Statement by Diaspora Commissioner on Non-Armenian Immigration Sparks Controversy

By Mark Dovich

In an August 8 interview with CivilNet, Armenia’s High Commissioner for Diaspora Affairs, Zareh Sinanyan, went on the record stating that Armenia should be ready to accept not only Lebanese Armenians, but also Christian Arabs and Assyrians living in Lebanon, following the devastating explosion in Beirut on August 4.

Sinanyan’s statement quickly spread on Armenian-language social media platforms, provoking a firestorm of controversy. Many comments were highly critical of the idea, with some nationalist-oriented groups going so far as to decry the proposal as a “betrayal” of national values.

As one observer noted, “the immigration of non-Armenians to Armenia is a very sensitive issue for most Armenians,” whose memory of the Armenian Genocide makes them highly “protective” of their “diminished homeland.”

Widespread anxiety about Armenia’s ongoing depopulation compounds such concerns. Armenia has grappled with several serious demographic issues, including mass emigration, falling fertility rates, and a rise in sex-selective abortions, since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. According to Armenia’s National Statistical Committee, the country’s permanent population in 2019 was 2.965 million, down by more than half a million from a peak of 3.633 million in 1992. The United Nations Population Fund projects that, should current trends hold, Armenia’s population will fall further, to 2.816 million, by 2050.

In August 2019, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan vowed to raise Armenia’s population to at least 5 million by 2050, though he did not provide any specific policies to address the numerous demographic problems facing the country, casting doubts on the feasibility of the plan.

Sinanyan headed an Armenian government delegation in Lebanon, meeting with Lebanese-Armenian community leaders and assessing the situation on the ground. In an interview with Radio Liberty in Beirut, Sinanyan reiterated his commitment to accepting Armenians from Lebanon who wish to relocate permanently to Armenia, saying that “the homeland is waiting for all Armenians with open doors.” He also underlined his gratitude “to Lebanon for the humane treatment of the Armenian people after the Genocide.”

The Armenian government has also sent three humanitarian aid flights to Lebanon, containing over a dozen tons of food and medical supplies, intended for the country’s Armenian community.

Though there has been an Armenian presence in what is now Lebanon for centuries, a major influx of ethnic Armenians into the area occurred in the aftermath of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. The Minority Rights Group International nonprofit estimates that there are roughly 270,000 people of Armenian descent living in Lebanon today, or about four percent of the country’s total population.

Many Lebanese Armenians live in the Beirut neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud, which has emerged as a thriving and vibrant center of Armenian culture in the diaspora. Bourj Hammoud was heavily damaged in the August 4 explosion at the port of Beirut, which left over 200 people dead and devastated much of the city.

Armenia has a long-standing open door policy toward ethnic Armenian refugees and immigrants, even predating independence from the Soviet Union. For instance, in a bid to rebuild the country following World War II, the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic welcomed more than 100,000 Armenians from the diaspora between the years of 1946 and 1949.

More recently, Armenia has accommodated the arrival of over 22,000 Syrian-Armenian refugees fleeing the ongoing Syrian Civil War. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees considers Armenia to be one of Europe’s largest host countries for Syrian asylum seekers per capita, with five refugees per every 1,000 inhabitants.

Nonetheless, the number of non-Armenians who have relocated permanently to Armenia is extremely small. Armenia is, by far, the most ethnically homogenous country in the region, with over 98 percent of the population identifying as ethnic Armenians.

Polling earlier this year by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers think tank network suggests that Armenians hold mixed feelings toward doing business with and marrying Arabs. While 57 percent of Armenian respondents said they “approve doing business with an Arab,” a mere 13 percent said they approved Armenian “women marrying an Arab.” By contrast, for ethnic Russians, by far the most positively-viewed ethnic group according to the survey, 85 percent of Armenians approved of business relations, and 45 percent approved of Armenian-Russian mixed marriages. Attitudes toward Assyrians were not measured in the study.