The story of Azerbaijani emigres in Europe
When my daughter was born, I understood that I needed to run from this country…
Vafa Jafarova lives in Holland with her two daughters and her husband. She has a small bakery, and thus far her business is stable and profitable. Vafa dreams of someday opening her own restaurant chain based off Caucasian cuisine.
For some time, Vafa’s activities seemed strange to her friends and those close to her. After all, almost five years ago in her homeland of Azerbaijan she was socially active, the leader of a youth movement, an author and the inspiration behind numerous campaigns, flash mobs and conceptual art projects.
However, suddenly the activist left the country for good, along with her newborn daughter and her husband who was famous among youth as the musician Azer.
What motivated this pair to move to a country where they would need to start everything again from nothing?
“There was one reason: I was frightened”, says Vafa.
“Before my daughter was born, everything was simpler. I was responsible only for myself. I didn’t have to choose between the safety of my child and my ideals and principles”.
Vafa says that after the birth of her daughter, she learnt that she and her husband were being observed, and were being targeted for possible arrest. The pair was forced to leave.
“This was a difficult choice. I gave up who I was, my ideals, my plans, my aspirations, for the sake of a little person who at that moment couldn’t even pronounce my name. This is that very moment when you realize that you are a mother, that you are not alone in this world”.
At first things were hard for the family. A fast-paced social life, activity and new ideas gave way to boredom, emptiness, and loneliness. But Vafa didn’t get lost, and found herself in the culinary arts. She started her culinary blog and quickly won over the sympathies of foodies in her city.
In search of a safe life. Or simply a better one
Vafa’s story is by no means a rare occurrence. Almost every day we read posts on social networks from people who have had to leave Azerbaijan. Almost every politically active citizen writes about the fact that they are receiving calls and letters from numerous relatives and friends saying that, no matter the difficulty, they want to leave the country and are asking how this can be done.
Among them there are simple working people, and journalists, and activists, and businessmen, and managers. In response to questions on social networks asking why they did this, almost all of them answer with one and the same sentence: “It’s no longer possible to live here…”.
The rule of the Aliyev family has been marked by a great stream of political emigrants from Azerbaijan to Europe and America. And with the intensification of political repression in recent years, this stream has been magnified multiple times over. Political arrests and the effective elimination of civil society and independent media outlets all set against the background of a sharp fall in oil prices – the country’s main source of income – has forced many to leave the country in search of safety and a better life.
Save someone, expect an arrest
Half a year ago Azerbaijani journalist-in-exile Idrak Abbasov shared a video from Norway, where he lives.
In the video, a bag of potatoes were sitting on the road without someone to sell them. After this video, the journalist acknowledged that more than fifty of his countrymen wrote to him and asked how they might emigrate to Norway. All of them pointed to the fact that it is impossible to live in Azerbaijan.
Three years ago Idrak himself left his big house, work and kin and immediately fled the country: “In those days, I helped out when Emin Huseynov was seeking protection within the Swiss embassy. On that same day I was summoned to the public prosecutor’s office. I said that I would come in three hours, since I needed to take my child to the doctor’s. After the call I ran home, grabbed my three children and wife and immediately crossed the border into Georgia. I didn’t even grab a change of clothes. From there, international organizations brought me to Norway”.
Now Abbasov already has four children, and he himself, having quickly learned the Norwegian language, began to work for a local newspaper. One might say his life has worked out well, but his children nevertheless look at photos of their home in Azerbaijan, and talk about how they miss their grandmother, grandfather, and neighbors, and feel themselves guests in this cold, northern country.
“We’ll return if the situation changes”
Journalist Elmin Hasanli is 29 years old. He is married and the father of two sons. Until last year, Elmin worked for an enormous media holding as media PR manager, had a good job and wages, and was considered a successful individual for his age. His wife gave birth to twins and they took out a loan on an apartment and a car. Nothing hinted at the fact that Azerbaijan would suddenly become an uncomfortable place for Elmin.
But suddenly the family left everything and emigrated to Germany. Elmin Hasanli is one of the Azerbaijani emigrants who agreed to speak about his relocation to Germany.
“Political problems are the reason why we left the country. I wouldn’t like to go into details about specifically what problems made us leave Azerbaijan, because our parents still live there and this could be dangerous for them. I want to emphasize that we didn’t experience any sort of financial difficulties in Azerbaijan, we lived comfortably”.
In Germany, Elmin and his wife are studying German, their children go to kindergarten and already speak German. The family says that if, in the future, the political situation in Azerbaijan will improve, they will absolutely return.
“If our children also want to return, they can do so. They should decide this for themselves”.
The primary difficulty for Elmin and his wife is that in Germany they can’t see the friends they would always meet up with in Baku.
“But with time you get used to everything. We are trying to integrate with society here, to participate in the social life of Germany in various events and on the whole to adapt to the new environment, new country, new culture and new people. We are trying to make new friends. Germany is the country that produces the best beer, but sometimes it seems to me that the low-quality, cheap beer in Baku was sweeter and tastier”.
Statistics and reality
There are varied stories, but there is a single reason behind all of them: fear. Fear of arrest, for the fate of close ones, of uncertainty. Constant fear of losing your job. Constant fear that your children will have nobody to provide for them. Constant fear that the country will become closed off, like in the Soviet period. Fear that your son will die in the army, fear that your house will be demolished because this plot caught the eye of some functionary.
According to data from the state statistical committee, in 2015, 1600 migrants left Azerbaijan. In 2016 this number fell to 238.
But the director of the Azerbaijani Migration Center, Alovset Aliyev (who emigrated from the country himself not long ago) is suspicious of these figures. He says that there is no system in the country which keeps track of people leaving the country for work and those who leave the country for good.
“As such, the numbers published by the statistical committee are not real. In reality, almost nine thousand migrants flee the country each year”, asserts Aliyev.