Switzerland’s humanitarian commitment in the South Caucasus draws to a close

Article, 23.12.2016

At the end of 2016, Switzerland will be ending its humanitarian work in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Communities facing natural disasters and ongoing conflict in these countries have benefited from emergency aid, and high-quality reconstruction and prevention programmes. Switzerland will be continuing a number of cooperation and peacebuilding activities at a regional level.

On 10 December 1988, an earthquake measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale destroyed the town of Spitak in northern Armenia, killing over 25,000 people and leaving half a million homeless. Swiss experts were sent to the region to assist the survivors. This is how Swiss Humanitarian Aid began its activities in the South Caucasus, a priority area which in addition to Armenia grew to include Georgia and Azerbaijan as a result of the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

For nearly three decades, Swiss Humanitarian Aid focused its efforts on disaster risk reduction, reconstruction and the rehabilitation of areas devastated by natural disasters or conflict.

At the end of 2016 Swiss Humanitarian Aid’s efforts in the region will come to an end, while the technical cooperation that began in 1999 as part of Switzerland’s cooperation mandate with Eastern Europe continues. Despite ongoing humanitarian needs in some places, the situation cannot be compared with other major crises currently unfolding in the Middle East or the Horn of Africa.

Switzerland’s humanitarian efforts have brought relief during crises and more importantly provided thousands of families with better living conditions and ensured the transfer of knowledge and skills.

Armenia and Georgia: setting up search and rescue and disaster risk reduction units

Since 1988, Armenia has been at risk of another earthquake. Swiss Humanitarian Aid therefore worked with the country’s authorities to strengthen their search and rescue operations. Since 2004, Armenian firefighters have been trained and equipped to respond to a disaster. Doctors and nurses must now undergo compulsory training in medical emergencies so they can be mobilised when needed.

Swiss Humanitarian Aid has also strengthened regional rapid response units, which cover the five regions in the country most vulnerable to natural hazards, and it has worked on a number of disaster risk reduction projects in Armenia and Georgia. For example, the Georgian authorities have followed the Swiss model and produced maps of natural hazards in mountain regions.  

Georgia: shelter for people displaced by conflict

At the end of the 1990s, some 300,000 people in Georgia were forced to abandon their homes as a result of conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Half of the displaced still live in precarious conditions. Swiss Humanitarian Aid launched several projects to help them find a home and regain their dignity.

Between 2007 and 2014, it constructed 19 buildings in five towns to house a total of 168 families. This social housing was handed over to the municipal authorities, which made the accommodation freely available to any displaced people or other individuals in need.

Other projects financed by Swiss Humanitarian Aid revived the economy in communities affected by the 2008 war against Russia. In the regions of Gali (Abkhazia), Samegrelo and Shida Kartli, 7,700 families have benefited from infrastructure rebuilt by Swiss Humanitarian Aid. These include schools, nursery schools and an irrigation system, which revitalised over 150 hectares of farmland. Over 339 farming families, producers and small traders also received funding to resume their activities and maintain a source of income.

Azerbaijan and Armenia: supporting ICRC efforts to assist the families of missing persons

Since the outbreak of armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s, some 4,500 Armenian and Azerbaijani citizens have been reported missing. Swiss Humanitarian Aid has supported the ICRC’s operations in both countries to collect data on each missing person and try to establish their whereabouts.

Extending cooperation activities

Between 2017 and 2020, Switzerland plans to strengthen the regional dimension of its cooperation in these three countries, in accordance with a new cooperation strategy developed by the SDC, SECO and the FDFA's Human Security Division. The region is the gateway to Europe and therefore of strategic importance from the perspective of regional stability, hence Switzerland’s wish to renew its offer of cooperation.

There will continue to be an emphasis on the economic development of rural areas, reforming institutions and peacebuilding. Disaster risk reduction will remain a component of Swiss action in the region, with a particular focus on mountainous areas. Many long-term projects run by Swiss Humanitarian Aid, such as the mapping of natural hazards in Georgia, will therefore continue to be developed further.