing Karabakh region

Shabia Mantoo, Global Spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency.
UN Photo/Jean Marc Ferré
Shabia Mantoo, Global Spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency.

UNHCR increasingly concerned for refugees fleeing Karabakh region

Migrants and Refugees

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) raised concerns on Tuesday over the movement of a large number of civilians to Armenia as a result of the recent hostilities in the region. 

Some 19,000 refugees have reportedly left the Karabakh Economic Region of the Republic of Azerbaijan, including many elderly people, women and children.  

UNHCR Spokesperson Shabia Mantoo called on all sides to protect civilians and to fully respect international humanitarian refugee law allowing them safe passage.

All parties must “refrain from actions that would cause displacement of civilians and ensure their safety, security and human rights and nobody should be forced to flee their homes”, said Ms. Mantoo, speaking during a scheduled UN agency briefing in Geneva.

Guterres 'very concerned' over displacement

In the regular noon briefing for reporters in New York, UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric, said the UN chief António Guterres was "very concerned" about the displacement.

"It’s essential that the rights of the displaced populations be protected and that they receive the humanitarian support they are owed,” said the Spokesperson.

He underlined that at this point, the UN was "not involved in the humanitarian situation" within the region, but the UN aid coordination office (OCHA) is on the ground in Armenia.

Conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region has persisted for more than three decades, but a ceasefire and subsequent Trilateral Statement was agreed almost three years ago following six weeks of fighting, by the leaders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia, leading to the deployment of several thousand Russian peacekeepers. 

Amid last week’s flare-up in fighting and the arrival of the first refugees in Armenia, the UN chief called for fully-fledged access for aid workers to people in need.

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De-escalation call

Mr. Guterres also called for de-escalation “in the strongest terms” and “stricter” observance of the 2020 ceasefire, and principles of international humanitarian law. 

Echoing that appeal, UNHCR’s Ms. Mantoo explained on Tuesday that amid the “complex and multicultural” situation, access to asylum must be maintained for people in need of international protection “to ensure that people are treated humanely, that their rights are protected and respected, and that they can access the protection and safety that they need”.  

Support is also needed for countries at the front lines that are receiving people in need of protection, Ms. Mantoo said. 

The UNHCR official also called for “alternatives for a legal stay”, and an “expansion of regular and safe pathways so people don't have to risk their lives and that we don't see these types of backlogs and pressures”.

International solidarity call

She reiterated that the regional response requires international solidarity and a concerted effort by all States and stakeholders. 

Regarding UNHCR’s teams on the ground in Armenia, Ms. Mantoo explained that they were monitoring the situation closely.  

People were “suffering the effects of trauma and exhaustion and need urgent psychosocial support” Ms. Mantoo said, adding that the government of Armenia was leading the response and was expected to appeal to the international community for further support.  

For its part, the UN agency has also provided assistance, including non-food items, portable beds, mattresses and bedding. “There is also a need for shelter, warm clothing and other essential non-food items. And we're mobilizing further assistance and coordinating with local government and partners to respond to the increasing needs,” she added. 

In a statement released late on Tuesday, the UN human rights chief Volker Türk added his concern over the evolving situation. 

"Any reported violations of human rights or international humanitarian law require follow-up, including prompt, independent and transparent investigations to ensure accountability and redress for the victims", he said.

He reminded that all countries must not deny ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities "the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language."