June 20 is acknowledged around the globe as World Refugee Day, recognizing those people who are forced to flee their homes and countries as a result of war and violence.
On December 4, 2000, the UN General Assembly decided to commemorate June 20 of each year in remembrance of the millions of refugees who are in need of protection and support. However the history of this day dates back to 1950, when post-WW II Europe was faced with a problem of what to do with 350,000 people across the continent that were described as refugees. In an attempt to provide them with international protection and find reliable solutions to a problem afflicting nearly 1.2 million refugees worldwide, the UN established the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
By the end of the 1950s, the focus of refugees had moved from Europe to other continents, primarily to Africa, which was then going through a de-colonization process. In the decades that followed, the geography of refugees significantly expanded at the expense of South Asia, where 10 million people fled to India as a result of the Bangladesh Liberation War; the Middle East, where the Arab-Israeli conflict has been going on for decades, as well as in Europe’s Balkans, now infamous due to the wars that saw the breakup of Yugoslavia.
According to the UN, today there are about 20 million refugees and almost 40 million internally displaced persons, while half of all refugees are children under the age of 18.
Azerbaijan, a country located along the western coast of the Caspian Sea, has also had experiences with refugees, as the nation is no stranger to conflict drawn along ethnic lines.
In the late 1980s, when it was already clear that the Soviet Union was in its twilight, some nations decided to take advantage of what was a precarious geopolitical situation, including neighboring Armenia, which was home to nearly 250,000 Azerbaijanis at that time. As the USSR was on the verge of collapse, Yerevan decided to expel the Azerbaijani population from the country.
This was seen as a final step in a century of pushing Azerbaijanis eastward and out of Armenia. Similar expropriations took place from 1905-1906 and 1918-1920 as a result of Armenian-Azerbaijani clashes. In the 1940s, nearly 100,000 Azerbaijanis were relocated from Armenia to the Kura-Araz lowland in Azerbaijan, following the orders of Joseph Stalin, who was at the time the leader of the Soviet Union.
In November 1987, according to eyewitnesses, the first four buses loaded with Azerbaijani refugees from the Armenian region of Kafan arrived in Baku, mostly with women, children and the elderly, who were severely beaten. Meanwhile, ethnic cleansing in Armenia reached its peak, as regions densely populated by Azerbaijanis were subjected to violence.
“Three houses were set on fire in our village of Artashat, in Masis district,” says farmer Humbat Abbasov, who became a refugee as a result of Armenia’s aggression.
“Since February 19,  we were no longer allowed to enter the bazaars, and everything that we produced had gone spoiled. Since February 19, there have been no Azerbaijani names in the records of hospitals, polyclinics, and medical stations in Armenia although there were about 200,000 Azerbaijanis living there,” Abbasov recalled.
“We were not sold bread and food and not allowed [to use] urban transport. Since February 19, the mass, unjustified dismissals of Azerbaijanis began. They [Armenians] were spitting in our faces and shouting, “Turks, get out of the Armenian land!”
The winter of 1988-1989 is considered the worst period during what was some of the worst ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijanis in modern history. Mass deportations resulted in several dozen Azerbaijanis being killed, hundreds more wounded, and pogroms and attacks on Azerbaijani villages. Tens of thousands of people were forced to abandon their homes and property, and pass through mountains to escape to Azerbaijan. Many froze to death on the journey, or survived but not without severe frostbite. December of 1988 became the final stage of expunging the Azerbaijani ethnos from Armenia, a country that became a mono-ethnic state as a result of its policies.
Together with 750,000 internally displaced Azerbaijanis who were forced to leave their homes in Azerbaijan’s breakaway Nagorniy-Karabakh region after Yerevan made claims over the territory in the 1990s, Azerbaijanis from Armenia were resettled in different regions throughout Azerbaijan.